Resource Efficiency in Building Construction

One would have thought that the principle of efficiency in the utilisation of material resources would be paramount in any science of production and consumption. Yet it is neither a value nor a habit of thought that is inculcated culturally, least of all in our practices of building and construction.

There is a looming material resource crunch in this vast land of our subcontinent. How is it that common, naturally produced materials of construction which have been used for millennia timber, stone, soil and sand - are running short?

The old methods of extraction and their rather generous use in buildings could be sustained when populations were small and distributed in small hamlets and towns. As populations have grown rapidly, cities and their infrastructure have expanded and created cash economies that command concentrated over - exploitation of natural resources. Using the old methods of extraction is no longer sustainable as it destabilises and threatens whole ecologies. The need of the hour is to impose restrictions on the extraction of natural resources for the larger good. This calls for change in the current practices of material extraction to become ecologically safe.

There is no escape from the pressure of our growing populations, growth of cities and our increasing material demands for shelter and infrastructure. It is impossible to imagine that one can meet these real needs without any extraction of virgin material. Also restrictive laws and regulations, which are meant to protect the environment, would have limited effectiveness if they are not complemented by affordable alternatives to meet the growing needs of growing populations. One needs to step back and take a total systems approach.

If the overarching challenge is to ensure environmental security while pursuing material well-being, then one must think of the linkages between energy, water and material resources. High strength concrete with minimal steel for structural members with water conserving pre-fabrication can deliver 30% savings over present levels of consumption. Conversion of natural materials into building products like cement, steel, aluminium, glass requires high grade energy dependent largely on fossil fuels. This increases our carbon footprint. Clearly, if everything were to be made of steel, aluminium, glass and plastics; we will rush into irreversible climate change. Instead, we should learn good engineering for efficient long-lasting wood and biomass. In India, we should learn from other countries where they have sophisticated timber technologies. Soils for clay products are plentiful. Their extraction and conversion into building products can become top soil conserving and 40% more efficient in material utilisation as well as water and energy consumption. The availability of construction materials made from waste by-products can only be proportionate to the generation of waste. As we wean ourselves away from coal based power plants, we will have less fly-ash to make bricks. We need to construct a macro model of material flows to identify re-usable waste qualitatively and quantitatively. Then estimate what proportion of virgin material extraction this could replace, in the context of population growth, urbanisation and rising standards of material life.

Everything takes time development of precise engineering knowledge and practices in design and construction; devising affordable solutions for improving efficiency in conversion of raw material into building products; developing alternative materials from 'waste' by-products of agriculture, industrial manufacture and construction; learning integration of design to reduce material consumption; economising built space to serve multiple activities. In each one of these areas, there is a dire need for research, experimentation and innovation. A culture of efficiency with its multifarious dimensions would evolve progressively when it acknowledges the objective reality of the environmental imperative. This must be integral to all professional disciplines for the design, construction and production of goods for the built environment.

Ashok B. Lall
Principal Architect
Ashok B Lall Architects
ashokblall@gmail.com

 

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