Every so often an individual is given exposure to another individual so wildly dynamic that it confuses, entertains, but most of all, inspires. This is how I would describe meeting Dr. Hariharan Chandreshekar, CEO of Biodiversity Conservation India Limited (BCIL), the company that designs and manufactures some of the most renowned eco-homes on the planet.
I arranged an appointment with Dr. Hariharan to follow up on research for the Eco-Tipping Points Project. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the interview. As I sat down, he energetically drew graphs and diagrams on a whiteboard, explaining to me the state of our planet and the immense amount of resources the housing market consumes. As Indian cities are starting to grow and expand, forests are being cut, mountain tops are being removed and rivers are being damned to make way for the biggest migration of people in humanity’s history: global urbanization. The problem of urbanization, Dr. Hariharan scribbled furiously on the whiteboard, is exacerbated by globalization and unrecognized costs in markets. No one is aware of the full cost to build a new home because the ecological costs are often misrepresented or completely unaccounted for.
To give an example, the manufacturing of concrete is costly in both energy and resources. Mining is required in quarries and river beds for limestone and sand. River courses are damned for large hydroelectric projects, causing a decrease in of freshwater further downstream due to evaporation. To make matters worse, concrete is actually a poor insulator. Anybody who has spent a night in a concrete building can attest to this uncomfortable reality. Concrete block apartments generally absorb heat on hot days (requiring more electricity to power air conditioning) and provide little-to-no insulation on cold days (requiring more electricity for heating). Hardly any of these factors are recognized when the price for a bag of concrete is determined.
The problem, Dr. Hari paused to summarize, is that the housing boom we are seeing in India’s urban centers is bound to continue, and in a country of dwindling resources we have to find a way to make this boom more sustainable before it’s too late. “The planet will be fine. It’s bound to live for billions of years,” Dr. Hariharan told me, shrugging. “It’s civilization that is flirting with disaster.” He drew several triangle graphs contextualizing profits and products’ convenience in relation to sustainability to get at a difficult question: How does one make modern, quality homes that use far less resources (building materials, water and electricity) than the competing housing developers? It was this question and his struggle to find a viable solution that led Dr. Hari to start Biodiversity Conservation India Limited and to eventually build the first Zero Energy Development (ZED) homes.
After working for an environmental conservation non-profit organization for seven years, Dr. Hari became frustrated by the nature of donor financing. He concluded that in order to make a larger impact in the world, a business was needed to raise profits, reinvest in its projects and become an effective tool to bring about sustainable development. In 1998, he founded Biodiversity Conservation India Limited with the intention of greening the entire supply chain of the housing industry. Those first years were not without challenges, however. A loan to purchase land for the first ZED development nearly bankrupted his company in the first year. Apparently, Dr. Hari wrote a check to the owner of the land and then took a rickshaw home. Fifteen years later, however, four ZED ‘eco-home’ developments have been constructed with plans for six more, while other ZED product lines have been developed in solar, furniture, plumbing, indoor lighting and air conditioning. Like every business it continues to face challenges, but no one can deny the company’s success and innovation.
I was pleased to be shown two of their most recently completed projects: ZED Earth and ZED Woods. The first project, ZED Earth, is an apartment complex of 120 homes located 18 kilometers outside of Bangalore. For someone who has been living in dingy apartments most of his adult life I was impressed by the style and look of the buildings, not to mention the many sustainable amenities. The project itself rebuts any idea that sustainability has to skimp on luxury. All ZED homes are built with a governing principle of CAFEET, my guide proudly told me, which means Cost, Aesthetics, Function, Ease of execution, Environmentally friendly, and Time.
Each apartment comes with locally sourced granite flooring and counter tops, and walls colored with organic paints. The buildings themselves are made from compressed blocks of fly ash and concrete using 30% less concrete than any other housing construction. The building is naturally cooled by thermal design similar to a termite nest. There are air vents around the perimeter of the building that allow warm air from outside to be cooled by its movement through the basement. The cool air then rises naturally to the top of the building, cooling the highest levels of the complex and eliminating the need for air conditioning. Each apartment building is fitted with an 80,000 liter tank to collect all rain water from the roof, pathways and the parking lot. This rainwater is then extensively filtered through several layers of rock, gravel, charcoal and finally a vortex filter system to provide drinking water for the entire complex year round. To achieve full water security is a true accomplishment in the city of Bangalore, where groundwater is being quickly depleted and hence water prices are steadily climbing. Each apartment complex has a large solar PV array on its roof along with solar water heaters, to reduce electricity costs to nearly nothing. Every apartment has a 1×2 meter ‘green’ balcony garden space that allows tenants to plant vegetables or herbs without having to leave their home. ZED Earth homes cut trash collection by nearly 80% due to their efficient recycling and compost facilities. Additionally, the property’s boundary is lined with fruit bearing trees that were chosen for their delicious fruit and their knack for sequestering carbon.
Impressed? There’s more. The building also acts like a conventional housing complex. There is a guard station, underground parking and a shared swimming pool. In the middle of each complex is a small playground which is busy at lunchtime with children from the different floors. As I walked through the buildings and was told about each thoughtful design aspect, a hope for the future came over me. This is what humans can accomplish when we focus on efficiently using our resources. This is a great example of a brilliant, sustainable design, I heard myself thinking. As I was fantasizing about an idyllic life in my own ZED Earth apartment, my guide invited me to see ZED Woods.
When we arrived at the ZED Woods housing community, it was clear that this project was even more impressive. Located 24 kilometers outside of Bangalore, ZED Woods is comprised of 60, three-story condominiums. Again, if there is anyone out there who thinks sustainability by its nature is not luxurious, they are dead wrong and clearly need to see a ZED home. If ZED Earth was sustainability with luxury, then ZED Woods could be described as sustainable luxury or luxurious sustainability.
To summarize, ZED Woods has all the amenities that were showcased at ZED Earth, but with a few new features. The condos were built from the same energy conserving compressed blocks of fly ash and concrete, organic paints and locally sourced granite, however, the ZED Woods design has a green roof for extra cooling. Each house has its own rainwater collection and filtration system, eliminating the need for outside water lines. The thermal cooling system first seen at ZED Earth is present in each ZED Woods unit, but with an additional air conditioner that uses less energy and is made from 96% recycled material. The roof of each Woods home is equipped with a solar thermal water heater and a solar PV array of 1.5kw per hour (enough to modestly power the home) with outside grid support. The expanded garden space was moved to the ground floor, with an optional green wall for vine fruits and vegetables. The recycling and compost system remains the same but is administered by the ground’s keepers. The ZED Woods community differentiates itself the most by its added community components. There is a stage in the center of the community for festivals and parties. There is an amphitheater for a weekly movie night or perhaps a children’s performance in the near future. There is also a cricket field as well as a basketball court. Most interesting is the community center. It functions as a community cafe and store, which will operate a vegetable credit and trade system. Members of the ZED Woods community who utilize their gardens can bring their vegetable surplus to the store to exchange for store credit, with which they can buy other vegetables or conventional household items. One can’t help but admire the passion and thought that has gone into the design and administration of this newly completed housing development.
Impressive I know, but is it too good to be true? Has the ZED design actually thought of everything? Are these homes truly the sustainable paradise they portend to be? They are, for the right price. Unfortunately, these homes come with a hefty price tag. An average apartment at ZED Earth is a little over $200,000 USD. A standard unit at ZED Woods comes to a whopping $400,000 USD. That’s expensive in most areas of the states, let alone a developing nation like India. More than the high prices, I am troubled by what sustainability means when only the rich can afford it. It stops being a necessity and becomes a trend or a fad. Sustainability will never break from that trend if it is confined to the middle and upper classes. Or in this case, the rich and very rich classes. If proponents of sustainability and permaculture truly want to make an impact and not just a fashion statement, then we must encourage sustainable practices that function in the retiree’s garden as well as the inner city or rural countryside. When striving to live or promote a greener life, we should ask ourselves: How are the poorest of our world adapting to more sustainable practices? It’s great that there is a huge permaculture community in Australia or the U.S., but is there such a community in Burkinafaso, Honduras or Myanmar? The rich consume a lot, but they are a minority of the population. It is the poor and middle classes we should be concerned about. It is not without value to encourage the rich to live sustainably, but we certainly should not stop there. They will be the least affected by the coming crisis of climate change and resource scarcity. In fact, I’m a little skeptical about the vegetable credit offered at the ZED Woods community store. Will they really care enough to exchange their vegetables for their neighbors’? Will they be willing to subject themselves to that much community administration? Will they even garden? Or will they just hire a gardener? By hiring a gardener, a very rewarding aspect of sustainability is lost.
I also couldn’t help but wince at the thought of BCIL buying tracts of land previously farmed or forested, and turning them into development space for eco-homes. I suppose that if the housing boom in India caused by new IT and other sector professionals is unstoppable, then it is good to ‘green’ that bubble. Still, I can’t help but think: why don’t we start ‘greening’ the homes we already have? That should certainly be the case in the States. According to expressionsoftruth.com, we have 18.5 million unoccupied homes in the States. Let’s occupy those homes and make them sustainable. Let’s implement an urban homestead act — after five years of living and making improvements to an abandoned property, it belongs to you.
Finally, transportation. It has to be talked about. I definitely noticed that we were in the car for a large part of the day. Bangalore’s traffic is infamous and it will continue to be a plague on the city if housing developers continue to build outside of the city, fostering a commuter culture. Carbon emissions are one thing, and to their credit BCIL is looking to install electric car infrastructure in all of their projects. But that’s not the point. I don’t want to see an expanding, seemingly endless city. It disconnects communities and separates individuals behind steel and glass, not to mention turns farm or forest into parking lots and housing developments.
When my guide finished showing me the last of the very impressive deluxe eco-homes at ZED Woods, we got into the car and headed into the city. That’s when I saw it. A huge coal plant to our left, hiding behind trees from the freeway and vomiting black smoke. It was hard to miss. I saw a long line of train cars pulling into the plant, loaded with coal waiting to be dumped and incinerated. That’s when it hit me. That something is better than nothing. ZED is doing that something. The fact that ZED homes are mainly marketed to India’s rich is unfortunate, but at least they’re making an impact. The crisis of climate change and resource scarcity is so severe that we are forced to encourage all options for sustainable living. Despite my petty philosophical disagreements, I wish them much success.