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Sustainability, as an issue, as an option and as a strategy has been gaining currency in the parlance of professionals, policy makers, communities, governments and welfare agencies both locally and globally, to make this world more humane, liveable, productive, efficient and provider of quality of life. Looking historically, close linkages have been observed between sustainability and unending human endeavour of gobbling resources, consuming energy and generating waste. 

Large number of distortions emerging globally in terms of pollution, climate change, extinction of large number of species, global warming, flooding etc have genesis in the manner development options have been exercised by different communities, states and nations to develop the built environment and plan, design and operate their human settlements in general and cities in particular. 

Cities globally account for more than 75% of energy consumption and generating majority of carbon footprints. Buildings and travel have been found to be the major consumers of energy and resources in cities. Built environment has been major consumer of energy and resources, impacting nature and contributing to climate change, resources depletion, waste, over-consumption, diminished human health, and other significant problems. Sustainability remains critical for the planning, design, construction, and operation of the built environment, considering the variety of economic, social, and environmental impacts it has in the long-term. Accordingly, urbanism and architecture play critical role in promoting equitable and sustainable consumption. 

In order to make this planet more sustainable, best option and strategy would be to ensure that cities and built environment are made least consumers of energy and resources besides generators of minimum waste. Achieving sustainability requires adoption of multi-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary strategies which would promote considerable reduction in building carbon footprints and water consumption besides promoting energy-efficiency and ecological sustainability. Sustainability should form the basis and the foundation on which entire superstructure of development/ human settlements is made to stand.

Sustainability and Sustainable Development 

Sustainability and sustainable development has been defined by large number of organisations, experts, professionals and agencies, working locally and globally. However, best known and widely acknowledged representative definition is given by the World Commission on Environment and Development's which says, “That development is sustainable, where it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. 

Sustainable development respects the limited capacity of an ecosystem to absorb the impact of human activities and focuses on preserving the environment for other species and for people. It also focuses on maintaining and creating a delicate equilibrium between human needs to improve quality of life and preserving natural resources and ecosystems, on which sustenance of present and future generations depends. Sustainable development mandates reinforcing and inclusion of economic growth with protection of environmental quality. Prime objective of sustainable development is to create a permanent and stable relationship between man and nature, which guarantees the future generations an assured quality of life as good as ours. 

Promoting sustainable development would call for people, communities and nations respecting, sharing and caring for each other ,earth and its resources; taking no more than what nature can replenish; adopting lifestyles and development that respect and work within nature's limits and using state of art technologies to optimise resources. Sustainability and sustainable development accordingly have been found to have genesis in the optimum utilisation of available non-renewable resources, working on the human need and not greed, using alternative resources made available by nature, searching and using appropriate technologies, promoting human welfare, preserving eco-system and promoting ecology, thinking development options in long term and looking at the development in both local and global contexts. Sustainable development also makes commercial sense because it reduces the operational cost and make things cost-effective and affordable in the longer run. 

Designing Green Built Environment 

Built environment has been integral part of human history. It has scripted the march of humanity over times in terms of art and science of designing and construction of buildings. The term built environment refers to the man-made surroundings that provide the setting for human activities in which people live, work, and recreate on a day-to-day basis. Currently, built environments are typically used to describe the inter-disciplinary field that addresses the design, construction, management, and use of these man-made surroundings as an interrelated whole as well as their relationship to human activities over time. 

Built environment is known to be major determinant of quality of human living. Built environment has a critical role in promoting sustainability and making cities sustainable. No city can be made sustainable unless it is supported by built environment, which is energy/resource efficient and intelligent. Built environment is known to have significant impact on environment and consumption of resources, accounting for: 

-  16% of world’s fresh water withdrawal 
-  25% of wood harvested 30% of consumption of raw material
-  50% of global energy consumption
-  35% of world's CO2 emission 40% of Municipal solid waste
-  50% of Ozone depleting CFC’s
-  30% of the residents having sick building syndrome
-  40-45 % of global warming

Photo Source: Image via plantgreeny.com

Considering the fact that buildings consume 50% of the total global energy, criticality of buildings and their role in minimizing energy consumption and promoting sustainability of human habitat assumes importance. Out of the total energy consumed by the buildings in its entire life-cycle, only 16% energy is the embodied energy, which goes into making of the building, another 10% energy is used in its maintenance and upkeep whereas 74% energy is used in its day to day operations of buildings. With India on the threshold of massive urbanisation propelled by large number of rural people rushing towards urban centres, energy requirements of cities due to buildings, is going to rise sharply in future. 

As per Mckinsey Global Institute Report (April, 2010), ‘India Urban Awakening: Building Inclusive Cities’, India would be required to create, on annual basis, buildings to the tune of 700-900 million sqmt to meet the needs of urban India. Despite huge projected requirements, very little focus is being given to mitigate the adverse impact on the environment caused by rapid and uncontrolled growth of building industry. Thus building, as a sector, would require close scrutiny and monitoring for effecting overall economy in the levels of energy consumption and making cities sustainable. Architectural design is the starting point and has critical role in making buildings sustainable because the way buildings are designed, constructed and used have enormous energy implications. Experience has shown that buildings can be designed to meet the occupant’s needs for thermal comfort at reduced level of energy consumption by adopting an integrated approach to building design. 

The integrated approach could include site planning, shape and size of the building, built form, surface to volume ratio, building efficiency, ratio between length and depth of the building, using simple techniques of building structure, efficient structural design, principles of solar passive techniques in building design, using energy efficient equipment, control and operation strategies for lighting, heating, ventilation etc. using solar energy/air movement for meeting the energy/lighting needs of buildings, reduced use of transportation energy, replacing energy intensive materials with low energy components , materials made from waste/using local materials, landscaping etc. Orientation is the most critical factor which needs to be effectively leveraged in all building design to evolve energy efficient building envelop by making use of solar light/heat/radiation and the wind energy. However, requirements of building design would vary from region to region, state to state and within regions and states. 

Accordingly, buildings with regard to sun and wind will have to be oriented differently in different regions. In order to ensure that buildings make best use of solar and wind energy, it would be essential that majority of buildings should have the site advantage of having best orientation. Accordingly, in this context town planners have an important role cast for themselves for ensuring that while preparing the layout plan of the area, highest consideration is given to orientation so that maximum number of plots has the advantage of best orientation. Further, planners should ensure that ratio of plot width and depth is fixed in such a manner that the entire depth of built up area permitted on a plot should have access to natural light during the day, minimizing the requirement of artificial lighting. This would be particularly important in case of row housing where plots have the option to draw light from front and the rear only. 

Designing with nature by making best use of existing natural elements/sources and vegetation, offers the best option of creating sustainable buildings. In addition, concerted efforts should be made to promote retrofitting of existing buildings to make them energy efficient. Singapore has already drawn a master plan to make all the existing buildings green through a collaborative policy framework involving residents, property owners and the government. Retrofitting of Empire State Building of New York has led to achieving reduction of electricity load for the building to the tune of 3.5 MW and reduction of green house gas emissions by 1,00,000 tonnes over a 15 years period. The payback/recovery period for the $13.1 million spent on retrofitting of building, has been placed at 3.5 years due to saving of energy in lighting, air condition etc. 

Sustainable Design & Affordability 

Photo Source: Empire State Building, Image via pargroup.com

Architectural designs are known for their capacity and hold the key to promote sustainability and affordability of built environment. Accordingly, sustainable design needs to be made intrinsic and integral part of all architecture practices.This can go a long way in promoting affordability in built environment. Considering the fact that construction and operation of buildings contribute 40-50% of all greenhouse gas emissions, accordingly buildings, if designed with focus on energy and resources optimisation, can minimize their carbon footprint and significantly contribute to their long-term sustainability and affordability. 

In the past, cost of building was being looked as the initial cost which went into making the building, without looking at the life cycle cost which included operational and maintenance cost besides incidental cost incurred by the end users in travel and meeting essential day to day needs. Economy in buildings was being predominantly achieved by utilizing economies of scale and minimizing up-front land, design, labour and material costs. In majority of cases, affordable housing developments were located on remote sites on the periphery of cities, totally disconnected from context, which actually proved to be highly inefficient and cost-intensive in their use of energy, water and materials; and often created unhealthy interior environments due to poor quality material used and degradation. 

In 2009, the Australian Institute of Architects released an affordable housing policy which supported the suggestion that what we need is ‘affordable living’, not just ‘affordable housing’. Affordable living involved, taking into account the indirect costs of living such as accessing employment areas, expenditure on utilities, the costs of adaptable housing and sustainable design. 

Sustainability and affordability in built environment can be promoted by adopting design strategies as defined below: 

-  Promoting transit oriented development by creating sites near public transportation, shopping, schools and other daily needs to minimize the need for automobiles or their use. 

-  Adopting appropriate design strategies involving orientation, site climate, vegetation, climate, wind direction etc and to promote passive strategies. 

-  Promoting energy efficiency incorporating principles enshrined in rating of buildings involving thermal insulation, high performance windows, efficient heating, ventilating and air conditioning, hot water heaters and geo-thermal options. Promoting water efficiency by creating buildings that use water efficiently and minimize storm water runoff. 

-  Promoting design efficiency by making buildings compact with smaller footprints, using space more efficiently, achieving highest carpet area, minimising circulation /area under walls, adopting efficient structure and structural system, minimizing construction waste. 

-  Promoting high indoor air quality by choosing environmentally responsive materials and finishes produced by clean manufacturing processes that do not produce unhealthy interior environments. 

-  Using materials which are locally available, cost-effective, having low embodied energy , produced from waste, easy/inexpensive to repair and maintain

More sustainable, more affordable

Based on the studies made, it has been observed that construction of buildings involve only 10% of the life cycle cost of buildings, maintenance cost is placed at 1% whereas the operational cost of buildings have been found to be of the order of 89%, over the entire life-cycle of building. Unfortunately in the current practices entire focus is to minimise the initial cost with minimal focus on operational cost. Sustainability remains a marginal issue, with majority having the notion that it is expensive to design, construct and operate sustainable/ green buildings. 

Latest researches have showcased that buildings, if planned, designed and constructed as green/sustainable buildings, can make them affordable over the entire life cycle with little or no additional upfront costs. Even with additional upfront costs, sustainable designs are known to pay back the additional cost within a short span of 3-4 years. Further, positive co-relation has been found to exist between sustainability and affordability. Studies have revealed that higher the sustainable rating of building, larger is the saving in the operational cost of the building and higher will be the affordability. 

Sustainable buildings are known to create win-win situation for both owners, builders and occupants because these buildings have been found to promote an environment which helps in: 

-  Saving energy up to 50% 
-  Saving water consumption up to 40% 35% 
-  Reduction in carbon emission 
-  Reduction of 8000-12000 Tons of Co2 per million Sq. ft. of building 
-  About 3 MW saving in connected electric load per million Sq ft building 
-  Reduction of 70% municipal waste 

Employing more than 35 million people (1/6th of total workforce of country), India’s construction industry is projected to expand, both horizontally and vertically, with investments in residential, infrastructure and energy projects continuing to drive growth. Various government flagship programs – including 100 Smart Cities Mission, Housing for All, Atal Mission for Urban Rejuvenation and Transformation (AMRUT), Make in India and Power for All – will be the major growth drivers. This is both an opportunity and challenge for professionals and building industry. 

Considering the major implications of buildings, it will be important and critical that buildings are planned, designed and constructed as sustainable buildings in order to make them more affordable. Failure to make built environment sustainable will have huge environmental, financial, physical and social cost and implications for people, community and nations, which will be difficult to rationalise subsequently.


Affordability and sustainable development are major challenges across the world. Generally there is a conflict between the approach to sustainable development and affordable buildings. Sustainable development is considered more expensive. For Middleton, sustainability and affordability aren’t mutually exclusive goals. It’s not about adding extra, but thinking more carefully about the design of buildings and incorporating technologies that can offset the rising costs of energy, water and other services. Affordability and sustainability are known to fit together perfectly. 

Through excellent design, buildings can be made more sustainable and affordable. Smaller the footprint of buildings, lower will be the upfront costs and embodied energy and lower shall be the running costs of buildings. Sustainable designs are now being increasingly adopted, to make built environment more cost-effective and affordable. Considering the enormous amount of built environment to be created, India will have no option but to tread the path of sustainability and sustainable development to promote affordability in the built environment.


-  The Future of Construction Sector in India, Build Tech Magazine India - September 9, 2016 

-  Walker Wells, Ed, Blueprint for Greening the Affordable House, Washington: Island Press, 2007, pp 2 

-  https://www.sanctuarymagazine.org.au/ideas-advice/more-affordable-and-more-sustainable/ 

-  Alpana Sivam and Sadasivam Karuppannan; The Sustainability of Affordable Housing,University of South Australia 

-  McKinsey Global Institute: “India’s Urban Awakening: Building Inclusive Cities, Sustaining Economic Growth”, April 2010

Editor: Prof. Jit Kumar Gupta

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To learn more about sustainable built environment, visit www.zingyhomes.com


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