On the outskirts of India’s high-tech capital of Bangalore, unsustainable subdivisions are emerging to meet the demand of its burgeoning middle class. In response to this, Trans Indus and other housing developments have been launched by Biodiversity Conservation Limited. This for-profit environmental organization relies on market dynamics, rather than external funding, to create sustainable alternatives to conventional housing. Trans Indus is one of several pioneering green developments around Karnakata state, which is making inroads on alternatives to the business-as-usual approach to housing.
Bangalore, with its booming information technology industry, is one of India’s fastest-growing cities. A newly emerging class of affluent, young, well-educated professionals has fueled an explosion of the suburban housing market, which has led to a frenzy of development and rising land prices spreading out past the city’s boundaries.
In this context, several alternative housing projects have grown up under the umbrella of BCIL (Biodiversity Conservation Limited). Started a decade ago, this for-profit environmental organization relies on market dynamics, rather than external funding, to create sustainable alternatives to conventional housing. BCIL director Chandrashekar Hariharen believes that since business must by necessity become sustainable sooner or later, he hopes that BCIL can lead the way in proving the feasibility of working within (and ultimately influencing) market mechanisms to create environmentally responsible housing. This would include design for self-sufficiency, community, waste management and efficient use of space, materials and energy. He wants to “tell business that [they] are viable in their business framework.” This has been a challenge, he says, because “people can’t accept that it’s possible to have both values and financial viability.”
Because market constraints generally make low-impact housing developments unavailable to ordinary people (not to mention lower-income people), the projects target a generally affluent class of people who can afford to spend money on environmentally-friendly options which are still priced out of reach of the ordinary Indian. Although prospective clients are expected to follow certain environmental standards before moving into a BCIL project, environmental sustainability is worked in at the design phase so that the consumer’s lifestyle is not so dramatically altered.
Trans Indus was the first such project. It is situated at the southern edge of Bangalore 25 kilometers from the city center. Currently there are 12 permanent households of 25 residents, expected to grow to 30 houses (about 60 residents) within two or three years. Some of these, however, will be summer homes.
A Few Features of the Design
Waste: Each house composts its kitchen waste by vermicomposting. A container with worms and compost is kept behind the house near the kitchen. Resident Baskar Subramanian says this is easy to manage at the household level and does not require much maintenance. The compost is used on the campus with the gardens and farms. Some residents have small organic plots growing tomatos, onions, beans, eggplants, radishes, and pumpkins. Most of the work is done by hired staff and not residents themselves. (Having household help is very much an unquestioned tradition for the Indian middle and upper classes.)
Energy: Houses are designed for passive solar energy and light. For example, a series of long, narrow windows in the ceiling of the community center lets in natural light without heat. Solar panels are used on every home to heat water. Sky vents, inner courtyards and large windows help to ventilate and keep the houses cool, none of which use air conditioners. A biogasifier feeds a 48 KW capacity cogeneration (biogas and diesel) plant which supplies all of the campus’ energy demand during peak load hours (mornings and evenings). The conventional grid takes care of energy needs in the non-peak hours (afternoons and nights) when consumption is up to 10-15 KW. Slurry (the by-product) of the biogas is used as a nutrient for the common gardens and orchards. Energy conservation is also promoted with the use of compact-fluorescent lamps (CFLs) installed in the common areas, while residents are strongly encouraged to use CFLs for at least 50% of lighting in the homes.
Materials:Some traditional elements of building design have been incorporated into contemporary design (for example, in the tradition of Tamil Nadu, the community center’s walls are thicker at the bottom for extra stability–see photo). Materials are sourced for low impact at all phases of extraction, production and transportation. Bricks made of fly-ash concrete, or compressed-earth blocks, slate, and non-forest products such as bamboo or coconut wood are some examples of low-impact materials. Wherever possible, materials are local, which in this case means within 500 kilometers of the site.
Water and Greenery: The water tank which supplies water to all the houses is placed on a hill and water is transported to the houses by gravity. On the hilly areas, some tree planting and regreening efforts are being made, with the goal of adding 600 trees per year to provide much-needed shade to the area. But the terrain is difficult for planting, so some long terracelike trenches have been dug into the hills where trees are placed. They, along with parts of household gardens, are irrigated with a technique of “drip irrigation,” which also makes use of plastic water bottles (see photos). A small hole is cut into the bottom of the bottle. The bottle is buried top down with the bottom uncovered. The exposed hole is filled with water, which percolates into the ground over a period of three days, depending on the quality of the soil. This eliminates the need for daily water use on plants while ensuring a supply for the plant or tree, saving water and labor.
Before construction began, some 50,000 plants were transplanted. These included flowering and fruiting species, ornamentals, and leguminous (for nitrogen fixing in the soil). This has also helped with groundwater recharge.
There is agreement among residents not to use borewells. There are several percolation tanks in some areas to capture and store rainwater, and BCIL and residents are looking for ways to introduce rainwater harvesting in individual homes. Bricks on the walkways have been made with holes in them to allow the ground to ‘breathe’ and for water to drain into the ground.
Community: Trans Indus has a library, games room, community center, gallery and restaurant. At the time of my visit, the community center was full of residents doing oil painting. There is an amphitheater where theater, dance, music and other cultural events are held which attract audiences from outside the community. There is a strong promotional and educational component, with various brochures describing and promoting Trans Indus. In common areas in the campus, there are signboards here and there with pictures of species of fauna and flora and simple explanations about them.
All residents are members of the Trans Indus Residents Association, which meets once a month. The president, secretary and treasurer change every year, and are chosen by consensus. There are no strict rules for residents, but they are strongly encouraged to follow some basic guidelines on sustainability and conservation in the design of the homes and lifestyle choices.
ETP (Potential or Realized)
Since Trans Indus, several other inititatives were begun by BCIL, including T-Zed Homes (see photos) and Third Space. There has been a surge of interest in the firm’s work, as shown by the fact that the first five years saw 58 clients, but now the lists for housing fill up within months of a new project.
If they expand, and if awareness and demand among consumers increases, there may be some incentive for suppliers to find more low-impact materials, manufacturers to innovate on more efficient processes, and designers, architects and builders to incorporate green design into their homes. As yet, awareness in the housing market and potential home-buyers is low, and BCIL is a pioneer in the sector swimming against the current. So while there are elements to the project like design with nature, letting nature do the work, etc. this does not demonstrate a classic ETP.
I was brought to the Subramanian family, residents of Trans Indus, and spoke mainly to Baskar Subramanian and his mother, who showed me their house, allowed me to take photos, and took me on a tour of the campus. Being the dry season, the landscape was very brown, the sun was hot, and the air was dry, but I was told that in a couple of months the monsoon would utterly transform the area into a lush, green, tropical paradise.
Judging from this one family, there seems to be a high motivation, pride and solidarity among residents about their community. The Subramanians were knowledgeable about the land, some of the flora and fauna, its various features, the watershed, reforestation work, and the community vision. They also seemed to have easily made certain lifestyle adjustments, foregoing air conditioners and becoming active with composting, organic farming, and drip irrigation. They were also very hospitable about showing me around, and say that they quite frequently host curious outsiders or friends. Lastly, they are aware that they are a work in progress and there are many more goals to be realized and ongoing experimentation.
They stressed that while there are no hard rules, residents are encouraged to follow certain guidelines. Baskar Subramanian says any lifestyle changes they made were easy and did not feel like sacrifices, but this is partly because they have the resources to do so without much compromise to their lifestyle. They enjoy an excellent quality of life, with large, beautiful houses, plentiful space, large gardens, hired help, safety (barbed wire and security gates). Since all of the residents commute to Bangalore daily, the issue about consumption of space and dependence on automobiles seems to contradict BCIL’s vision. Subramanian was explaining how India seems to be going toward increase in development outside the city rather than other cities’ answer to the housing crunch by improving services in the cities. But this creates a false dichotomy (improve the cities or create suburbs) and ignores the possibility of investing in towns and villages to keep people there so they don’t need to migrate or commute into cities. Another issue is whether such a housing model can eventually pave the way to creating affordable, sustainable housing for ordinary and low-income people.
This project is significant in that it integrates real-world conflicts between market forces and environmental conservation, a conflict that non-profit organizations, with their reliance on external funding, have yet to face. This is an attempt to prove that these conflicts are key to finding innovative solutions to conventional housing’s inefficient consumption and management of waste, water, energy, land and materials.
BCIL is a for-profit organization made up of architects, environmentalists, geologists, geophysicists and other professionals from diverse fields, working in sustainable development and housing. Besides several low-impact housing projects, it also supports an Academy for Mountain Environics, which works with villagers in Uttaranchal and Madya Pradesh states on water management, energy, earthquake-resistant housing design, income generation, revival of medicinal traditions and afforestation. Another project called Coorg Consortium is an initiative to protect forests in the Western Ghats, a mountain range in Karnataka state. It is involved with joining with business and individuals in land aquisitions, and is planning an ecotourism venture there. Currently it is working on T-Zed Homes, an innovation on Trans Indus.
Trans Indus won an award from TERI as the best case study for corporate environmental initiatives in 2001.