Despite global consensus on reducing the world’s carbon footprint to tackle the climate crisis, there seems to be limited natural cooling infrastructure in residential buildings to reduce dependence on fans, coolers or air conditioners. A sharp gap exists in the wider adoption of energy-efficient buildings in India, which is currently a trend limited to the mid- and premium-residential market. There is an attempt to build residential buildings to be energy efficient in the country but the demand for it is still nascent.
Currently, a majority of these are projects by leading realty developers in the country and are on the costlier range. Sustainability-friendly buildings are being built in the high-mid range or the premium residential market, Gulam Zia, senior executive director of research, advisory, infrastructure, and valuation at Knight Frank India said over email to The Core. Mid-segment homes are priced between Rs 50 lakh-Rs 1 crore and premium-segment homes are priced over Rs 1 crore, while the affordable housing segment constitutes units priced below Rs 50 lakh.
What Is Energy-Efficient Infrastructure?
To push for a wider adoption of energy-efficient buildings, the governments at both state and central levels have devised policy support. Among them are green building rating systems, certifications that establish how sustainable a building is, provided by several energy institutes. The ratings certifications for buildings have been around in India for decades. The building codes by the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) sets a minimum energy standards for new commercial buildings and has a voluntary code for residential buildings called the Eco Niwas Samhita.
The India Green Building Council (IGBC), which was set up by the Confederation of Indian Industries in 2001, also provides such certifications. The other major rating systems followed in India by real estate developers are the national rating system, GRIHA or Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment, and the international LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
Apart from these ratings, there are also incentives offered by some states or cities to develop residential buildings that are energy efficient. Some states offer rebates and incentives to green rated buildings which could potentially increase a company’s revenue. Haryana and Pune Municipal Corporation offer additional floor space index (FSI) or floor area ratio (FAR) for buildings certified energy efficient by IGBC and GRIHA.
Private players in the real estate sector have also responded to the policy-level push towards energy-efficient buildings by coming up with projects that meet these certification standards. For instance, since 2013 Godrej Properties has set an internal mandate to achieve at least a silver certification under the relevant green building rating system for all projects. Mahindra Lifespaces has had a 100% energy-efficient portfolio since 2013 and Lodha Group has adopted IGBC ratings throughout its residential portfolio in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region and Pune.
Developing energy-efficient buildings primarily involves building them in a way that would make them cooler naturally by tweaking the design of the building or changing the materials that are being used. There are other aspects, apart from these, that decide whether or not a said project can have green ratings like solid waste management, health and safety, and water management.
Leading developers might adopt these ratings not just due to the social benefits or the incentives, but also as a positioning strategy. For instance, on their website, Mahindra Lifespaces states that the energy-efficient certification “allows us to position ourselves as innovators in the industry”.
However, when considering the wider landscape of built residential spaces in the country – be it smaller developers in tier-1 cities like Mumbai, or buildings in smaller towns and cities – passive cooling strategies or green rating adoption is negligible. Ashish Jindal lead, energy efficiency and cooling at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) India, told The Core that only an estimated 5-10% of buildings in India currently have green ratings. Even within this, it appears that uptake in commercial buildings is higher than in residential buildings. The office real estate market saw an 83% growth in energy-efficient office stock from 2016 to 2023, according to a recent report by KPMG India and Colliers.
While there is a demand for green-rated residential buildings in the country, it is fledgling. “It's important to note that while this trend exists, it may not apply to all property buyers in India…Some buyers may prioritise other factors, such as location, price, and layout, over green certifications,” Zia pointed out. Regional differences, market conditions and personal preferences also inform their decisions. A lack of awareness among consumers, higher upfront costs, or demand for buildings mimicking the west are deterrents as well.
Are Higher Costs A Deterrent?
Given that only leading developers seem to be leading the charge here, it would naturally beg the question – are costs of building cool energy-efficient buildings higher and is that the deterrent here?
The short answer is no. “The perception that high costs are always associated with green building standards is a myth,” Zia, of Knight Frank India, told The Core. Saswati Chetia, architect, certified GRIHA trainer and director at Greentech Knowledge Solutions, added that when a building is planned to be thermally comfortable or cool before being built, there isn’t a significant increase in the total operational costs.
However, costs can go up due to the materials used. And that’s where the catch lies. Chetia explained how most of the green ratings systems work on points or scores. “You would find that a very, very glazed building is also able to get a green rating [score],” she said. This happens because developers are given options to either make a building which is glazed, or use a lot of glass, but use high-performance glass, which makes the end product costlier, but limits the heat entering the interiors.
“So, it will be an extremely expensive building to make, but it will still pass [the green rating score] because they're using high-performance glass,” Chetia said.
But if planned well keeping design principles in mind, the costs might not increase. Mahindra Lifespaces in a blog stated how an additional 16% FSI at their Luminare project in Gurugram increased their revenue by Rs 80 crore. Further, for one of their Pune projects, while the overall project cost increased, the 40% rebate in premium translated to an incentive of up to Rs 3.2 crore and a net profit of Rs 2.08 crore.
The Need For Passive Cooling In Buildings
“India's cooling action plan underscores the growing concern about the proliferation of air conditioners in Indian households and the escalating demand for space cooling,” Shatakshi Suman, team lead and principal research associate, Alliance of Energy Efficient Economy, told The Core.
For a long time, Indian homes were built keeping the local climate and heat in mind. Think of the jaalis or latticed screens in the palaces of Rajasthan, or the aangans (courtyards) in traditional Indian homes, which work with the directional positioning of the sun and the wind to naturally cool the area. Or the blue and whitewashed homes in Jodhpur – naturally reflecting the sun’s radiations and cooling the interiors.
Now, experts point out, as more and more new buildings are designed to mimic the west, their dependence on active cooling appliances to keep the interiors cool is increasing.
There are several elements that a building would need to incorporate to improve its passive cooling functions. According to Chetia, this includes orienting the building keeping the direction of the sun in mind, prudent use of materials like glass, and ways to ventilate or let out hot air. Cool roofs are another way to reduce the temperature of a building.
Why Is Wider Adoption Lacking?
In addition to the demand for buildings mimicking western designs, awareness might be a challenge, according to experts. “Many homeowners and builders remain unaware of the benefits of passive cooling, necessitating educational outreach,” Suman said.
Skilling is a challenge too. There is a notable knowledge and expertise deficit among skilled workers, Suman pointed out. “The lack of accessible vocational training programs to bolster the skills of construction workers has led to inconsistency in their knowledge base. This challenge is particularly pronounced in tier 2 cities, small towns, and villages,” she added.
Availability of materials, or vendors who supply these materials, is also significantly lacking, Jindal said.
But most importantly, there is a lack of administrative push at a local level, which is much needed to incentivise builders and contractors to shift to energy-efficient buildings. States or municipal corporations (like Pune) which offer incentives are seeing a wider uptake of energy efficient buildings.
NRDC worked with the government in Telangana on cool roofs, and it became the first state in 2023 to introduce a cool roof policy. The 5-year policy aims to have a cool roofed area of 7.5 sq km in the first year (2023-24), and 300 sq km by 2028.
The BEE devised the Eco Niwas Samhita as a code for passive cooling and thermal comfort in residential buildings, but at a central level. “That's where there is a challenge,” said Jindal. “At a central level you can [introduce] but [it needs to] percolate to the state, where they can actually deliver it, implement it.”
Chetia, who worked on the Eco Niwas Samhita code with the BEE, also emphasised this. Residential buildings came under the purview of the Energy Conservation Act last year, allowing the departments of energy in the different states the legal backing to pursue this. “But I would say that still we have a long way to go in getting this code implemented,” said Chetia.
But getting the code implemented at a local level would only be the first step. Similar to how the minimum standard of energy efficiency for ceiling fans was raised, “the idea of the code is that it is a minimum standard for all residential buildings in India, [while] the rating system should be voluntary,” Chetia added.
The Core reached out to Godrej Properties Limited, Mahindra Lifespaces and K Raheja Corp for comments. This copy will be updated with a response when received.