“For green buildings to go mainstream, local players must advocate energy-efficient products”
Aqrab Ali Rana is the CEO of the Pakistan Green Building Council (Pak-GBC). He is an architect by profession, with over a decade’s experience in residential, commercial, corporate, high-rise, warehousing and neighborhood development projects in UAE and Pakistan. Aqrab is also Pakistan’s first LEED-accredited consultant (LEED is the US Green Building Council’s globally renowned certification for energy efficient buildings). Aqrab is also among the founding members of Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change Pakistan. His areas of expertise include green building design, sustainable community planning, sustainable design consultancy, and project management.
BR Research recently interviewed the CEO Pak-GBC to understand the scope of sustainability in building materials, products, practices, and techniques. This discussion hopes to provide meaningful insights in the current context where the government’s push for low-cost housing is happening without a clear focus on how to minimize the environmental costs of construction and how to maximize building efficiency over its lifetime. Selected excerpts are produced below:
BR Research (BRR): While there is a lot of literature and practice available in the West on the subject of ‘green building’ or ‘sustainable construction,’ how do you frame this concept in the local context?
Aqrab Ali Rana (AAR): Globally, the definition of green and sustainable construction is very stringent, in the sense that they are talking about carbon-neutral buildings. This includes the whole value chain, starting from questions like what will be the raw materials or where will they be sourced from, to issues like how the building waste and obsolete assets will be salvaged. In Pakistan, the concept of green buildings is at second tier, which is to achieve net-zero energy buildings. In that context, the installations of net-metering by government is taking place in major cities, where anyone can install rooftop solar panels and sell additional electricity back to the grid. However, in reality net-metering hasn’t become mainstream because of issues, including, the difficulty for an ordinary guy to get NOC for net-metering from Nepra.
But the main Pakistani context on green construction is that the market is extremely cost-conscious. The dominant mindset is that people will splurge money on having, let’s say, fancy Spanish tiles in toilets but they are not interested in investing money on something that can increase the building’s energy efficiency, water efficiency and indoor environment and quality. It is very common that folks go for cheap windowpanes and expensive tiles, despite this knowledge that they can reduce air-conditioning bill by a half and reduce air leakage and dust particles if they install airtight windows. Bulk of the air-conditioning losses happen through windows, and everyone knows it.
Another challenge is that homeowners and builders do not insulate walls and roofs, despite the fact that there are now a lot of businesses selling and marketing insulation products. There is a lot of miscommunication in the market as well. For instance, thermopore packing material is being passed off as insulation material and sold to clients, when it is evident that heat reduction is minimal with that material. In fact, spreading four to six inches of mud on the roof, a practice that goes back many decades, will provide more heat reduction than using thermopore material.
Be that as it may, the awareness about green buildings is gradually increasing, though admittedly it is still a niche area. For instance, people are now requiring home builders to leave space on the roof alongside the water tank to install rooftop solar.
BRR: In the West, regulations are increasingly expanding focus to reduce environmental harm that construction materials or activities cause. What is the situation in Pakistan on environmental hazards of construction? Must there be an emergency to move towards sustainable construction?
AAR: Urgency has a different meaning on an individual level and a different meaning on a government level. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter to an end user if houses have been flooded in another city or locality, although they show remorse. My guess is that no more than 15 to 20 percent of population, mostly living in urban areas with foreign travel or work experience, understand the urgency. For the rest of the population, especially living in rural areas and towns, they don’t build their establishments by following trends in NYC or Paris; they follow the construction trends in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. And the urban trends here are hardly sustainable.
That leaves it to the government to propagate and mainstream the urgency on climate change, through its own infrastructure investments and green building regulations. In addition, the government has to incentivize as well so that people can find it easier to build sustainable houses using appropriate raw materials and insulation practices. For instance, if a society like DHA requires energy infrastructure – electricity wires, transformers and grids – to cater 15-20MW electricity demand, they can include in their by-laws that houses will be provided a power line and a meter based on their size, with a maximum usage limit. As a result, people will reverse-engineer their energy requirements and construct energy-efficient houses. Provincial authorities have a lot of power to enforce regulations – but on-ground implementation of such regulations remains a huge challange. BRR: What does the research suggest on impact of construction on environment in Pakistan?
AAR: Policymaking has statistics as its backbone. Our own research, based on reverse-engineering of cement and steel sales, tells us that the environmental toll is high. As far as I know, the Ministry of Climate Change has no such database that can tell them the carbon footprint of new and old buildings in Pakistan. PBS (Pakistan Bureau of Statistics) says that 32 million buildings exist – kacha and pakka makaan – as of 2017 census. But this figure’s authenticity is questionable given that similar number of households exist in Pakistan. In addition, this data can’t help us quantify the scale of construction because we don’t know which materials were used, how many houses are on average one-bed, two-bed, etc., or what is the average square footage of houses.
Another important thing is digitalization, which civic bodies like CDA, LDA and SBCA don’t have. Even if we go digital, it will only be for new buildings, and the old-building stock data won’t be available. This complicates the calculation for carbon footprint of buildings in Pakistan. But this all needs to be worked on. I see the glass as half full. We need an initiation. Pak-GBC has been playing its part. We have developed a digital platform, through which we can be a third-party auditor that assesses whether a building is green in terms of materials, energy products and water fittings. But we cannot replace a regulator. The market is not ready for such third-party audits yet.
BRR: Are there any rules in existing building codes that incorporate sustainability?
AAR: There are some regulations in place that touch upon some aspects of sustainability. For instance, there is Pakistan Energy Act (2016) and Climate Change Act (2017); the SBP has Green Banking Guidelines and Green Product Financing available; LDA’s new by-laws now mention provisions like insulated walls and roofs, rooftop solar, etc. But there is no coherent framework. However, it is no big deal to issue a policy book, but it is a big deal to create an infrastructure to implement that policy. You need a dedicated body that can specify rules and provide a certification before buildings are constructed.
Besides, some regulations that do have potential, have it actually backwards. As an example, Energy Conservation Building Code was prepared by ENERCON in 2011 and published in 2013. However, since then, not a single building in Pakistan followed those codes, even though it was a mandatory requirement. This is because the code was to be complied by buildings with an electric load of 100KW or more. This benchmark practically buried prospect for energy-efficient buildings in Pakistan. A normal house on 1 kanal (500 square yard) has a maximum load of approximately 20KW. What to talk of houses, even apartment buildings and small industries would be exempt under this rule. In effect, 95 percent of buildings in Pakistan would be exempt from those regulations, as the 100KW baseline is too high.
It is important to tackle the housing sector’s energy usage, for 50 percent of electricity produced in Pakistan goes into the housing sector. But homes are so energy inefficient by design and construction. Besides, this energy consumption at homes does not contribute productively to economic growth as much as energy consumption in industries does. NEECA, the federal-level successor to ENERCON, has its provincial agencies organized in a decentralized manner, but it is extremely complex to coordinate among different agencies that are under provincial energy departments. We need a well-thought-out command and control system.
BRR: Let’s pivot to the market. What is the local awareness level of green building standards, such as LEED certification and energy and water efficiency ratings and labels?
AAR: I myself am a LEED-accredited professional, the first from Pakistan. LEED is a US-based standard, and it is one of the most credible and authentic green building rating systems in the world. Governments and businesses are happy with the mechanisms that are in place to rate buildings as green or sustainable. But like any other developing market, Pakistan’s is a cost-driven market. This has practical consequences.
For instance, in North America, Europe and the Middle East, the minimum standard of a building is A-class. This means that people there have to use insulation and energy-rated products regardless of whether they live in a hot weather zone or cold weather zone. Compared to that, construction in Pakistan is of C+ or B- grade at the maximum, which means there is no insulation, performance glass, etc. Now moving from C class to an A class building will automatically increase construction costs by about 20 percent. And when we talk about LEED certification, that is even above A class – it’s A+ building standard. Now the problem is that a market that is attuned to C class, which has no qualms about brick quality, type of cement, plastering job, or any standard whatsoever, is difficult to be sold on A class.
What the market needs is a conceptual clarity, and not necessarily university education or international exposure on this subject. In this very region, houses used to be built in ways that we now call sustainable. For instance, you can go to GOR in Lahore and French Colony in Karachi and see that houses still exist with thick walls, high roofs, roshandan, verandas on south side of the sun, window shades for diffused sunlight, etc.
Besides, there is a need to have an integrative process where if an architect has used sustainability into the building design, then the engineer should know how to account for those things in his or her design. For instance, the air-conditioning requirement, on average, for a 500-square yard house with a basement, is approximately 22-25 tons. But in green building, we design the house such that the requirement doesn’t ever go beyond 12-15 tons. We then tell the client that the million and a half that we saved on 10 tons of air-conditioning has been invested in insulation and better glass. This makes sense and doesn't require complex calculations. The end-user needs this much information to make decisions.
BRR: What are some of the preferred materials for sustainable construction?
AAR: We at GBC do not approach the subject of “specific” materials, in that we don’t say this material is objectively preferable and that one is not. Instead of saying that brick-based construction is green, or block-based construction is green, or stone-based construction is green, we use a principle-based approach. This is because when you issue guidelines on the basis of a principle, it has a better chance of being applied across the board. But if you advocate a specific material, you are restricting the scope of your guidelines to a certain area, and this will create needless controversies.
For example, Lahore has more usage of bricks than blocks in construction because the raw material, mud, is amply available. And for centuries, the craftsmen there have been using mud for making bricks, so the product is cheaper and of better quality. But if you specify only brick as “green”, it won’t work in Karachi because mud isn’t available that much there. But sand is aplenty, so blocks can be made cheaper there. So, we don’t get into a debate on what is green and what is not. We approach it in terms of the sun’s exposure – path, heat transmission, etc. – in north, south, east, and west of the country.
BRR: So, what is an example of the principle-based approach?
AAR: For example, in the South of a building, we need a certain “resistance value” in a wall against heat. The more the “R value”, the longer it takes for external heat to get into a building through its walls and roofs. So, while we may define R=15, we do not require at all a method or material to achieve it. You can leave a cavity in the wall to achieve it; you can create an 18-inch brick wall to get there; or you can use 8-inch hollow blocks; that is not our concern. Our concern is that building should reduce its energy dependency on external factors for up to 50 percent for the life of the building.
We want to take this agenda mainstream but limiting it to certain materials creates needless arguments and debates. We can define the principles; now it is your wisdom, creativity, and decision how to achieve the end result. We pitch the principle and the conceptual clarity. This is important for the growth of the suppliers making sustainable materials. Already suppliers that are doing good work on sustainable materials have a lot of challenges.
BRR: Still, can you share any insights, generally, on some of the construction materials or practices to improve a building’s efficiency over its lifetime in the Pakistani context?
AAR: There are a few components to improve building envelope. You can use an 8-inch solid block or a hollow block in Karachi. Hollow block has lower mass, so it also stores less heat. Higher the storage capacity, the higher heat is released at night-time – this is because external temperature is low, but block temperature is high. But a hollow block has a 60 to 65 percent lower thermal mass; same reduction in capacity to store and emit energy is achieved.
Adobe brick is also very green and sustainable, as this brick is a breathable material that can create some cooling. Brick is good if you do not plaster it. Otherwise you can use a block. Brick is not green if you plaster it. Simple bricks help in monsoon, it does not humidify indoors; in extreme hot weather, it will cool hot air striking the surface; in winters, it has negative impact, but you can layer yourself. Bricks are great for summers, as Pakistan has 8 to 9 months of warm weather.
You can also give cavity in the walls to make walls heat-resistant, no matter if the wall is made of brick or block. If external wall is 9 inches, which is normal, give an air gap of 2 to 3 inches; and then on the inside, give a 4.5-inch partition wall. Due to this assembly, there will not be thermal bridging as the external wall is not connected with internal wall. All the heat stored in the external wall won’t impact indoor environment. So, if you are using a 1.5-ton AC, now with cavity you will be fine with the half of the AC capacity. So, same material, when used in a right way, can solve the problem.
Then some products are already deemed sustainable. For instance, it is good that most of the steel re-bars are made from recycled steel. The producers are using all kinds of discarded stuff, including Cola cans. They remove impurities by furnace and then sell the product. This is green practice and it is also internationally acclaimed.
Other than that, generally, the paint should be without VOC (volatile organic compound) content and formaldehyde, as it causes irritation in eyes, throat and nose. Formaldehyde, which is banned in many developed markets for making paint, is still being used here because it can quickly dry the painted wall. Paint should be made without using added-lead and water-based paints should be promoted.
Also, people don’t realize how much energy fans can consume, so fans should have energy-star rating. NEECA already has a Star-Rated Fan program where the energy efficient fans can be authenticated through SMS. A conventional fan takes 130-140 watts at home, but energy-efficient fans, which are about 1,000 rupees expensive, consume half the energy.
BRR: Moving to products, what is the scope for efficiency in water and sanitary fixtures in Pakistan?
AAR: The water and sanitary fixtures being produced in Pakistan – such as faucets, taps, shower heads, flush tanks, etc. – look really good from a physical appearance perspective and compete well with international products in that regard. But they don’t follow the engineering that makes fixtures water efficient. For instance, the locally-made faucet will dispense 7-9 liters of waters per minute – this amount of water is way more than what is needed to wash hands, brush teeth, or take a shower. Besides, up to 80 percent of water just slides off the hands and doesn't effectively remove the soap. In contrast, the water-efficient faucets, and taps, which are mostly imported products, don’t just look better but also perform better by releasing just 1.5 to 2 liters of water per minute. Some products also use pressure pump to dispense even lower water flow.
Similarly, locally made flush tanks release 10 to 12 liters per flush cycle; whereas imported, water-efficient products release 2.5 liters for half flush and 4 liters for full flush. One flush cycle works because water flows in a way that serves the purpose. Areas experiencing water shortages in Pakistan have shown that is possible to maintain personal hygiene by using much less water. So, just selecting the right fixture can provide a lot of saving. And it is not difficult to engineer such products. There is no need for special plumbing designs and pipes to achieve water efficiency.
There are local industries that can produce mass level of water-efficient fixtures, but they are not moving in that direction. Also complicating the situation is that the need for water savings is more in some cities than others. The local governments’ water and sanitation departments need to work on guidelines to mandate water-efficiency by looking at international best practices like the International Plumbing Code.
BRR: Compared with water-efficient products and fixtures that you just described, it would appear that energy-efficient products – in air-conditioning, refrigeration, lighting, etc. – are relatively more in use locally. Is that so?
AAR: Yes, but it is still not mainstream. The biggest focus has to be on saving on the air-conditioning bill, followed by ceiling fan which consumes the most energy after AC; then come appliances like refrigerator, ironing machine, TV, etc.; and lighting follows next. While there is a lot of focus on installing LED lights and energy savers, which is fine, the reality is that lights in themselves do not have a high energy load. The practice of using energy savers is great, but it doesn't provide you any substantial energy saving the way other products I mentioned earlier can. So, it cannot make an impact if it is the only green alternative you choose.
Unfortunately, until energy-efficient ACs, ceiling fans and appliances are being produced locally and at low cost, the use of energy-efficient electronics will remain a niche, thereby not making a real impact on nationwide energy savings. Then, there is misinformation in the market about new, more efficient products – and sometimes this is coming from vendors who feel the need to protect their legacy electronics business. For green buildings to go mainstream, local players must advocate energy-efficient products. Sustainability will remain a dream if usage of truly efficient products remains concentrated in a very tiny segment of the consumer market.
BRR: At Pak-GBC, what is your strategy to mainstream Green Building movement in Pakistan?
AAR: We have four main streams of advocacy. We have i) government engagement, ii) training and education, iii) public and private sector, and iv) community engagement. We want to develop linkages and provide information on global best practices through training and development. But we don't only propagate, we provide the tools as well.
Our strategy has four steps. First, we certify pilot projects through our green building rating system. We have already started certifying houses, schools, and mosques in terms of our green building guidelines. Second, we are working with the private and small housing societies so that they can examine our pilot projects and implement the practices in their own societies. We have already worked with one of the largest housing developers of Pakistan in Karachi by reviewing and updating their by-laws to incorporate green building practices. And now we are working with developers in Lahore. In the next phase, we will develop capacity of their inspectors to evaluate implementation at building sites.
Our third step is working with municipal and provincial governments. This is where we would like to have Islamabad or Lahore or Karachi to have the first-ever green building code implemented, to make their cities green and sustainable for our next generations. We are not there yet, but if we can convince the DHAs and Bahria Towns of this country, then it will be easier to persuade the managers at city level. This may take up to five years from now.
After that comes our fourth tier, which is to have a national-level policy framework for green building. This may take a decade, even more. Unfortunately, a top-down policymaking approach is at work here, where without regard to ground realities or challenges in implementations, laws and regulations have been made at federal level. We think the way to go about it is to start from the bottom. This is how the market will determine the course of action.