Yearender 2020: Rise of sustainable real estate in the post-COVID era

Covid-19 has compelled developers and buyers alike to make our built environment more seriously concerning design and sustainability.  Sunita Purushottam, Head of Sustainability, Mahindra Lifespace Developers Ltd, spoke to Sruthi Kailas, Square Yards about how sustainable real estate will evolve in the post-COVID era.

How do you think the world of real estate will change in the post-COVID era w.r.t sustainable built environment?

There is a growing appreciation of how our built environment can play a significant role in our lives by ensuring user wellbeing via better ventilation, glare-free indoor spaces, ample natural light, and the incorporation of passive and active areas for exercise. We have also transitioned to an almost seamless way of working where, for most desk jobs, the location is now immaterial.

Hence, post-pandemic apartments are already being designed with a view to factor in more efficient space utilization; repurposing of internal spaces; hygiene and/or sanitation zones; internal and external noise impacts; and outdoor amenities for an active lifestyle. 

Homebuyers will now demand apartments that have been designed for better user health and wellbeing.  We expect ‘green homes’ – homes that are environment-friendly across all stages of the product lifecycle spanning design, construction, and use –  to find favor, especially with customers who are conscious not just of the needs of the planet, but also of how such homes translate into tangible benefits via reduced utility expenses.

The real estate industry has a significant opportunity to ensure that the future built environment is responsive to the needs of both users and the environment. 

Some of the shifts that we anticipate and are exploring include investments in technology and digitization; changing customer expectations with respect to design; increased control across the value chain and enhanced sustainability integration of sustainable business practices.

What would be the various measures that would be adopted to make the real estate sector more attuned to the ‘new normal’?

Covid-19 has resulted in accelerated technology adoption across industries. Be it platforms to enable teamwork and work-from-home or those for dematerialization, digital technology and innovation is making it easier to avoid non-essential travel, collaborate remotely, and improve business process efficiency and customer outcomes.

Specific to the real estate sector, examples include reduced dependence on manual labor via prefabrication or modular construction technology and PLM (Project Lifecycle Management) solutions to digitize and streamline key stages in the construction project lifecycle.  While the real estate sector has traditionally been slow to adopt technology, this is now changing.  

For example, Mahindra Happinest® (the affordable offering from Mahindra Lifespaces) introduced an industry-first digital platform with the launch of its project Happinest Palghar in September 2020.  This platform facilitated end-to-end online homebuying, thus doing away with the need for any physical meetings – a first in Indian real estate. 

What and how does it make business sense for a cash-strapped sector to invest in sustainable measures?

Though it appears counterintuitive, it certainly makes sense. Developers can derive benefits from incentives and a fast-tracked environmental clearance process. The business case of going ‘green’ has strengthened over the years and the associated incremental cost has reduced to ~1-3% of the overall project costs, from about 15-18% two decades back.

An interesting example to illustrate how sustainable measures can make perfect business sense is India’s first concrete-plastic road built within a residential project at Happinest Palghar.  We have used recycled plastic waste as an alternative material to replace the fine sand and stone aggregates in the conventional concrete used in road construction. 

The result – Mahindra Happinest has filed for a patent for this technology, using which over 11 metric tons of plastic waste were collected from nearby local areas and recycled to build a first-of-its-kind 9-meter-wide and 300-meter long concrete-plastic road at Happinest Palghar. In addition to efficiently reusing plastic waste, this construction method helps reduce carbon-dioxide emissions; reduces construction cost; and ensures greater compressive strength.  Such roads are thus less likely to develop cracks, potholes, or craters, even with extended use, resulting in reduced maintenance costs.  These roads also have higher water/rain resistance, vis-à-vis conventional asphalt/bitumen roads.

Local sourcing of construction materials is also a key sustainability aspect across our projects and helps us further reduce our carbon footprint.  Localized sourcing should be adopted by the real estate sector at large.

Do you expect the price-conscious Indian home buyer to become more pro automated/sustainable homes in the post-COVID era?

Automation in homes can help in conserving precious resources such as water and energy. Automation can save money via:

  • Leak detection and asset performance
  • Help in streamlining operations
  • Maintenance of residential complexes.

The new-age home buyer is aware of the benefits of measurement and monitoring.  The ‘big picture’ here is that for seamless and uninterrupted water and energy supply, automation is a small investment with great savings of up to 30% only through the early identification of problems, thereby saving time, effort, and money. 

For example, at our project, Happinest Kalyan, Happinest Avadi, and Windchimes (our premium residential project in Bengaluru) water meters installed in each home will help monitor water usage in each unit and help residents in avoiding water wastage.  Also, real-time monitoring of the STP will help optimize performance and mitigate the risk of breakdowns. 

What policy level changes do you expect from the government in the coming years to create a healthier, more inclusive, and sustainable built environment? 

Make ‘EConiwas Samhita’ mandatory for residential buildings: This is the energy conservation building code for residential buildings. The key aspect here is ensuring cooler, low-carbon homes through design. The code enables us to determine the heat gain due to the building envelope. Making this code mandatory will ensure uniformity in how we can develop homes with lesser heat ingress. This has a major impact on:

                i. Thermal comfort

                ii. Cooling requirement

Homes that do not meet the code requirement need cooling i.e ACs. This will drive up the carbon emissions and the cost for homeowners’ energy requirements.

More clarity on benefits of EIA based on levels of certification: The new draft EIA 2020 provides a clear benefit for builders on Environment Clearances based only on the provisional green certification. This essentially means that a builder can avail only pre-certification and not go for final certification. There is no clarity on how this will be implemented across the country to monitor the rating and level of certifications.

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