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How green is green? The need for absolute benchmarks for green buildings in India

Sustainability Outlook spoke to Anupam Jain, CEO of Rationale de Design about sustainable urban design. 

Why pursue green building science and urban design in India rather than markets (like the US) where consumers are more open to these ideas?

People are open to the idea of green building sciences in India as well. It's not that people are closed to the idea. However, there is a severe lack of technical expertise within the country with regard to building services and engineering for sustainability. Of the people who claim to provide technical services, very few of them know the subject, and most are leading towards what I would say is 'greenwash'. This is true of some of the rating systems and standards too. You said most of the industry is leaning towards 'greenwash'. What does sustainability mean in the context of building sciences and how do you tell if something is 'greenwash'? Building science is a study of building physics, to be very simple. A large part includes the thermal performance of buildings, for example, how much heat is coming into the building, what are the properties of the glass or the wall materials used how one can get better thermal insulation from external elements, and so on. A standard ratings frame work gives you broad categories of sustainability in context of building sciences - including water, energy efficiency, waste management, and indoor environmental quality related points and so on. The easiest way to sift out greenwash is to look at benchmarks - whatever can be quantified is the real deal. If it is not quantified, it cannot be measured and it cannot be proven, then it's more likely to be a play of words tending towards 'greenwash'. For instance, it's too easy for developers to claim that a building is water efficient one. Contrast this with a developer who can say that the building's fixtures enable 40% less water consumption than the baseline water flow per square feet built area reported by authorities. For this reason, I cannot overstate the critical importance of having nationalized, absolute benchmarks to measure and report performance for buildings.

Do these benchmarks exist in India?

At present, there are no national benchmarks in India. In terms of developing benchmarks, there is some effort. GRIHA rating systems have started to introduce absolute benchmarks, though these are not as detailed as the ones you see in the US. The Indian Association for Plumbers have started to certify water fixtures using water efficiency benchmarks. These efforts are positive but a far cry from what can actually be used as a measure of performance. This is nowhere on the speed and scale required to create a real impact.

Let's talk about incentives. Are they effective and directed at the right stakeholders? What do they need to evolve into?

If you're familiar with the current incentives at all, then you would see that the current incentives primarily are directed at the entity which is in the business of creating large real estate for sale to other end-consumers. Primarily, the incentives apply to larger plots of land. This is not to say that individual corporates don't benefit, but the ticket size is quite big for somebody to buy that kind of land and then get incentivized for going green.

Incentives should be seen as a facilitating mechanism, through which a catalytic change can be seen in the market, and the market should be able to move with the momentum even after the incentives have gone. Right now, if government support was withdrawn, the green buildings industry would collapse. Where it needs to go is to shape incentives for the end consumer, where the end consumer gets the benefits of green buildings and they end up asking for it.

What are some examples of incentives for end consumers already underway?

There has been limited work done on incentives for the end consumer. We are looking at one municipality in the country that charges less property tax for green buildings. The second example is via the National Housing Bank, where they have tried to provide loans with a lower interest rate for people who want to buy green buildings, as a home or an office.

With respect to cheaper loans for green buildings, the problem is usually when you go out to get a loan, the rate of interest is based on your credit history and the size of the loan you're going for. The banks have a margin too, so if the bank gets a cheaper loan from the National Housing Bank, it's not always clear if the benefit is passed on to the consumer. If we segment end consumers (e.g. bought / lease / single vs. multiple owners), how does this impact the discussion about incentives?

It makes a difference in the commercial segment, but not much difference in the residential. In then residential market, if you're renting, you don't really have much control or awareness of which building to go for. Further, residential buildings are not fully air conditioned, so typically your savings potential are not as high as commercial complexes with full air conditioning.

If you are looking at a commercial space to lease, an owner should be able to prove to you that you're going to get at least 10% lower electricity bill and a lower operating cost. On the flipside, the owner would have invested to ensure better building design and technology which may have increased his baseline cost by 2-3%.

Are corporates ready to pay premiums (for rent or purchase) for green buildings?

No. There is not enough demand for green buildings amongst corporates or end-users to create a premium.

There has been a lot of coverage on different corporate buildings becoming LEED certified. Given the challenges you've mentioned, where does that market traction come from? Isn't that good enough?

This is tied to a large debate on: (a) the standards and stringency of the different rating systems on offer; and (b) outlook on “how much is 'enough'?”

If you at the Indian indigenous rating systems that have been created primarily from Indian building codes, they are very relevant and very specific to Indian conditions. However, they can only force people to do as much as the Indian codes specify. If the code itself is written 50 years ago, and has not been revised yet, the rating systems themselves cannot push beyond a certain point. The rating systems, for example, may say that you have to do 20% of the existing code. But after a certain point, you need a certain regulatory change as well.

Some of the standards that have been introduced in India are adaptations from foreign rating systems. However, the stringency that foreign ratings systems typically bring is again diluted, or even missed all together, in the process of making the ratings system workable in India. For instance, a new rating system (adapted from a foreign system) says that you need to follow X standard, as per international norms, to comply with the rating system. But, instead of doing 40% better than X as maybe the case in markets like the US, we're okay if you do 10% better than X for the Indian case.

That almost seems to imply that, for example, a LEED certified building in the US is not comparable to an equivalent LEED certified building in India?!

That is correct! The LEED rating system was born in the US and was adapted to specific countries about 10 years ago. So the LEED rating system that exists in the US is a different set of standards, compared to the country specific and continent specific LEED adaptations. For instance, LEED India is not as stringent as LEED (US). Secondly, LEED in the US has been revised to Version 4, which is the latest version today. In India, we are still using a diluted form of the previous version. Not only are we using less stringent standards, we are also behind standards development compared to the rest of the world.

However, starting July, there will be no country specific LEED rating systems. There will be one LEED across the world that will signify uniform building standards across the world. There will still be alternative compliance paths, for certain criteria of the LEED rating systems, but the intent is to make sure that a LEED rated building is similar in performance anywhere in the world.

So, all the LEED platinum, gold rated buildings etc in India, will they need to re-comply post- July? Or have they "snuck in" under easier LEED requirements?

That's a very interesting question. You can sign up with LEED India until June, and it is possible to get accreditation for another 4 years. The short answer is that they have “snuck in”.

What do you think about the Indian Business Council's new rating system?

Further, BEE is working hard to ensure that the ECBCis mandatory for all construction by 2017.

The draft of the new ratings system has already been circulated to a closed group of people for comment. It's similar to the previous rating system and a few things have been changed here and there. The new version of IGBC will now compete with LEED, will be similar to the ones launched previously by IGBC. The ECBC is currently only adopted on the voluntary basis and will remain so at least until 2017. Keep in mind that if the requirements of the current EIA process were assiduously followed and met, there would be no need to get another type of green buildings certification. The question is not just whether there are mandatory guidelines and frameworks, but the extent to which these are enforced.

While some states are making green building codes mandatory already, the point is that in countries like the US, a new version of green building codes are released each year. The capacity for Indian states and municipalities for on-going building standards development is practically non-existent. In India, the industry has already pushed the boundaries of what is possible in terms of best practice, new engineering & construction technologies, new materials, but the government codes are lagging behind and do not reflect these new options.

Lastly we also have to keep in mind that LEED as a brand for rating systems was the impetus for the start of green buildings in India and people bought into the LEED green building system. These early adopters ushered in India's actions around green buildings. Over the period of ten years, IGBC has been able to get more that 2 billion sq feet of space certified either under LEED India or another indigenously developed ratings system. Indigenous ratings systems will find it tough to compete with the global brand presence associated with LEED.

How do clients decide whether or not to go on a green buildings journey?

The first step for any corporate is to get hold of a good framework and get guidance on implementation. This is where green ratings systems are useful, because they do provide a comprehensive framework for thinking about sustainability. While they may differ in stringency, it is not actually necessary to get certified by anybody. A corporate or a developer can just use their guidance, for example, and develop a LEED compliant building.

People who want to do well usually start with getting an energy audit done. For new buildings, people may want to save on energy costs or the costs of air conditioning, as these measures have a direct monetary benefit. For example, you get a lower electricity bill or you may not need to install an overly complex AC system.

Some corporates ascribe a high value on the productivity of their workers. They make sure they provide the most comfortable working environment - including good indoor environment quality by looking at lighting, thermal comfort, lower off-gassing paint & materials, and so on.

It's just a question of defining the right thing to do and making sure the leadership is committed to do so.

Author: Sustainability Outlook
Industry Term: Sustainable Design