Sustainability & Affordability in India’s Housing Sector

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Sanjay Seth

The challenge lies in the fact that due to the high concentration of people, infrastructure and economic activity, cities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Working towards urban resilience is crucial if we are to mitigate social and economic losses while a sustainable approach to urbanisation is essential in order to protect the environment and prevent catastrophe in the event of a natural disaster. Resource-efficient cities combine heightened productivity with reduced costs and a smaller environmental impact, while also providing increased opportunity for consumer choices and sustainable lifestyles, writes Sanjay Seth, Senior Director – Sustainable Habitat Programme, TERI & CEO, GRIHA Council.

Nearly half of humanity currently resides in cities and by 2030 it is estimated that the number would be at six people out of every ten. Within the next decade, the world is projected to have 43 megacities of 10 million inhabitants each. Thus far, the trend towards urbanization has accelerated demand for basic services, infrastructure, jobs, land and affordable housing, particularly for the urban poor who are forced to live under appalling conditions in informal settlements. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 aims to address the need for sustainable cities and communities. It is one of 17 SDGs established by the United Nations in 2015.

It is without a doubt that urban spaces offer opportunities for people to prosper economically and socially but this only holds true in planned cities where there is an opportunity for employment and the land is not overrun by unplanned urban sprawl. As our cities spill beyond their formal boundaries, they create challenges in developmental planning and hinder global goals for sustainable development. Cities also emit vast quantities of greenhouse gas and other atmospheric pollutants. Over half of the global urban population breathes air that is 2.5 times more polluted than standards deemed acceptable by the World Health Organisation.


Representative image of green buildings

These challenges to urban spaces can be overcome by improving resource use and focusing on reducing both pollution and poverty. The future we want includes cities that offer opportunities for all, providing access to basic services, affordable energy, adequate housing and effective transportation. Cities can optimise efficiency either by reducing energy consumption or through the adoption of green energy systems.

GRIHA for Affordable Housing

In India, access to affordable housing is vital for achieving various social objectives, including poverty reduction. In 2012, the urban housing shortage stood at 18.8 million units and is expected to grow at 6.6 per cent to 34.1 million units by 2022. Unfortunately, popular perception associates sustainability with expensive technological advances. Affordability, however, lies at the very core of sustainability – common sense entails that if something cannot be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished or recycled, it should be restricted or removed from production.

The ‘GRIHA for Affordable Housing’ rating variant was designed specifically for this purpose and outlines at length how factors such as climate-responsive design help reduce energy demand (and by extension, the electricity bills incurred by residents) at no additional capital cost. GRIHA AH strives to break the myth of expensive green buildings by laying emphasis on cost-effective sustainability measures. India is a tropical country with a requirement for space cooling for much of the year in order to maintain bearable indoor temperatures, yet affordable housing is often conceived as being required to merely provide the very basics in terms of shelter and security for the economically challenged. Unlike their counterparts in commercial or high-end residential projects, the occupants of affordable housing are often expected to not have access to expensive air conditioning equipment.

GRIHA has always emphasized the importance of no-cost design interventions for enhancing performance and meeting thermal comfort through the manipulation of architecture and building material. Through the AH rating system, GRIHA envisions sustainable affordable housing as habitable spaces where the occupants have both the opportunity and the desire to reside beyond the short-term, which is conducive to their socio-economic development and respectful of the natural environment. Linking sustainability with quality rather than pricing can create opportunities for upcoming housing projects, especially since India’s socio-economic milieu warrants different perceptions of affordability. The underlying idea is that people should be able to maintain comfortable living standards within affordable sustainable housing.

Housing Society

Representative image of a housing society having green spaces

In the coming days, consumers should be the drivers of this movement. Without additional incentives for making an immediate profit, there is no real cause for developers to spearhead the shift toward sustainability. Our experiences with the energy efficiency labelling programme showed us that once a few manufacturers agree, others follow suit because nobody wants to be left out. With a label, one empowers consumers to make an informed decision. Once the demand is set in motion, regulators can further strengthen benchmarks and push for greater impact. Both manufacturers and consumers have to play the game together in order to transform the market for green buildings. The focus should always be on sensitising consumers in order to expand the market. If we as consumers start demanding green, the market is left with no alternative but to provide it.

Achieving SDG 11

We are a tropical country and our ancestors knew through experience which direction the windows should face in order to reduce heat gain and maximize natural light. Developers might not see a business case in considering these aspects so there is a need to incentivise them to go green through measures such as making extra floor area ratio available should they choose to opt for a green building.

With the adverse effects of unmitigated carbon emissions and runaway climate change becoming increasingly apparent, there has been a marked increase in awareness and sensitisation towards sustainability, especially within the younger demography. It is also becoming common knowledge that the greatest economic benefits are realized when impact on the environment and on people are addressed jointly from the start of building design with clear intent being set to achieve key metrics – for example, improved air quality without sacrificing energy efficiency. Together, these factors have contributed to an increased acceptance of green buildings as a necessity moving forward.

For all of us to survive, thrive and prosper on this planet we need to step up our efforts toward creating affordable and resilient buildings and cities with regenerative and culturally inspiring living conditions. Building green paves a clear path towards achieving the goals outlined under SDG 11.

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