Energy efficient buildings

(Image: Wikimedia)

What does a hut, an igloo and a bamboo shack have in common? They are primitive and are green buildings. Back then, that was all the material that was available to build shelters. Such dwellings still exist on this planet. People didn’t know they were building ‘green buildings’ because they didn’t have to bother. But now considering the rate at which buildings are made, it is a necessity to keep a check on its side effects.

Keeping a check on the consequences of constructing innumerable dwellings is just one side of the coin. The other side of the coin represents learning from nature. Mick Pearce, an African architect was inspired by the ingenuity of termite homes. These homes always have their internal temperature maintained. They are strong and durable. How is this possible? The answer lies in its engineered structure – the shape and the way air flows (convection) inside; the application of which now stands tall in Zimbabwe – The Eastgate Centre.

Are our current buildings green? Not all. But people have studied these buildings and put together a few things to make them greener. When judging the greenness of an existing building or when we have to build a new one, one has to consider an entire life cycle of the building. This life cycle assessment (LCA) includes:

  • Materials needed for constructing the entire building
  • How the materials were procured
  • Design of the building
  • Operation and how it responds to atmospheric conditions
  • Maintenance
  • Renovation
  • Demolition

During this life cycle analysis, one can measure:

  • carbon dioxide emissions
  • energy consumption
  • waste produced
  • resource consumption such as water
  • pollution caused

To give an example, we can think of net-zero energy buildings. Net-zero energy buildings (aka zero-energy building, zero net energy (ZNE) building, net-zero energy building (NZEB), or net zero building), wherein zero signifies no carbon emissions. Although initial costs of these buildings are higher, ZNE buildings are sustainable and hence a wise long term strategy. But where do carbon emissions come from in a construction industry? An entire life cycle of this industry shows that GHG emissions come from the following areas of the process:

  • Materials of construction (The manufacture of which depends on energy and energy comes from fossil fuels on a large part.)
  • Construction on-site processes (This would need energy.)
  • Associated transport/ Distribution (Transport means fuel, simple.)
  • In-Use operations that is use of lighting, air conditioning: heating or cooling.
  • Demolition and waste handling (When everything is done, even demolishing it requires energy.)

These areas are common to both commercial as well as residential buildings. What can be done to countermeasure the effect of such consumption? One way is to adopt solar power. Buildings can be fitted with solar panels for in-use operations that account for the largest proportion, over 80%, of total CO2 emissions in this industry. To the rescue now smartphone apps that homeowners can use to energy audit their homes on their own. Existing buildings can be fitted with solar panels or can be provided with an external insulation depending on the local climate conditions.

To regulate this entire process, standards have been laid down and vary from country to country. In the USA, for instance, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) provides ratings which help builders and owners construct a green building.

This blog post was first published at GreenHatters on February 15, 2014. Version edited for minor corrections.

GreenHatters is a not-for-profit initiative that cares for the environment and promotes sustainability, strives to create awareness on Energy conservation and Carbon footprint responsibility.

Worth a thousand words

11,000 trees planted by 11,000 people from all over the world in Finland, as part of a massive earthwork and land reclamation project by environmental artist Agnes Denes, one of the pioneers of Environmental Art. Read more about Agnes, here, best known for her Wheatfield project in Manhattan.

Landfill reclamation project, 1992

Source: Agnes Denes Studio

Will we be wearing these hazmat suits and masks in the future? Hope not.

Hazmat surfing


Indoor air quality can be and is enhanced through indoor plants. How about when you are out there? When the air pollution gets worse, will you take the plants with you?

Upfest 2015 - Urban Festival in Bristol
Street Art

Source: Dr. Love

Not so subtle project that spreads awareness on paper consumption and recycling.

PaperBridge - visualisation
Paper Bridge

Source: Steve Messam

No blind spot for this trash bag. Makes me want to sing ‘But then I just smile, I go ahead and smile…..‘ (flip-flops) flip-flops-163577_640

Seeing trash differently

Source: Trash Project

Reminiscence of our ways of material consumption. Where are our patterns of consumption taking us?

Becoming aerosolar

Source: Tomas Saraceno

Before and After. Daesung Lee has found a way to show what it will be like if we don’t act now.

Futuristic archaeology

Source: Daesung Lee

Permanently etched on my mind. I so want to see this all over.

Green roof

Source: May 19, 2014, New Yorker Magazine Cover

One of the winning entries of DEP’s Water Resources Art and Poetry program, out of 1,350 2-12 grade students from New York city. A total of 1,400 pieces of Artwork and Poetry were created by these young artists for the 29th Annual Water Resources Art and Poetry Contest.

By Adrianny Estevez
By Adrianny Estevez

Source: Department of Environmental Protection, NY

Mario Miranda’s 1987 cartoon captured the suddenness of environmental degradation and the Goan artist’s inability to process the altered landscape before him.

Source: The  Caravan


  • Goan Art taken from The Caravan, 16.07.2015

Getting the lead out

India’s favorite snack Maggi Noodles has been put under the microscope after ‘abrupt’ tests revealing excessive amounts of lead in it. Thanks to Barabanki’s food safety inspector VK Pandey. This set off a chain reaction that lead to the inspection of various other products in the market. Much to our surprise, lead was found and so was detergent. Maggi noodles and other products have been enjoying this unchecked prosperity for who knows how long.

Lead is a chemical element (goes by the symbol ‘Pb’ in the periodic table, for plumbum in Latin) that is thought to have ended the Roman Civilization. The Roman Empire’s water supply used lead pipes (without any coating to it), unlike iron and steel that are commonly used today. In addition to this, they even added lead acetate to makes their wines sweeter!

In 1922, lead in the form of tetraethlyllead as an anti-knocking agent was added to petrol to make vehicles run smoothly. Fifty years down the line i.e. around 1970, the infamous tetraethyllead was everywhere, in all the vehicles around the world. In the year 2002, 50 countries banned leaded gasoline and adopted unleaded gasoline. In 2007, 90% of the world’s countries had banned it. In 2008, 21 countries were still using it. Why did so many countries ban it? Who knew that lead could be poisonous to us humans? The Romans didn’t know. The men who used lead in petrol didn’t know, or did they?

Leaded Petrol Phase-out: Global Status April 2014
Leaded Petrol Phase-out: Global Status April 2014, Source: UNEP

One man named Clair Cameron Patterson knew. Elaborated in ‘Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, episode ‘The Clean Room’, Patterson, a geochemist, unmasked the toxic nature of lead while looking for the true age of the Earth. His efforts to make sure that lead gets eliminated from petrol is commendable. He fought against the political tide all by himself. Why did he do that? He, of all the people, knew how dangerous lead is to people.

Lead bioaccumulates as our body doesn’t know how to deal with heavy metals like lead, mercury, chromium etc. It sits inside you, in your bones, and inhibits the body to function well, havocs it. It attacks your nervous system, your kidneys, and a lot more. In scientific terms, this makes lead a ‘Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic (PBT) chemical’. As the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) puts it,

“Short-term exposure to high levels of lead can cause brain damage, paralysis, (lead palsy), anaemia and gastrointestinal symptoms. Longterm exposure can cause damage to the kidneys, reproductive and immune systems in addition to effects on the nervous system. The most critical effect of low-level lead exposure is on intellectual development in young children and like mercury, lead crosses the placental barrier and accumulates in the foetus. Infants and young children are more vulnerable than adults to the toxic effects of Lead, and they also absorb lead more easily. Even short-term low-level exposure of young children to lead is considered to have an effect on neurobehavioural development. Consumption of food containing lead is the major source of exposure for the general population.”

How did lead get into these noodles? It could have entered the noodles through air, water, soil, plastic packaging, ‘masala‘, noodles, or industrial effluent. Lead has been used in storage batteries, weapons, lead paint, and even to protect workers from radioactive elements. It is still one of the most commonly used non-ferrous metals in the world. Any one can become exposed to lead through inhalation or ingestion of lead particles that are generated from industrial and domestic activities. Lead still serves many purposes and used as:

  • a coloring agent in stained glasses for reducing the radiation transmission
  • in fishing sinkers and in balancing wheels of vehicles
  • in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic for coating the electrical metal wires
  • for shielding from radiation in x-ray laboratories
  • in electronics its use as soldering agent
  • as a coolant in lead-cooled fast reactors
  • for sound proofing system
  • in building constructions e.g. sheets as architectural metals in roofing, cladding, flashings, gutters and joints, etc
  • water proofing media
  • in lead-based semi-conductors such as lead telluride, lead selenide and lead antimonide are being used in photovoltaic (solar) cells and infrared detectors
  • in making sculptures
  • a additive to brass to reduce machine tool wear

According to FSSAI, the permissible limit for lead in food is 2.5 ppm, i.e. 2.5 mg of lead per kg of body weight. Some of the samples indicated levels of 17 ppm, that’s about 7 times higher. What does ‘Permissible Exposure Limit’ (PEL) mean anyway? Who decides this? Isn’t it basically a ‘legal’ limit to lead content in food? 2.5 ppm or less, lead is going to accumulate in the human body. If it accumulates in large amounts, it leads to poisoning. PEL is the so called regulatory number, against advisory/recommended values, which can only be advised and not enforced. According to the World Health Organization, there is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.

Moreover, please note that ‘2.5 ppm’ mentioned above is only applicable to ‘Foods not specified’ under the Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, Toxins and Residues) Regulations, 2011. It is not the same, for say, baking powder. For baking powder, PEL is as high as 10 ppm. Standard procedure is followed for testing of elements in food samples and specific determination methods are followed for determining specific elements such as lead.

Lead poisoning is preventable but the damage is done in many cases and people have been exposed to lead. Some believe that they can cure it through Chelation Therapy. Viral messages suggesting chelation therapy with coriander are being passed along. Drugs called “chelators” [KEY-lay-ters] bind to the metals in the blood stream. This metal-chelator compound then gets eliminated in the urine. This therapy has its side effects but is a preferred choice for heavy metal poisoning. Chelation therapy however can only remove lead from blood, and not from your bones as it is difficult to do so. Let’s not forget what Benjamin Franklin said, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’


The worldwide problem of lead in petrol by Philip J. Landrigan

Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, UNEP

Maggi Controversy: The Unpalatable Truth About How Lead Got Into Your Noodles, Huffington Post

Order by FSSAI: M/S Nestle India Limited’s “Maggi Instant Noodles with Tastemaker” and any other food products covered under Section 22 which have not been examined for risk/safety assessment – regarding.

Lead and Lead Compounds, Ohio EPA

Manual for Analysis of Metals, FSSAI, 2012 (Draft)

Bureau of International Recycling

World Health Organization

Oral chelation therapy for patients with lead poisoning

Geological Survey of India

International Business Times

Further Reading:

Learn about Lead by US EPA

Lead Poisoning and Rome

Note 1: One can think on similar lines for MSG and Sweeteners.

Note 2: In Indian languages lead is known as ‘sisa’, ‘ranga’, ‘haridra’, ‘seemak’, ‘cheen’, ‘sindhur’ (Hindi/ Sanskrit), ‘eeyam’ (Malyalam) and ‘tipu’ (Pali).

It matters where the bhutta goes

As I stood by a bus-stop relishing a sweet and masaledar bhutta (roasted sweet (golden) corn garnished with salt, lemon and red chili powder) with my aunt on my way back home from South Mumbai, I diligently tossed the leftovers in a dust bin elevated to just about 5 ft. from ground-level, where I couldn’t see what’s inside without a peek.

A fraction of a minute later, I noticed there was a pair of dustbins side-by-side and I had tossed the corn in one of them without realizing each one accepted different kinds of waste: dry and wet. ‘Oops! I put the corn in the dry waste bin!‘, I exclaimed.

Here’s how they look:


Both the bins should have been color coded for people to identify them correctly. I’ve noticed these bins in the Dadar area too. May be they are all over Mumbai.

After the waste is collected, it is mostly landfilled – which may be the easiest option but not a sustainable one. Land is scarce, waste generation is rising and there are associate health and environmental risks to landfilling, such as pollution and spread of diseases. A fire recently broke out in one of the dumping grounds in Mumbai – the pollution caused stayed for days.

Waste management is not an easy thing to do. Every way to deal with it has its relative merits and demerits and is handled on a case-by-case basis. A city needs a different waste management strategy than a village. It does get easier with segregation at source – that is if you and I provide the waste collectors with segregated waste – waste separated into types specified by the local authority, such as the BMC in Mumbai. That said, below is the notice my society received. I am not sure how many people in my building would really understand vermi composting or even know why they need to segregate and what will happen to the segregated garbage once the BMC takes it.

I have yet not seen the change in the way the waste is collected in my building, everything still goes into one big bin. Hopefully, this will change soon and with some more motivation other than sending notices, such as dissemination of information through awareness campaigns.


In the villages of India, waste composition has been changing with economic development. In my hometown in Ratnagiri district, dry recyclables were scattered all around. Same goes with tourist destinations like Alibaug in the Raigad district, a place I often visit. The villagers are often not aware of the health and environmental consequences of littering, they simply burn everything.

There are all kinds of waste other than household garbage, but that’s a topic for another day. For more information on what is dry waste, wet waste, hazardous waste, household hazardous waste, click here.

Solid waste affects water, air and soil quality, and the way we live. We live on water, air and soil, isn’t the equation simple? We can get rid of solid waste and turn it into something useful. Plenty organizations are helping out the public to make this possible, all we got to do then is be supportive, educate yourself, and participate in the process. You can start simple, so that you don’t overwhelm yourself – don’t be a litterbug. If you don’t know what to do, ask for help, approach the authorities, or approach someone who can help you approach the authorities. Or map it using the Swachh Bharat app!

The following video shows working models of rural waste management:

| | सह-जम्́ कर्म कौंतॆय | स-दॊषम् अपि न त्यजॆत् | सर्वारंभा हि दॊषॆण | धूमॆनाग्निर् इवाव्ड़्ताः | | “No on should abandon duties because he sees defects in them. Every action, every activity, is surrounded by defects as a fire is surrounded by smoke” – Bhagvad Gita

Do you take climate science with a grain of salt?

If you say ‘yes’ to the title of this post, it’s a good thing. ‘Science is not something you should believe in. You should be skeptic about everything.’, an advice offered to me once. Science is based on facts – there is no question of belief in science. Science helps you find the truth. It is logic and not blind faith. It’s not about consensus either. Stuff that you don’t understand seems magical for a reason. The reason is our lack of understanding and it astounds us. Want to see some magic? See the video below.

When Copernicus said that the sun was at the center of our solar system instead of the earth, when Galileo supported him, imagine what would have happened if everyone had believed the consensus. We probably wouldn’t have advanced in astronomy as much as we do now. This fell on my ears when I listened to Real Time with Bill Maher as Bill questioned the speaker Bret Stephens (a columnist) why he won’t believe the scientists who know climate science. But as Rheinhard says, the heliocentric solar model won because it had evidence to back it up, and the same goes with climate change.

So far the evidence that I’ve seen, which is available for anyone with internet to view – the chart where the CO2 has been rising like it never has before, and that greenhouse gas effect is real, I think CO2 reduction is tough but necessary. It would be scary to think that so many scientists might have twisted scientific facts. Some say it is the solar spots and why not, sun has major influence on our climate. It doesn’t have to be just a single contributing factor. Climate science has evolved (see figure below) and is being supported by newer techniques such as NASA’s operation IceBridge. We are learning more and more about our atmosphere, land and water. The more we know, the better our climate models get. The better our climate models are, the better prepared we are with the help of the predictions that these climate models fetch.

Our oceans are carbon dioxide sinks. We do understand the chemistry that takes place in this case but we barely know the ocean in entirety. (There are waterfalls and lakes at the bottom of the sea! There’s an ocean at the core of the Earth! AAAAAAAA!) It’s only been three decades since we started studying what constitutes 70% of our Earth’s surface. May be the ocean will take care of this all, may be it won’t.

Some may argue that the money that goes into climate science may better address immediate issues of concern – like poverty and diseases. (I do not find the source of this statement at this moment.) Won’t preparedness for climate disasters help not only the rich but also the poor? Doesn’t science help alleviate poverty in the long run? Can’t we allocate enough money for both – poverty, medicinal science and all kinds of scientific studies there can be? Speaking of funding towards science, the picture isn’t too good for space science either:

“As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?’ Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar.” From Space Chronicles, p. 25.

Take climate science with a grain of salt? Do you take any other subject of science with a grain of salt? I do because that propels me into understanding it better rather than believing it on face value.

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Neil deGrasse Tyson

He nailed it!