Despite its considerable public relations problems — an overwhelmed bureaucracy, widespread corruption, well-documented violence against women and massive inequality among other pressing issues — investors are forging ahead in India. The country’s property market is robust and the construction boom is underpinning markets in other parts of the world due to a trickle down in demand for resources: think Perth’s property growth on the back of the regional mining industry.
Jones Lang LaSalle India’s review of Indian residential property in 2012 stated that Mumbai’s residential section started to pick up after almost two years of relative sluggishness, driven largely by increasing demand and stable pricing. Capital values grew between 9 and 10 percent. “The increased demand for residential units came from robust commercial office market activity in south central Mumbai. Also, these sub- markets benefited from more attractive pricing when compared to premium addresses of South Mumbai,” explained Ramesh Nair, Managing Director for West, Jones Lang LaSalle India. Nair predicted 2013 would see more project launches, particularly in Mumbai where demand is strongest.
So India is a major mover and shaker on the investment front, but investors are well known to be increasingly choosy about where they live and/or work. Here in Hong Kong, commercial developers will admit to making sure their buildings stand up to global sustainability standards or run the risk of losing blue chip tenants to other properties. The same holds for residences, where more and more owner-occupiers and tenants alike want a better building. Given India’s perceived lack of organisation and considerably bigger fish to fry (general housing stresses make Hong Kong’s look like a minor inconvenience) how is it possible the country can be a green leader?
India is the world’s largest democracy and has one of the worst track records in implementing policy and the speed of development right now threatens environmental disaster. Booming business and a rapidly rising population make India, perhaps, the ideal testing ground for truly sustainable development. Since its first registered green building in 2003, India has shot past the United States for the total number of green buildings: 1.1 billion square feet in 223 structures. Green buildings could potentially account for 20 percent of all construction by 2030 according to the Economic Times.
Architect Hans Brouwer was born in Hong Kong to Dutch and Thai parents, was educated in Switzerland and the US and then founded HB Design back in Hong Kong. Now based in Singapore and having worked in Singapore, Thailand, and China among others, Brouwer has taken HBD into India heavily in the last few years, which he considers the region’s most thrilling architecture location. “I think it’s the scale and the immensity of the challenge that is posed to architects on every level. The size of these developments is such that you very rarely see in the West. A three-million square foot project isn’t unusual,” he notes.
Ironically, or perhaps not, India’s green record isn’t nearly as bad as most expect it would be — recall those 223 green buildings. Brouwer thinks the entrepreneurial nature of Indian real estate plays into sustainable development’s favour but also that context is important when it comes to India. “Green has to be accredited by some organisation,” he notes. “For that reason a great number of physical buildings in other countries haven’t been accredited. But green building is selling and India is driven by speculative developers doing offices and residential and it is selling,” he finishes, noting that many existing so-called green criteria already ingrained traditions in India. Getting a gold LEED rating isn’t that hard. Because of that many believe India needs it’s own specialised standards. “Ideally green rating should be local. Not just India. Singapore has its own … but there is an international brand aspect, especially as a marketing tool.” LEED currently has an independent certification for India that is far harder to earn than the regular rating.
Is all this positioning the country as the go-to location for developers from other parts of Asia seeking design inspiration? HBD is not alone in providing creative, innovative architecture that maximises space, minimises damage and appeals to investors in equal measure. Eyes could turn toward India given it has all the same issues facing it as many other parts of Asia — like a lack of space, high demand for housing and offices, mouths to feed, delicate environments and burgeoning economies. If it works there, might it work elsewhere?
“It could do. I don’t know if there’s a conscious decision to be a designer leader. Every culture goes through a period where the cup fills up and it’s brimming. India’s brimming right now,” explains Brouwer. Again, that speculative developer nature makes for a market ripe for innovating. “They’re far more open to opportunity based on fact rather than precedent. And great architecture has always been about patrons who haven’t needed to see it before to say yes.” That said, “The innovation I see in India is a product of time and place that’s not necessarily going to transcend borders,” Brouwer hazards. Though he admits to working largely in the high end where innovation is a sales feature, it does indeed run top down: luxury cars were the first to install airbags, now nearly a standard feature.
India’s biggest challenges right now are governmental chaos and lagging infrastructure. But if it can get sorted out and tap into private wealth to help with at least the infrastructure things could look very different in just a few years. Theorises Brouwer: “Look at London at the turn of the century: massive spending on infrastructure. They realised they needed to build a backbone on which the rest of the society could grow. India’s not doing that. If it did…” Watch your back, China.