Sustainability is the ability to exist, sustain and survive without affecting destructive or negative impacts on surroundings. In an architectural perspective, it evokes an image of a built environment that is friendly and positive. Every built space and activity has two facets, one internal that affects the user, and second external that impacts its surroundings. Sustainability encompasses both these facets in addition to the resource consumption of said spaces and activities.
It has three components:
• Constructing with minimum negative environmental impact
• Creating a built environment that enhances the positive energy of the occupants, thereby providing more comfort, improving productivity and efficiency.
• Using minimum amount of effort and energy to function in the previously mentioned manner
The goals stated above mention intangible metrics like maximum and minimum. These terms are comparative and can be defined in a variety of ways. Minimum can be as low as zero, where that zero could still carry some value. Similarly, negative environmental impacts have also been defined in terms of measurable generated carbon or other particles, where as one cannot exclude the psychological and emotional responses which have remained immeasurable till date. When we say efficiency, it is understood as evaluation of quantity; quantity of built area versus the number of people using it, or to say the intensity of usage.
More intense the usage of a facility, the more efficient it is bound to be. Over-provision of facilities to the extent that the resources go unused is unsustainable. We use natural resources and natural property to build an environment for ourselves. Consumption of natural property, the elements which nature has accumulated over a long geological period, is much more serious than that of natural resources, which are continuously replenished by nature. The elements of natural property are like body, and resources are like food in this reference.We have been discussing energy conservation in the building process and the built environment for more than 50 years and have thereby developed certain parameters to measure their performance.
However here, I would like to discuss some other aspects of efficiency of space. The prime factors defining efficiency are quality and quantity. Quality gets reflected in the human response that a built environment generates. The factors that contribute to generating a response are both physical and non-physical. Physical components like light, colour, scale temperature and quality of air are measurable. When it comes to non-physical components like the state of mind, social factors, and psychological factors, they remain immeasurable.
Every society is built on a set of values defining right and wrong, good or bad. The human mind evaluates every environment and constitutes its response based on this value system. A smell can be bad or disturbing for one set of people whereas it can be appetising for another set of people. Unless a space invokes a positive response from its occupants, it is not sustainable. An optimally created built environment should have a high intensity of usage to justify the expenditure of resources; high intensity of usage in terms of time as well as activity. A condition where a usage trend prompts a person to define a space and dedicate an area to an activity that happens for only 10-15% of the day, leads to over-provision of spaces and hence becomes unsustainable.
In the Indian society, spaces were traditionally used for more than one purpose. The same space would be used as sitting or working area during the day and for sleeping during the night. Shop fronts would get converted into haat bazaar during evenings and steps into seating areas. Houses were defined by the number of spaces it had, not by the number of bed rooms. Our houses had central courtyards providing light and ventilation to all the rooms surrounding it from the sides. But our values changed, planning norms pulled the open spaces out of the house, into the front and rear setbacks, allowing only the rooms facing the front or the rear to take in natural light.
We started dedicating rooms to dining, guest and individual, and to sleep, study and exercise, reducing the intensity of usage to an unsustainable level. Today we see large housings waiting to be occupied. These newly acquired values have resulted in inflated costs of construction and maintenance, which have become un-affordable for the common man. This is over-provision and highly unsustainable. This is gross wastage of natural property. Sustainability does not mean green certifications. It starts with the understanding of nature and sensitivity towards its resources. It is meaningful only if it responds to the socio-cultural values of society, the economic perimeter, and the psychological framework of the user. The planning approach, the quality of built spaces and the true manifestation of the activities with efficient usage and optimum design is the guiding line for sustainability. Reflecting the above in numbers and creating a mark sheet of built environment is a task that is still pending.
Sushil Aggarwal did his B.Arch from School of Planning & Architecture, New Delhi. He is the Architect Director at Design Team Consultants Pvt Ltd, New Delhi