Greening affordable housing is a mixed-up agenda- Aug 27, 2012

When you work in the field of affordable housing, you focus on cost, quality and accessibility. Of course, among other things, but these come first. In the past few months though, I have been noticing that the sustainability agenda is attempting to envelope the affordable housing space as well. Well, I’m not saying there aren’t connections. Of course, everything that we build must be sustainable as far as is possible. But to load the cost of sustainability on to a low-income consumer, it might be rather unfair.

The ‘green’ agenda, in my view, is clearly a fad. Of course it is vital for our very survival. But many of those professing to champion green buildings only offer lip service to sustainability. The most common example, of course, is glass clad buildings that are LEED certified despite being made of materials that have the highest embodied energy and needing expensive technology to maintain thermal comfort inside the building envelope each day. I am no expert and I am sure there are clever ways of doing this.

But when green types insist that affordable housing is a huge opportunity to go green I see red! Let me explain.

First. The urban poor, and indeed the poor anywhere, already have perhaps the lowest average carbon footprint possible. Except perhaps for adivasi populations still living in the forests. Consumption of resources is low, optimization is high. Reduce, recycle and reuse is already a motto that is essential for survival. Whatever sort of intervention we plan for the urban affordable housing space will mean reorganizing their lives from the informal to the semi-formal to the formal. Automatically, consumption will increase as the systems formalize. What else are we professionals and policy makers who are already from the consuming classes capable of imagining?

Next. There is barely any formal supply of affordable housing in Indian cities. So where and how will the so-called green interventions happen? Who will pay for the additional cost of sustainable design and construction, however minimal? It is all a fuzzy scenario, since there is no clarity about who is coming forward to bridge the demand-supply gap.

Solutions. No brainers and I’m not even claiming these are original!

Green agenda- States and local governments need to adopt policy measures to incentivize green building. All manner of sustainable technologies, from solar power to rainwater harvesting and a variety of green materials like non-polluting insulation must be made easily available and their taxes reduced to urge adoption.

Affordable agenda- Heavy incentives like faster approvals, higher FSI and lower taxes and interest rates for affordable housing projects would be a start. The real issue is land, of course, so the government would have to chip in the free up locked land and rationalize land prices. On the other side, demand aggregation to attract developers to such projects is a dire need, as well as R&D to standardize design elements and enhance efficiency.

Two birds with one stone? I don’t think the market in India is there yet, or will be for a long time. When middle and higher income groups opt for green housing, the poor will follow. After all, housing is all about aspirations. And the poor will always aspire to what you and I already have.

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7 thoughts on “Greening affordable housing is a mixed-up agenda- Aug 27, 2012

  1. Rightly said. Tagging green to affordable housing in Indian context isn’t quite square. However certain aspects, apart from the financial incentives you mentioned, should be considered in order to reduce carbon footprints however small they are. One aspect which LEED-ND aspires to is reduction of distances between destinations, i.e. mixed-use development, and facilitating greater access to transit and NMT infrastructure. The other is opportunity is urban food production. If low cost housing could be reimagined as low cost development with a mix of amenities and technology that would help the EWS communities lower their overall urban living cost, that would truly be green.

  2. Reblogged this on mHS Blog and commented:
    Much innovation and out-of-the-box thinking is needed to marry sustainability and affordability, but it can be done. Policy must move in this direction if poverty and environmental disaster are to be mitigated.

  3. If you talk to experienced green builders they will tell you the best technology for building green comes from traditional Indian sciences. There are builders who have innovated and brought these technologies up to date — from natural air conditioning, rainwater harvesting, recycling etc. And they say the cost is minimal — high costs are a myth. They hold patents.
    But when there is a demand for green housing among the rich and middle class.. and this is beginning to happen because of the collapse of civic services— then such builders will not build for the poor. We need green architectural colleges who can produce people who build green.

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