Going beyond being eco friendly

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When we talk of energy and architecture, there is always the risk of trying to reduce a few principles of engineering and design into axioms of project management. When a decision maker today is confronted with the challenge of creating a brief to an architect, or creating solutions for putting together a project plan for construction, there are numbers of questions that come to mind. Primarily, as a business manager, you are expected to deliver on two very basic criteria: Cost and time. Quality becomes a third factor that needs to be monitored constantly. The key lies, therefore in being able to address these concerns on time, cost and quality even before one sets out on the road to making drawings for execution.

If one needs to bring efficiency in use of resources, particularly financial and then of materials, and then if you have the added challenge of seeking your orientation to securing efficiency in natural resource management, you will then have to look for autonomy and calibrated thinking down the line of authority in the organisation -- from the very source of the ideas that emerge from architects and designers, to the various levels of engineering management that execution of any project demands. So how does one go about securing such efficiencies in a way that your project is marked not merely by good natural resource management, but also by innovation in either product process, or in the way that you have offer tangible benefits to your customer?

The one word that has often been more misunderstood than actually put to good use is ‘technology’. If you begin with the premise that technology could even be an ancient, traditional practice that can serve your project’s purpose in the current challenge that you face, you will then find that you are able to integrate ideas and knowledge effectively.

An old wisdom statement says, ‘If you know how to ask, more than half your job is done.’ How can you, as a professional manager, enhance the quality of your asking on the job? Over time, and with many failures, this writer has learned a few insights into creating such synergies that help you make for what are today called sustainable building systems. Contemporary building industry parlance has taken to the word ‘green buildings’ which suggest to them that these are buildings that are 'earth-friendly'.

To us in a group of people who have worked on the new language of architecture of the future, there is nothing, per se, that is ‘eco-friendly’. Anything that you build obviously demands destruction elsewhere for you to be creating what you have set out to do at your project.

In this article, we shall confine ourselves to an outline of Six Strategic Strands to good decision making as energy managers in the building industry. The key to decision-making in any organization should be a combination of these six factors – Cost, Aesthetics, Function, Ease of execution, Time and Environment sustainability.

Let us examine each of these to understand their significance as individual factors, and the potency they offer in a combination.

Cost. This is always relative to what you buy and the context in which such a purchase is made. If you break down a building into broad components then you will see that you need to be focusing on efficiencies that you bring in (a) plinth and foundation (b) walls, external and internal (c) roof covering at various levels and for different areas and (d) the floors and what you use in different spaces that you demarcate. Then will come a detailed profiling of how you treat the different openings that a building demands. The last come the services or building management systems that plug in water and energy apart from air-management systems, while at the same time systems that plug out waste of all types from the building.

Typically, architects have relied on the domain expertise of service professionals for water, energy, waste and air-management techniques and technologies, after the architecture and drawings of the buildings have been firmed up. Typically, and sadly, most service consultants, too, have been invited to come on board nearly on every project, well after the architect has completed his set of iterations, with the client, on what the building offers and represents.

To make matters worse, such service consultants have also had very little influence on what solutions can be offered for a building, and have therefore usually ended up generating blueprints that retrofit equipment to building drawings that are already frozen. Take, for eg: air-conditioning: if the architect and the client have emerged from a context where the building materials have already been chosen and profiled without sensitivity to and recognition of issues of thermal efficiency, the HVAC professional can only estimate his total air-conditioning demand on the basis of the computations of BTU and tonnage that the climatic response of the region suggests to such a professional. 'Air-management does not begin after the architect’s work ends', is a truism that seems to have escaped the understanding of most conventional, mainstream designers in recent years.

How do you therefore address cost, not merely as a linear, one-dimensional challenge? This is easier said than done. All one can say is that it is a process that is dynamic and needs to recognize the rest of the five factors that this feature deals with.

Aesthetics. This is central to the client’s need. Unless you have an 'idea' or building that gains the acceptance of the client for its visual appeal and satisfies the market’s desire for some thing that is representative of its aspirations, the project will not meet approval. For over 200 years of modern-day architecture, there has been a healthy conflict between what comes first -- Form or Function? The purists among designers have emphatically declared that a very focused attention to Function usually offers good Form. While we don’t want to engage in this debate, it will suffice to say that Aesthetic usually wins if the idea is positioned right, and the communication is packaged to please the sensibility of the client.

Function: No building is efficient or has served a purpose, if it is not seen to be meeting a very basic and central purpose for which it is created. It cannot be there for its own sake, as some post-modernist thinkers has recommended in the last century. Even the most extreme Forms have served this central factor of Function. The function may have to do with the longer-term objective of what the building houses, and the dwellers it is expected to serve, be it residential or commercial or any other public or private use. Ease of execution. Any pragmatic engineer will at once acknowledge that no idea is worth its salt if it cannot be executed. This covers many parameters of practicality – skills, materials, and their availability. Accessibility within a reasonable distance and time are, of course, factors that influence decisions, too. The challenge one faces in most such situations is that you tend to take the easiest road to doing it. You are prone to be led by convention and precedence -- I do what I see around me, in my area of business or profession.

If you extend the dimension of innovation to buildings in a fast-changing and competitive world of business, you will then see that any innovation or change of mode of operation that can offer you value-engineering that saves money for the customer or offers a significant and distinct value-add beyond what the competition offers, you will see yourself gaining greater acceptance. You will even excite a customer to favour you with his business if you offering direct financial savings on a building that you create, and on the savings that you bring the customers over a life-time. As a trained professional, you can see that this requires innovative thinking that goes beyond the pale of conventional business and of running with the pack.

Engineers the world over have found solutions for increasing efficiency of structures, for example, without diluting any of the parameters of life-cycle strength of a building. Indeed there have been many examples even within the conventional world of the building industry, where such value-engineering has meant a sharp decrease in life-cycle costs. What you see therefore is a combination, again of need and pragmatism.

Environment Sustainability. This is self-explanatory. Any material you use has to be sensitive to natural resources or should bring some social value. Of course, the solutions you seek have to be scaleable. This means there must be potential for the professional manager for replicability. In this discussion we will not extend to talking about the other Six Strands of Sustainability – Earth, Energy, Water, Waste, Air and Vegetation. Each of these six factors play as crucial a role as the ones we have discussed in this article – of Cost, Aesthetics, Function, Execution, Environment Factor and Time.

There are four other basic tenets or fundamental principles on which you embed any project planning process. We call them the Four E’s: Economic Efficiency, Environment Compatibility, Equity and Endogeneity. The first two are obvious to you. Equity is about how just and fair you are to the various stake-holders who help in making your project possible. Endogeneity is to do with how local and specific to the region you have managed to be in your choice of skills, resources, design, architecture and the cultural ethos that your project or your activity represents.

These are in the domain of the larger context of not merely design and architecture but address, in their essence, the very basic needs of not just your business, but of the planet itself.

Mr. Chandrashekar Hariharan The writer is head of Biodiversity Conservation [India] Limited (BCIL), and can be reached at [email protected]

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