Buildings & Climate Change: Issues & Challenges for the future

Opinions Dated:  Sept. 12, 2015
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Buildings and Climate Change, Image Source: planetforward.org

The climate clock is ticking towards a hotter climate. The recent research confirms that climate change has fueled extreme weather events like intense rainfall, heat and cold waves, draught like conditions and so on. The carbon emissions have reached to dangerous levels. A recent report by WWF claimed that the human population has already exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth. Rapid use of natural resource, energy intensive lifestyle, urbanization, is some of the prominent factors which have triggered climate change, while the extraction of materials and improper handling of the waste materials has polluted the land and water systems. Especially in the urban areas, the demand of natural resource is higher, mainly for electricity, transport, buildings etc. While the impact of each and every sector is significant, the building and construction sector is the main culprit. Globally, buildings are responsible for approximately one-third of the total carbon emissions and energy usage. This energy is mainly spent in the form of electricity and fuel used in equipments and machinery required during the construction, the embodied energy of materials (energy used in the extraction, processing and transport of building materials to the construction site), and operational energy of a building (i.e., energy used in the form of electricity required to run the appliances, lights, heating, ventilation etc.) throughout the lifecycle of the building.

In developing countries like India, unlike the western countries, the demand of energy intensive materials and construction techniques used to be very less. Traditionally, only local materials were available for construction. But slowly, this trend is changing and now, buildings are significantly using modern materials like toughened glass, metal, polystyrene etc. The aluminum or glass facades are becoming a common sight even in the non-urban settlements. The use of local materials has been restricted to farmhouses and resorts. With the influx of population from rural to urban, more land is required to build housing, infrastructure, and as a consequence, the natural cover of land is being concretized, using the precious resource and limiting the water recharging capacity of the land. Following the modern path of the western countries, low rise buildings are considered outdated and high rise structures have taken over the city skyline. A few developers control the overall real estate of a particular area, and to maximize their profits, the high rises are built, and to justify this, rising land prices and infrastructure costs are the common reasons given to the stakeholders. Some policymakers and planners have advocated high rises considering that they can reduce travel distances and cut fuel related carbon emissions. But taller structures require additional energy in the form of vertical water pumping, elevators, etc., which may offset their advantages over low rise buildings.  To make them resistant to wind load and earthquakes, the structure of the building is made heavier, but time and again, they fail whenever the disaster happens, adding into the vulnerability of the building occupants. Moreover, high rises have changes the way human interactions happen in our society. Now in high rise apartments, there are no casual talks or group discussions which used to happen in the streets.

The lavish and energy intensive lifestyle is a major contributor to the problem. Hunger for modern equipments and gazettes, unnecessary amenities need to stop. For this, each and every individual will have to understand his/her own responsibility towards the planet and our own future generations.

The high-rise development has been proved energy intensive in various aspects, so this model of development need to be further scrutinized by the policy makers. Water is an essential resource, so during the construction, treated water should be used and water recharging wells should be present in each and every plot. Sustainable materials like fly-ash bricks, earth-blocks, bamboo, hollow concrete blocks can reduce the overall carbon footprint of the building, and also prevent degradation of land by avoiding the extraction of other raw materials. These materials have been used for building since ages, and with a little modification, they can be further exploited, especially in rural and eco-protective zones.  The use of local and appropriate construction techniques can reduce the amount of materials and therby helping in reducing carbon emissions. Apart from this, the recent green building movement has done incredible contribution in highlighting the need of climate friendly buildings and the results are amazing. The govt. of india is promoting roof-top solar power plants which is a clean alternative to coal based electricity. The energy efficiency programs by various private sector enterprises, institutes and the government has resulted in the improved efficiency of the electric appliances.

While there have been a lot of research and activity which is focused on reducing carbon footprint and environment degradation in the building sector, the focus is more on sustainable development through climate change mitigation by reducing the carbon emissions, but the challenge also lies in adapting our building systems for a changing climate. The 2 degree rise is temperature is almost impossible to avert, and the consequences of it are already visible in various parts of the planet, so climate change adaptation in our building systems shouldn’t be avoided. The architecture and planning has to adjust the cities’ building systems for changing climate. The materials need to be heat and cold resistant, the building envelope should be designed so as to minimize the thermal variation inside the building. The low lying areas should be planned considering the occurrence of flash floods. The naturally occurring drainage systems need to be free from encroachments so as to avoid any water logging and flood like conditions.

In the present scenario, the future of the planet is at stake, and so are the natural resource. These dual problems need to be tackled with both top-down and bottom-up approaches. While the climate change mitigation is a responsibility, adaption is a necessity. Only then we can secure a healthy and climate resilient place for ourselves and for the generations to come .

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