Green shop and office buildings
In May, President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared open Stage II of
Sethsiripaya, the government administrative complex at Battaramulla. The
13-storey office block, complete with a state-of-the-art auditorium, has
an area of 36,000 square metres and cost Rs 3.5 billion to build.
The new building is to house up to eight ministries, freeing the
commercial office space they now occupy in Colombo.
This is part of the government’s urban development policy of
relocation administrative offices to the environs of the political and
administrative capital at Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, leaving Colombo as
the prime commercial centre.
This, the first project of the government’s Urban Investment and
Development Company, was a pathfinder in other ways: it utilised modern
construction techniques, in accordance with ISO 9000 standards; it was
designed to be people-friendly, with wheelchair access and facilities
for differently-abled people (such as special toilets); and it was the
first large building in Sri Lanka designed from the outset to be green.
Sethsiripaya Stage II is designed to be environmentally sound, is
optimised to allow natural ventilation and maximises the use of
harvested rainwater. Much of its electricity will be generated using
solar panels. In order to minimise the impact of waste disposal, a
system has been incorporated to manage refuse.
Sustainable building techniques
Ancient Sri Lankans used sustainable building techniques and
architecture which made optimum use of the environment - buildings were
cool and naturally ventilated and lit. The European colonialists also
used similar techniques, with broad verandahs and high roofs.
Stage II of Sethsiripaya, the
government administrative complex at Battaramulla
Unfortunately, in the modern era, most of these technologies were
abandoned in favour of less environmental-friendly ‘modern’ practices.
The availability of cheap labour, abundant petroleum and
hydro-electricity meant that sustainability was not an issue.
From Colombo Fort to the Peradeniya campus, prodigality in the use of
materials, energy and manpower was the defining characteristic of the
massive buildings of the time. However, with the energy crisis and
rising building material costs, combined with a shortage of skilled
artisans (due to the efflux of expert labour to the Middle East and
elsewhere), economies became desirable. Consequently, sustainability
became relevant again.
The Mahaweli centre was one of the first modern buildings in Sri
Lanka to revert to the country’s green architectural heritage.
It was designed from the outset for maximum ventilation and natural
lighting to cut down on energy usage. It was a trend-setter, which
provided much inspiration for Sethsiripaya Stage II.
However, many of the newer commercial shop and office buildings which
grace the road frontages of Colombo lack any sort of sustainability.
Mostly designed by draughtsmen rather than architects, they have no
natural ventilation, but their huge glass facades mean they get
extremely hot in the daytime and require additional air-conditioning.
Because of high interest rates, initial expenditure is of greater import
than long-term cost, particularly given that electricity rates for
commercial users are about half those for high-use private consumers.
Hence, there is relatively little compulsion for private developers
to ‘go green’, as this merely adds to building costs.
In order to ensure that future buildings are sustainable, the
government needs to bring in legislation and regulations to enforce
‘greenness’ on developers. Rules have already been promulgated in regard
to rainwater harvesting; similar conventions are necessary in connection
with energy consumption and sustainability in general.
However, such measures would only concern new constructions and not
affect the existing, considerable stock of commercial shop and office
It will be essential to create a new policy in regard to older
An unlikely source of inspiration is New York’s Empire State
Building. This was built in the profligate early years of the 20th
century using the technology of the time. Until recently it guzzled
energy, needing to cool its 270,000 square metres in the summer and heat
them in the winter.
Last year, the core measures were completed of a green retrofit
programme, expected to save 38 percent of the skyscraper’s energy
consumption, equivalent to US $ 4.4 million annually.
Insulated reflective barriers were installed behind radiator units on
the outside of the building, saving half the heating - which previously
escaped through the walls.
The existing double-hung windows were rebuilt, filling them with
inert-gas and incorporating suspended coated films - which tripled the
insulating value (reducing both heating and cooling requirements) and
enhanced daylight while cutting down on ultra-violet rays.
Smart demand control ventilation was introduced, with variable air
volume air-handling units replacing the existing constant volume units.
The resulting lower cooling requirement meant that the old chiller
plant could be renovated, instead of a newer, larger plant being
installed, thus saving on cost.
Similar retrofit measures are being implemented on the Sears Tower
(now called the Willis Tower) in Chicago. Window replacement and smart
lighting and heating are being supplemented by improved water usage
systems (including condensation recovery) as well as by rainwater
harvesting, solar heating and wind-powered electricity generation.
Probably more relevant to Sri Lanka, however, is the retrofit carried
out on the world’s second tallest building, Taipei 101 (where heating is
not so much of an issue). Here improved automation of the building added
to energy-saving methods reduced electricity usage by 10 percent, as
well as water consumption and waste output.
The government probably needs to create a green rating system similar
to Australia’s Green Star, France’s Haute Qualité Environnementale
(HQE), Britain’s Building Research Establishment Environmental
Assessment Method (BREEAM) or the US Leadership in Energy and
Environmental Design (LEED) standards.
Legislation incorporating this rating could then be applied to the
construction sector in the first place, later to be extended to existing
buildings - giving the owners of the latter sufficient time to carry out
the necessary energy, water use and waste output audits.
Until this is done, the government will merely be leading by example,
an approach which has not proved very effective in the past.