The irony of sustainability by Indu Varanasi

InduVaranasi

There has been a lot said about sustainability; it is the catch phase and in-thing. Sometimes, it seems fashionable too.

Everywhere from my neighborhood café to my ready-made apparel store is now ‘sustainable’. And yet, why is it that we consume more energy and more water each year; why is it that our landfills are higher, larger and deeper? Are we missing the point somewhere?

The question today is of deep introspection: how do we live today? Our daily activities define the sequence of events which lead us to design spaces. Whether it is a home, office, café, that high-end restaurant or our children’s school or college, we spend most of our time in these spaces. Should they be, then, designed to lead to sustainability?

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For urban dwellers and designers of spaces, I would like to bring attention to some of the aspects of our daily lives and how they affect us.

The intent of this article is not to de-value the importance of the sustainability studies or the standard certification processes; they are right in their own place. However, like anything, if change is required it needs to be from the user, sensitive to the surrounding as design needs to be sensitive to the people who are to inhabit them.

1. Lighting Light helps us see, but how much light do we actually require? Do we have endlessly long corridors lit with down lights on beautiful sunny days? Do you find the lighting levels in shops so high that you squint to see the shiny products displayed? Do you wonder why your kid’s

classrooms have light when enough natural light is brought in through the windows? Design is about anticipation and understanding the principle of lighting, the usage of space, what should happen in a best case scenario and what can happen in a worst case scenario.

Lighting design should take daylight into consideration as well as the duration of the habitation. Living in a region blessed with abundant daylight, it should be our duty to tap into this light source.

Figure 1A is a simple example of capturing outside light conditions indoors to suit the user’s need. Adequate controls to increase or decrease the lighting levels through simple wiring or automation will ensure appropriate lighting conditions. The easy method of ‘daylight linking’ strongly influences the level of artificial light and must be utilitsed for particular usage patterns.

Design needs to bring to the stake-holder’s attention the usage and behavioural patterns to ensure that places like board rooms, storage areas and ancillary spaces need to not have daylight factors versus work areas. The discussion is not directed towards types of artificial lighting systems versus energy consumption as much has been written about it. It is about achieving sustainability through usage patterns.

2. HVAC systems: Air flow patterns and temperature control We all know and understand the importance of cooling systems in regions of hot climate. Heat makes people uncomfortable, unproductive and unhappy. So most of our buildings here are climate controlled.

The question, then, is: How much cold is still comfortable?

The general model of calculation is the Predicted Mean Vote (PMV). The PMV model stands among the most recognised thermal comfort models. It was developed using principles of heat balance and experimental data collected in a controlled climate chamber under steady state conditions.

Climate is never steady, but human beings are known to be adaptive to the conditions around them. The PMV method is less effective at predicting thermal satisfaction than the increasingly and widely adopted adaptive method for predicting comfort conditions.

Figure 1B demonstrates that it is not necessary for the buildings to be the coolest during the hottest months. Most buildings are maintained at a steady temperature of 18°C – 22°C throughout the year (at least it feels so). It is this sensitivity of building conditions that design needs to wake up to.

Reducing the difference between the outdoor and indoor temperature to ensure thermal comfort levels will lead to great savings in energy bills. The intent is to question the models and systems being used and challenge them to attain sustainability.

3. Recyclable materials: what should be done to keep their lifecycle? Every supplier who comes to me as a designer shows me a certificate that this material is ‘Green Certified’. It passed all the tests of LEED/ ESTIDAMA,etc.

It is necessary to know what happens in the lifecycle of a product. After the complete lifecycle of a product, such as carpets, fabrics, furniture, wood panels, gypsum and more, it is remove and replaced, and most end up as de-classified construction waste.

Should there be methods to incentivise the ‘take-back’ of products, for them to be recycled in the appropriate manner so that it does not end up in land-fills? Yes, the cycle needs to be completed. In a world where the human population is bigger than it has ever been in recorded history, we are living a more comfortable life than most of our ancestors—and yet we have a great responsibility toward this planet and its sustainability.

Perhaps the phrase ‘Sustainable Living’ should begin with a little introspection and a lot of change in usage patterns. It should be the duty of all designers and all stake-holders to understand the larger impact of the built-environment.

Indu Varanasi is an interior architect based in Dubai and is the design director of a design consultancy, i r design.

Acknowledgements: M. Indraganti for sharing her doctoral research on Thermal Comfort.

References: – Ecohouse Design guide by Sue Roaf – Designing for comfort at high temperatures by Sue Roaf, Fergus Nicol&HomRijal – Adaptive model of thermal comfort for offices in hot and humid climates of India by MadhaviIndraganti, RyozoOoka, Hom B. Rijal, Gail S. Brager – Daylighting in Architecture by Derek Phillips

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