Sustainability and Environment Consultant, Khayati Mitra On Sustainable Structures, And The On-Going Effort To Change Perceptions For A Climate-Forward Culture
It is an iconic project which has a vision, and an impact on the region.”
Sustainable construction can help build an organization's reputation by demonstrating its sense of corporate social responsibility and an increasingly valuable Real Estate Portfolio. This is how businesses must conduct themselves to have a positive impact on society and be profitable. Ethical considerations and green alternatives to materials are both ways in which the construction industry can demonstrate its commitment to a green planet thereby targeting the 1.5 Deg. Paris Agreement Goal.
Khayati Mitra is a sustainable construction expert and an architect with eight years of working experience at multinational firms. She also holds a post-professional master's in architecture in sustainable environmental design from Architectural Association, London. Her forte lies in delivering interesting projects employing a variety of designing and climatic-simulation skills supported by a solid work ethic to help her to cater to sustainable, creative, research-backed design and technical solutions. She respects climate because of culture, context, and cost in the process.
In this exclusive with Thirty to Net Zero, Khayati Mitra debunks some myths around sustainable construction and delineates the process in detail for any reader to grasp the finer nuances of this industry in the simplest way possible. Khayati talks to us about traditional and modern construction and the grey areas that can help both sides of the spectrum unite.
Read on to know more about this passionate architect’s ideas for construction in the middle east.
Q: Is it easier to use renewable and recyclable materials when building new structures, especially in the Middle East? What are the key challenges for those who have probably made a significant investment already in a part of their resources?
A: There is a realization that transition to recyclable materials and renewable sources of energy requires navigating several major challenges such a geographical constraints, technological limitations and financial questions. A hybrid approach that leverages the benefits of each of these is a good solution but not straightforward. It is not easy to use sustainable, reusable, and recyclable materials because it is not that easily available in abundance or “homegrown”, so this becomes a little bit of a challenge in construction in the Middle East. But it is still possible from efforts of devising interdisciplinary discussions & strategies as well as use of innovative technologies depending upon the scale of the structure.
For example, if you want to use solar energy for a high-rise building, the density of the building is quite high to meet that demand from a small number of solar panels used on the roof but investment in solar farms to source the buildings future energy needs is a possibility for the energy mix. With respect to materials and for those who have made significant investments in other sources, a major challenge is a cost and use of virgin resources to shift to a more sustainable option.
Technical understanding and advancement towards this shift need a push for more localized solution's to region & project specific problems because these developments are somewhat new for many stakeholders who come from all over the world. There needs to be a project specific database developed for a lot of these materials used and their circularity. So those who have already invested in what they have now, the best thing to do would be to make sure that these resources invested in do not become part of a linear economy.
Q: When it comes to sustainable construction, are some parts of the industry still withholding due to certain factors and if so, what are those factors?
A: Acceptance is one big challenge. It's probably not considered feasible for every type of construction on every scale to go completely sustainable although it is possible. Larger organizations are more change driven because they have set major climate targets and they’ve signed climate plans that lean towards sustainable resources and technologies, whereas some have slight hesitancy towards following this path because it seems like a costly affair. Also, there is a lack of widespread knowledge of the technicalities. Behavioral change also happens over time, so you cannot change people instantly.
Q: Since sustainable building materials are about choosing materials that are manufactured from resource-efficient processes, what is this process, and is it as smooth as it sounds?
A: A resource-efficient process is one in which the material from where the resource is manufactured, extracted, and brought on to the site in an efficient &sustainable manner so it minimizes impact on the environment. So, there are a lot of challenges in this process as some of our resources are being produced and extracted with the help of old infrastructure. A lot of these processes are not optimized with regard to Scope 3 emissions as most companies avoid its complexity. So, it becomes quite difficult to say how efficiently the product or material sourced is.
Q: When it comes to transiting to sustainable construction, how important are LEED certifications? What is the kind of role that they play? And do you see the requirement for any kind of additional changes other than the behavioral changes?
A: Firstly, the difficulty in transition to sustainable construction is dependent on the action in the market towards this transition. Everybody is idea-ting and is quite enthusiastic about it. There are a lot of meet-ups and the Building Council has taken the initiative to invite people from different organizations and share knowledge to close the knowledge gap. So, I think efforts are being made, to minimize this gap for helping everyone work faster towards our common goal of resilient green cities.
The main challenge at present is the lack of skill. It's hard to find people who are trained in this particular segment of construction and so the assistance required in streamlining these processes is sparse. It also takes more time to design a sustainable building than a regular building because of the interdisciplinary process and simulations that go into the building from the onset at the design stage. The decisions taken in the design stage affect the construction and operation. It requires a lot of experts in terms of the different processes, and expertise required to educate the teams on how they can go about things.
Therefore, the LEED certifications do provide checklists for buildings and have weightage in sustainable infrastructure as a provider of a scorecard for the sustainability of a particular project. They offer to recognize innovations and continuously push benchmarks amongst the increasingly efficient building fabric of the city. They help document the latest technologies and make them available for wider use in the construction industry.
However, it is important to remember that LEED, BREEM, WELL, etc., are all certification tools and not design tools. It is crucial to recognize that sustainability principles and tools in design, as well as construction, are related to the climate, the comfort of the occupant, and research-backed technical solutions. There are also ASHRAE, EN, and ISO Standards to be incorporated for the quality of engineering & construction. So, these should be the backbone of environmental-centric construction. It must be noted that it might interest all stakeholders nor fit the budget of every infrastructure project to apply for certification.
So, I think it's good to have LEED for exceeding the baseline, the documentation of innovative technologies, and for the marketability of the project and adding higher value to the project by the certification. But all the design principles must be applied in all buildings, whether they are certified or not.
Q: Do you believe that the construction styles in the kind of projects and initiatives that Saudi Arabia is coming up with can be a reality for the rest of the Arab region?
A: NEOM as a project pushes the boundaries of city development, architecture, and sustainability. It is an iconic project with a vision and is likely to have an impact on the region. I think the project gives an opportunity to the architects, researchers, engineers, and contractors to bring about innovations at work and new research data specific to the region. The project might not be applicable or be replicated on that same scale, but some parts of it can be adapted to many upcoming projects in the region.
Many experts from across the world put their brains into new solutions that work specifically for the region and climate zone. I’m aware of some of my colleagues that are working in London, Dubai, and Boston that is currently working on these projects and run rigorous climatic 7 design simulations to devise the best available solutions at present. I'm sure these can be useful for the MENA. For example, Masdar is also a very sustainable city, and Expo 2020 City has already added to the Sustainable construction portfolio of the region.
When we study Middle Eastern architecture, some of the contemporary strategies for a climate-centric design are working solutions from Masdar. and these are also applied to many buildings in Expo city. So, bits and pieces can be used according to context even though they cannot be replicated in totality.
Q: Is it practically possible for traditional structures to be made sustainable? Tell us more about traditional sustainability.
A: Vernacular architecture started before all the technology came in 100 years ago. This forms the basis of the architecture studies for the region. The courtyard houses with shaded small windows give us cues to design buildings for the future. Back then, when people designed their houses, they were very conscious of the weather and locally available materials. The occupants desired cooler places and solar control to reduce heat gain. So, they would construct wind catchers and have smaller windows to prevent excess light from entering the space. The knowledge bank for the architecture for every region is the vernacular architecture of that region, This is especially true for the Middle East.
In Dubai, you will see the structures on Fahidi Street are fine examples of the rich architectural heritage. Today these are used with minimal air-conditioning after retrofits. This proves that these structures can still be renovated to fit the energy performance for the environment and suitable comfort levels. It is not as advisable to bring them down and build again, using the latest method, which is not sustainable for the planet, depletes virgin resources, and is a loss to the heritage of the city.
One can instead go for a post-occupancy evaluation that measures the performance with temperatures in the building while examining the construction type and thus suggests corrective measures so that the building envelope performs better than before. We have different tools available for this. For example, a thermal imaging camera, helps us see where the building leaks in terms of its cooling and affects air conditioning loads. A lot of such tools & processes make it possible to ensure a good retrofit.
Q: It's a given fact that sustainable building projects are counted as sustainable depending upon how much water they're using, during, and after construction. Now, as a region that is known for its scarcity, especially in terms of water, how do you believe the Arab region can work better on this part?
A: Ideally, the next goal is Net Zero water for preventing wastage of water both during the construction & occupancy of the building. This is currently being neglected as water is considered ‘inexpensive or cheap compared to the other materials used on-site. However, it's an even more important resource due to the scarcity in the region. The water being used on site is potable quality water which is considered fit for all the processes of construction like concrete mixing, cement mixing, washing, curing, etc.
The process of desalinating water is very carbon intensive and does not happen in many other parts of the world with available freshwater resources. So, the per capita CO2 from water processes in the region is one of the highest in the world. The focus is on conserving water use during every stage of construction by checking for leaks and eliminating the wastage on site. Decision makers must be mindful to improve the efficiency of water using processes during design decisions such as xeriscaping for landscape areas and be strategic to consumption of water from alternative sources such as recycled water in operation.
It is also crucial to be auditing the use of water and then change the behavior on site, which is using water stored in buckets for washing the construction equipment rather than with water hoses. In the design and operation process, using efficient water fixtures like kitchen sinks, showers WCs that use lesser water and supplement with recycled grey water from the site can help to a great extent. Currently, most buildings do not recycle or treat their grey water and their black water. I believe that the operations and post-occupancy management of the project are both important.
Q: What are some of the key parameters taken into account when during the lifecycle assessment of an asset?
A: The efforts toward more stringent regulations for actionable metrics and a market increasingly focused on climate action has led to a renewed focus on sustainability in the construction industry. Building Life Cycle Assessment is the most reliable way to assess how sustainable a building is, and what should be changed in order to achieve lower environmental impacts. Various Life cycle assessment tools are used for these complex calculations some of them are SimaPro, One Click LCA, GaBi, Umberto LCA, and openLCA.The parameters are a set of calculation rules which apply to all design stages in a single project from stages A to D. (See figure: Source EN15978)
The parameters that we consider in LCA and LCC usually depend on the project details. The first is the service life of the building which can be technical where the buildings are used without changes till the end of life or commercial where the building interiors, etc., are renovated periodically such as in hotels. The second parameter is the scale of the building as building dimensions and the square meters the building occupies as per IMPS / RICS. Thirdly, transportation of materials, services, labor, and costs are important too because transportation is a very big part of carbon emissions management.
All quantitative values from these parameters are used for establishing a baseline and then we optimize the values by trying some alternative materials, processes, construction methodology, etc. for the best possible lifecycle performance. Later, we compare these models with the as built to determine the success of our lifecycle assessment.
Q: You are the first architect in your family. Who or what has been your inspiration? And how did you get introduced to sustainable architecture?
A: My father runs signage & graphic design firm, and my grandfather started it working as an artist. So, I wanted to do something that is related to the creative field. Initially, I was drawn toward interior design. But eventually, I decided to go into architecture and for that, one must be able to draw. I studied under another artist to improve my drawing hand when I was 13. It was at the School of Architecture that I was fully convinced that I wanted to build people's houses, and help them build their memories around these structures that they live in.
I was first introduced to sustainable architecture during my undergraduate course in Bangalore, a very climate-conscious city. Later, while working for a British firm based here in Dubai, I tried to bridge the gap between Indian and British architecture even in terms of the design principles that are governed by the different climate zones. This inspired me further to learn about environmental architecture at the AA in London with my research focused on building in the hot arid climate of the Middle East. Eventually, I tried to bring all my learning and exposure together in practice which helped me bring a lot of value to the table for the regional built environment.