It is high time governments act by adopting mandatory energy-saving codes for new buildings and refurbishing existing ones
Sneha Singh shifted to an apartment in a highrise building with her husband and children in the national Capital two years ago. She has two air-conditioners, a TV, a refrigerator and other electrical appliances in her home. But she has stopped using air-conditioners now and has minimised the use of other electrical appliances because of the economic impact of the Covid-induced lockdown.
“With the mercury shooting up in April and May, it was extremely difficult for my kids to study or sleep. They were restless and unable to focus on their work,” she says. But what she does not understand is that the problem lies with the design and construction of the flat, which was not built keeping the health of its occupants in mind. With the virulent virus forcing Sneha to spend most of the time indoors, she and many other families like hers are now realising the importance of the quality of the environment inside the house.
Experts are of the opinion that green building technologies can help the world prepare for a future in which pandemics will be more common. In fact, the Singapore Green Building Council (SGBC) president Dr Ho Nyok Yong made it loud and clear at a webinar in May this year when he said, “Think of green buildings as giant N95 face masks, protecting you from harmful toxins the moment you step inside.”
Echoing his observation, a study in Singapore said that people who stay in “green” buildings are less likely to suffer from fatigue, headache and even skin irritation, showing that their benefits stretch beyond saving energy.
In contrast, the health impacts of living in energy-inefficient buildings have been studied extensively in some countries like the UK and New Zealand. They have shown that the list of consequences of non-energy efficient houses is long: Increased chances of respiratory infections, cardiovascular disease, gastro infections, asthma, allergy symptoms, poor mental health, arthritis, rheumatism and a higher number of falls — a major safety risk for the elderly. Closer home, in 2018, IIT Bombay and Doctors For You, an NGO, conducted a study in Mumbai’s poorest ward, M-East, that established a co-relation between mortality due to tuberculosis (TB) and housing conditions. It found that eight to 10 per cent of the residents in the denser, less light-filled and more poorly ventilated complexes had TB, compared to one per cent of residents in a better ventilated project. Even within a building, the risk of TB declined on higher, well-ventilated floors.
Veteran architect Ashok B Lall explains, “Most of the time buyers are not aware that housing conditions have an influence on physical health. People must understand that houses are more than the physical structures providing shelter. For example, a warm and dry house can improve general health outcomes and specifically reduce respiratory issues. Children living in crowded homes are more likely to be stressed, anxious and depressed, have poorer physical health, and inattentiveness at school.”
Lall is a supporter of green building design focussing on reductions in energy and water usage, creation of healthy indoor environment and minimisation of environmental disturbances.
Realising the significant co-benefits of improving housing conditions, in 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) came out with guidelines on health and buildings. “Improved housing conditions can save lives, reduce disease, increase the quality of life, reduce poverty and help mitigate climate change,” said the WHO, also noting that these can contribute towards the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to health (Goal 3) and sustainable cities (Goal 11). As per the guidelines, installing efficient and safe thermal insulation can improve indoor temperatures that support health, while also lowering energy costs and reducing carbon emissions.
Thermal quality refers to whether the indoor temperature is comfortable and healthy. While most evidence relates to the impact of cold environment, overheating can also damage health through dehydration. In cold climates, better and improved energy efficiency can lower rates of excess winter mortality while in hot climates it helps reduce the risk of dehydration and negative health impacts, says Sameer Maithel, Director of research and advisory firm Greentech Knowledge Solutions and Head, Building Energy Efficiency Project (BEEP) Project Management and Technical Unit in India. BEEP is a bilateral cooperation project between the Union Power Ministry and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) of the Swiss Confederation. Maithel says that the health quotients in energy-efficient buildings are: Thermal comforts, natural ventilation, daylight availability, which serves as a disinfectant as well as the source of Vitamin D, safe drinking water, sanitation and waste management.
Talking about the design principles of building green and sustainable homes in India, Lall says, “If we can devote 60 per cent of the terrace area of a four-storey building to install solar panels, it will meet the energy demand of all its residents.” The height of the building has a direct co-relation with its carbon emissions and is inversely proportional to affordability, he adds.
Refining the ventilation system is another key to minimising disease transmissions while saving electricity.
Unfortunately, in India most buildings are not equipped to establish and maintain healthy indoor air quality and need to be upgraded. The number of buildings conforming to green labels covers only about one per cent of the urban buildings in India. Isn’t there a risk that raising standards will push up costs further? “But in the bargain you cut down medical bills as well as enhance productivity,” argues SP Garnaik, executive director of Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL), a joint venture under the Power Ministry.
On its part, with an aim to make workplaces healthier and greener in the Covid-19 scenario, EESL and the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) MAITREE programme, launched the “Healthy and Energy-Efficient Buildings” initiative to ensure efficiency along with health components at workplaces.
“We hope that this pilot will spur urban planners, architects and property managers to rethink the design, operation and maintenance of the buildings so as to safeguard the health and well-being of the occupants at offices and homes as well,” he says.
It is high time governments act by adopting mandatory energy-saving codes for new buildings and for the refurbishment of existing ones, assert experts. “This is all the more urgent in the light of soaring construction rates. Most buildings lack mandatory building energy codes. By strengthening these codes every three-five years, zero-emission and net zero energy codes could rapidly become the norm,” says Maithel.
(The writer is Special Correspondent with The Pioneer. The article has been published as part of CMS-BEEP Media Fellowship Programme.)