Biome Environmental Solutions Pvt. Ltd. is a Bangalore-based firm which focuses on sustainable living practices. The organization has come about in 2008 with the merger of Chitra K Vishwanath Architects and the Rainwater Club. The work spans and integrates various sustainable practices in architectural design, water management, rain water harvesting, waste water recycling and sanitation practices. The broad objectives include improving long-term water security, lowering water demand and the use of locally- sourced materials, reducing the ecological footprint of the new buildings while providing an energy-efficient built environment that does not compromise on comfort or aesthetics
In the Biome website, you have a clearly worded the mandate and work philosophy, the focus being on environmental and social responsibility. At what point of your careers did this seem clear to both of you? Tell us about the synthesis of Biome.
In the Indian context, social equity is fundamentally in your eye but as you work, you realize that ecological degradation is reinforcing the social inequity further. The idea and discussion right from the beginning was that, how do we as part of the profession address these issues as we progress, and so therefore the work. Biome captures the whole thing. Biome is this ecosystem of people, society and the environment. From the very beginning, it has never been like, ‘we’ll try something else’. As we worked more and more on this line, we felt that this was our way forward and almost no other way.
Biome had become more than a proprietary firm, with the senior architects now with us for more than five years. Apart from design, as architects, we were also working on water and sanitation. We wanted to continue working in all these areas.
The firm has taken the working model of a private company rather than an NGO. Any specific reason?
It is both a private company as well as an NGO. We run a Trust which works as the NGO and the company runs separately. The company runs because it has to create an identity for all these works. Also, with this philosophy, it is good to showcase that you can make a profit or at least that it pays and on time. It is not because it is not run-of-the-mill that you have to run it as an NGO and that you have to be funded. That is important. Everybody here is clear on it — we need to make money.
For a firm steeped in experimentation and innovation in order to achieve higher levels of ECO-sustainability, how much of this has helped in the external environment?
People working in water and sanitation have always been linked with agriculture. Conversion of waste in agriculture and food is now our main forte. How could we create soil to grow food? We are always talking to people, especially on newer ideas and processes related to construction and waste treatment.
The site of ISKCON Wada (a settlement in Girgaum), was an undulating site of around 60 acres with forest, agriculture and part unarable land. We had to use a lot of persuasion to get the client to do a hydro-geological study of the site. With that study in place, we started designing the campus. With the system of soil bio-technology (SBT), waste water was passed through layers of soil and plants, to achieve reusable water for food. Now the treated water is of drinking quality. It is used to grow food.
In new materials, we have not worked extensively on the usage of bamboo. We do have certain apprehensions, but we have to work a little more, towards different treatment systems and convince people. We are also not against concrete and we use it for its plastic quality and aesthetics.
It has been our philosophy since we started that we live what we propagate and this starts at our house. Almost all of the ideas have seen the light of day and nothing has remained just as theory. For example, in the case of the ECO-san toilet, we have worked on it right from its design to its implementation.
We are also working on the reuse — adding bio-inoculants to urine to make it as a bacterial culture. At times, we get manic-obsessive with our ideas.
Can the success of sustainable processes and models achieved in small- scale sites be converted, for mid- scale projects like housings and large scale works like townships? What are your views in this regard? We hardly see this sensitivity on larger scales.
We have not done any large township projects, but all of these ideas can surely be implemented on all scales. In ISCKON project-the use of mud blocks, water harvesting and sanitation, all has been done by sustainable processes. It is now a clients problem to accept it. We keep insisting that this is the way to do it, but not everybody comes forward.
We do not see why we should be doing mid-scale or large-scale projects to demonstrate this. As with rainwater harvesting, you should be able to foster a movement. It is not about one leading practitioner working in a big project, but about a million practitioners doing small works, by showing such practices to five hundred people that they can do it. For example, once we started doing stabilized mud block buildings, it came into notion that this can be done for somebody’s house. Now, Bengaluru has become home to the largest number of modern mud block homes. Also, people from our office who have now started their own practice use the same philosophy and materials.
Do you see the role of economics in this scenario, as sustainability also means affordable sustainable means?
Absolutely. Good ecology means good economics. We have been seeing time and again that if you do it in a sustain-able way, it is the cheapest way. For example, take the case of access to water. It is cheap, so it is overused and abused and hence eventually starts to run out. When that happens, it becomes expensive. Hi at is when people have the ‘a-ha’ moment and realize that if they had done the sustainable thing, it would have been available. Rather than going through a cycle of boom, bust and realization of the value of the material, if you are a bit far-sighted, you will internalize all its costs- when you capture the true ecological cost of any product, then you make it available forever.
You can take water in Bengaluru and put it back in the river, in the same place and quality that you appropriated it for ^80 per kilolitre. You are willing to pay the private water tanker a ^100 per kilolitre, but are unwilling to pay the water board more than ^6. If you do so and if you demand the institution to work, then everything can be cleaned up. Good ecology and good economy go hand in hand.
Commodities would eventually run out. Bricks and sand are already difficult to procure. Wasteful use of sand for plaster makes no sense. You cannot keep appropriating everything for yourself, for a structure that would not last more than one and a half generations. If the sand runs out, the rivers and water will also run out. The lesson is to pay the ecological cost of everything.
If you look at construction, sustainable buildings are 10% percent cheaper in capital costs, and cheaper in the long run. Operational, maintenance costs and replacement costs are also cheaper. It is the ecological cost-capital, O&M, replacement cost put together, gives the life cycle cost. These buildings should never be expensive. Otherwise they are not really green buildings.
ECO-initiatives are still a fledgling movement in the urban centers. Dissemination of knowledge and local workshops all become very crucial, for the movement to garner momentum. How do you perceive the situation in a few years down the line?
We are a bit cynical here. In urban India, post 1992, there has been a rise of a class of professionals who had travelled globally and were very aware of their setting. This was especially true for Bengaluru. They wanted to know of the ways by which they can contribute positively, especially in the immediate built environment around them. To communicate, we were one of the first to start a website as architects/ planners and this was our initial point of contact with these people.
But we Indians are passive consumers of information. What we do is intellectually rationalize and put it in our heads but very wary of acting upon it. The ‘talking’ to address this latent need at a broader level has not, in our opinion, been very fruitful. All the seminars and conferences do not tend to do anything much.
But on the other hand, there has been a sea-change in the approach of the institutes. We work together with them in the implementation process. They are very serious. They are being confronted by the right kind of questions, across India now.
In our workshop programmes, half of them are hands-on and are less in theory. Even theory is a discussion of practical examples of what has been done. This is the way we think and we feel that this is the way to go.
What is your opinion about the Green Rating Systems?
All green building ratings have a long way to go to become genuine. Nature of these ratings, depending on where they originate, tend to be superfluous. The inherent strength is that they can always improve, as they are starting at ground zero. Whatever little they do, they will improve. It is good to have something that will rein us in. Developers look at it as a marketing mantra. It helps in some cases in reducing the energy costs, but how is that energy used, should first be questioned. It reins in some wastage but has a long way to go. There is always a tension between commerce and sustainability and the ratings try to bridge both. You can lose your clientele if you are obsessive, if you are truly genuine to sustainability. If not, what is the point of rating? And that dilemma, the rating bodies would have to address.
A genuine product needs no rating and need not go on defending itself. If the rating certification was available at a more nominal fee, then more number of people will be interested in getting their buildings certified.
What would be your advice regarding incorporating sustainable design wisdom in architectural curricula? Do you think we are doing enough on this front?
To expect everybody to be involved in sustainability, which is what happens when you put it as curricula, would be overkill. It is only for those with a propensity to work on it. It is a choice. For us sustainability is made up of six factors — social, technical, institutional, financial, legal and ecological. Ecological factor alone is not sustainable.
Ecological studies and climate-appropriate design need to be taught. Above all, you have to teach the students learn- ability, how to absorb knowledge, the ability to ask the right questions and translate the answers into action and design. Moreover, if you have a good understanding and grounding on materials, people and climate, you will do nothing but sustainable.
How do you perceive the term landscape’? Do you think an architect with a specialization in landscape architecture is more equipped to ad-dress issues related to the relation-ship of nature with man?
We now have been reading ‘The New Landscape by Charles Correa, which talks about the social landscape-a much broader aspect. Landscape architects themselves have been expanding their scope of work and are engaging in many things. Ultimately, this is the era of teams, networks and fusion of ideas.
65% of India’s water is from the ground. So hydro geology is the mother science for our survival over the next fifty years. This knowledge is pretty much non-existent. We have been struggling to get these hydrogeologists on board. The first layering on any project should be that of hydro geology, which is an understanding of our water resource availability. So we ask the landscape architects on how they can manage the water resource in its most productive, efficient and sustainable fashion. We are all for edible landscaping and nutrient recycling.
Collaboration is so important. There is so much to learn when one interacts with other fields, especially with landscape architects. We really wonder on how to engage our clients to accept one more team member and it is good if the two — architects and landscape architects work together all the time. Mohan S Rao, Akshay Kaul, Vagish Naganur and Nina Chandavarkar are people that we have worked with. It is fascinating to see how they engage with space. It is stimulating. We always find and work with landscape architects who talk the same language.
Any place where we do not hear the birds or see the squirrels is such a waste. On larger context, the question remains that how do we get the water. It always comes back to that. The landscape architects have until now, operated on a smaller scale. Now we need them to work on large scales like 1250 square kilometers. In our work, the single largest constraint is bad landscape design. One of the jobs of the new crop of landscape architects is to retrofit and correct bad design.