The IT giant has proved that eco-efficient architecture is no more expensive than conventional building methods
India’s towering office blocks and apartment buildings are notoriously power-hungry. Air conditioning alone is said to account for over 40% of Mumbai’s electricity use. And though India-wide only 2% of households had air conditioning in 2007, sales are growing at an estimated 20% a year. Walking off an Indian city street into an office on a hot day can feel like walking from an oven into a fridge.
It’s hardly a satisfactory situation. Yet as everyone knows, constructing a greener, less energy-intensive building is prohibitively expensive. Or, rather, as everyone knew.
One extraordinary real-life experiment carried out by IT giant Infosys on its Hyderabad campus has debunked that assumption and sparked a flurry of eco-friendly building design across the country. Infosys is India’s second largest IT services company, pioneering the outsourcing services that fired the sector’s growth back in the 90s. With a market cap of $34bn, it has had a strong sustainability profile – particularly in the energy field – for some years, driven by its former head of infrastructure and green initiatives Rohan Parikh, who was determined to prove the cost-effectiveness of sustainable innovation.
Faced with the need for more office space, the company constructed a huge new block consisting of two separate wings. One was built following standard procedure, with normal air conditioning units, office layout and so on. The other utilised a whole range of energy saving techniques – many taking their inspiration from traditional Indian architecture, which had ways of keeping buildings comfortable centuries before A/C was ever invented. Among them was “radiant cooling”, a method that draws heat from the room to walls cooled by water circulating through embedded pipes. (It’s an idea that is as old as the hills – or rather, the caves with water running down the inside, which provided early humans with cool shelter.)
Combined with maximum use of natural light and passive cooling – relying on natural airflow rather than air con – the “green wing” recorded savings of nearly 40% on energy costs, compared to its “grey” twin. And it proved more popular with the workforce, too. Productivity rose, absenteeism fell, and surveys showed people found it a more pleasant and comfortable place to work.
Zero payback time
When Infosys totted up the construction bill, it found that the green half of the building cost 1% less to build. In other words, the payback time for all that sustainable investment was less than zero. At a stroke, this whipped the rug from under the feet of all those who argue that sustainable construction is a cost too far.
Infosys’s Guruprakash Sastry, who as regional manager for infrastructure, has inherited many of Parikh’s responsibilities along with his zeal, says that the company is now stipulating radiant cooling and similar green building methods for all its new offices across India. And it’s sharing the data on an open source basis, with the Hyderabad campus becoming a must visit for researchers, architects and contractors. “We hear people are saying, ‘I want a building like the Infosys one’. It’s starting to have a ripple effect.” The ripples have even reached California. According to Parikh Google decided to introduce radiant cooling in its futuristic new headquarters after visiting Infosys in Hyderabad.
ITC and Godrej
Two other Indian conglomerates, ITC and Godrej, have both made a feature of green buildings in their hotels and office campuses. The $45bn ITC – originally the Indian arm of the Imperial Tobacco Company, but which has expanded into activities from IT to paper to groceries to tourism – has won several green accolades for its hotels. Among them, the Grand Chola in Chennai and the Gardenia in Bangalore have both received coveted LEED Platinum status (one of the highest sustainable buildings ratings).
Godrej, one of India’s huge family-owned businesses, whose interests span everything from retail and FMCG to chemicals, property and agriculture, has invested substantially in energy efficiency technology and has even developed its own consultancy arm on the back of that experience.
And one small Ahmedabad-based architectural practice, Abhikram, led by wife and husband team Parul Zaveri and Nimish Patel, is influencing a new generation of sustainable architects. Its Torrents building on the outskirts of Ahmedabad was one of the first in modern India to use passive cooling techniques in 1997, pre-dating Infosys.
Mahindra, the giant $17.8bn conglomerate, meanwhile has carved out a niche of eco-friendly urban design with its two “world cities”, near Chennai and Jaipur. The cities, which include special economic zones and domestic tariff areas to attract both domestic and global companies as well as residential tenants, mix housing with office and light industrial use, and feature solar power, rainwater harvesting and low energy buildings. Ultimately, says Anirban Ghosh, Mahindra’s CSO, the aim is to for them to achieve carbon neutrality. Mahindra has also joined with Godrej, Tata, ITC and a couple of smaller developers to form a Sustainable Housing Leadership Consortium, convened by the International Finance Corporation, “to drive sustainability in India’s housing market with a particular focus on the affordable housing sector.”
The Indian government has taken note. Delhi’s Indira Paryavaran Bhavan, the new HQ of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, boasts radiant cooling, passive ventilation and rainwater harvesting, achieving savings of 40% in energy and 55% in water. Combined with nearly 1MW of solar PV, this effectively makes it India’s largest zero-energy building.
You can see the rationale: most of the buildings that today’s young Indians will spend their middle years in have yet to be built. Get construction methods right now, and the country’s environment and its people will reap the dividends for years to come. Get them wrong and…well, as they say, you do the maths.