You're Grounded!

There was a recent mail on our apartment mailing list which informed us that about 1/2 of the 2000 borewells in our area have run dry, because of which the water tanker supply was likely to get erratic. We were requested to brace ourselves for water shortages, at least intermittent ones.

At least a couple of weeks a year, BESCOM, anyhow struggling to keep pace with the ever increasing need of a burgeoning city, fails to supply power for hours together. Our apartment's diesel gensets have been known to run overnight. These run at a maximum of 35-40% efficiency, and the entire dependence on huge amounts of fossil fuel directly to keep the lifts etc working is definitely not a very ecologically conscious act.

Vertical living just needs more natural resources and energy. The lack of these is starting to cause minor inconveniences and may give us a taste of major failures in not too distant a future. It'll take very little time for these tall edifices to our conceit and imagined prowess and mastery of the elements to be uninhabitable. Sure, sounds like a doomsday movie, but I'd almost bet that 24 hours of no water supply will be a real, quick trailer in not too distant a future.

Are apartments, as they're designed and built today, sustainable in the long run ? An 'independent' home on the ground level can live off human effort and power, harness enough solar energy, harvest enough rainwater, and redo stuff like plumbing etc more easily as newer, smarter, more efficient solutions are found to reduce our individual footprints. The pressure an individual home exerts on the earth is lower, and can be reduced quite dramatically. Can apartments do it ? Will real estate values start getting tied in to these fundmentals ?

Should I really start thinking about that house ?


Thejas Nair said...

I believe the opposite is true.

Apartments are the reason why New York City has much smaller carbon footprint than US average (around 1/3rd to 1/4th according to different sources)
It leads to higher urban density and makes public transportation very effective. Compare it with SF bay area, which does not have so much density and public transportation is not as usable.

Lifts are also form of public transportation! You end up traveling short distances vertically or longer distances horizontally. Somebody should create a prius of lifts!

Bangalore has high urban density because most of the houses are also like 2-3 floor apartments.

People in cities don't spend much of the day at home, so I don't think the savings in electricity because of natural light is much.

sameer said...

@Thejas Its true in the US - suburban homes consume way more than an apartment due their sheer size (and heating needs are big there). Not so in India. Houses usually are more efficient here - and more importantly - can be made way more efficient with a lower cost and effort. Its the simple number of ppl => resources needs per sqft, really.

Of course, it also does not help that ppl in apartments are trying to live the swankier life more than the average house dweller here. Again, the really tough part is to redo the wiring/plumbing etc in an apartment like ours. For instance, moving from dual plumbing to triple plumbing in an apartment complex such as ours, to make recycling of greywater possible as processes emerge to enable it, is practically impossible!

vibhu said...

Hi Sameer,

Usually we think alike. But here I will disagree with you.

Living Vertical or Horizontal will not change anything. As the population increases, the impact on the freely available resources will be felt. Take Delhi as an example - its mostly a horizontal growth. The locality that my in-laws live in - Rajouri Garden - has had the ground water receding every year. Most people's borewells ran dry a few years back.

So, whether one is in Delhi or in the nearby Gurgaon (with its multistories) the story is the same. Delhi is a bit better not because of the horizontal growth but because of the political will to get more water and electricity.

The only difference is that in an own house, the person getting it built can work on getting it built with ecological principals. However, people in India dont believe in ecological living - they leave the rest to god after making their 4 walls - seen both in individual houses as well as builder apartments.

What will have most impact is if builders start making ecological apartments - the reach will be far more.

But even before that can happen, the politicians should wake up before its too late and start taking concrete steps to pass ordinances which would help in these activities.

sameer said...

@vibhu Sure, I agree that its about living responsibly, design partly enforced through legislation that'll be enduring, but the concern in this post was wrt existing apartments - most of which are largely reasonably new in a city like Bangalore - and their high energy needs. As the crises hit and people are forced to change behaviour, and plumbing/wiring etc, it'll be way easier to do it in an independent home. Apartments are plain less flexible.

As an example, the best case rainwater harvesting yield for an apartment like ours will meet our (current level of) need for about a month or a little more. With more frugal usage, let's expand that to a couple of months, at best. A house-of-four on an independent plot can actually generate enough and manage water well enough to be more or less off the grid completely!

It boils down to a straightforward demand per sqft, finally.

Jagannath Moorthy said...

Both apartments and independent houses have their positive sides. If properly planned, the cost of providing the utilities (electricity, water, transport) is greatly reduced for apartments. The problem is that our utilities do not provide the services required, which causes people to look around for workarounds, which in most cases are much less efficient.

I'd once read a fascinating series by Atanu Dey that lays out a blueprint for future cities. High rise (the planned variety) figure prominently in that blueprint. Check it out at

sameer said...

Thanks for that link. Yep, planned highrises can hugely save on fuel etc, especially in sprawl situations. But as they exist now, apartments seem to have a huge dependence on external, and rapidly diminishing, resources. Thats the point of intersection with worry and pessimism :)

vibhu said...

Ok . So what you are saying is that it would be easier to make Existing houses more eco friendly than Existing Apartments ?

sameer said...

Yeah. Also, that I'm wondering if I should kinda get worried about living in an *existing* apartment :)

vibhu said...

Yeah. I guess you should.

Or you can start making changes to your apartment right now. Simple things like heat insulating windows, solar power etc. Let me know if you do anything - I might want to do the same to my Delhi apartment. :)

gr said...

Ground water exploitation and concrete/ paved surfaces should not extend at the same rate.

They unfortunately do.

funnily having lawns could be just as bad. see cristina milesi's work (more lawns than irrigated corn) will post a link on POT

Bijesh said...

Absolutely true. High-rises are completely non-upgradable to use better eco processes. It's not impossible but the cost escalation will be huge and will not be accepted by the majority.

Add to that the fact that all resources are shared by 100-400 "individual" minds. That means that even if about 30% of the populace wants to follow eco practices like genset only for x period and only at specified times of the day, they cannot be implemented. Simply because the 70% will veto the idea.

sameer said...

@gr Totally - lawns suck - water. Completely useless.

@bijesh Spot on - thats a v important consideration too. Its v v difficult to get a collective buy in - most ppl are happier shrugging their shoulders and cribbing about what the government isn't doing for them - thats usually considered having done enough as a concerned citizen!

vibhu said...

@gr please post link here also.