Exploring a plausible alternative to the current destructive energy consumption ethos in Mauritius.

Human beings and every facet of human creation thrive on energy at its most quintessential level. And so have we watched with pride as our little island grew and flourished; as it carried the umbrella of independence and economic prosperity and as it embraced global development. However, this veneer of stability is perched on a precarious edge. As it stands, the future of energy production in Mauritius had been thrown into the limelight and is being not only questioned but also criticised from various angles. The proposed initiative of building coal power plants on the island seems to not only be a blatant defiance of environmentalism but also makes a mockery of the Maurice Ile Durable concept. In our era of technological prowess and informed education, the erection of a massive centralised power plant cannot surely be viewed as the only feasible solution to cope with an ever increasing energy demand. Would it not be more sensible to peruse feasible ways to reduce our current energy consumption?

One of the pivotal features of a successful sustainable or green developmental concept lies in the creation and reinforcement of connections. It is a three-pronged project which emphasises connections between the populace and its place of residence, between people and nature and between the infrastructure and its environment. This practice of creating such connections represents the concrete birth of ecological thinking to the still ephemeral concept of urbanism. However, while this fusion is the epitome of sustainable infrastructure at its best, the sad reality is that the focus of our current building experts lies elsewhere. Scientists, environmentalists and architects are consumed by the pursuit of the perfect ecological design in the erection of new buildings and in the process, sadly neglect and ignore the existing infrastructure.

Ecological retrofits to our existing buildings
While this is beneficial for some countries, we cannot apply this sloppy principle globally. In emerging economies like China and India, which collectively, are responsible for the construction and expansion of urban sites to provide accommodation for more than thirty million people annually, such longitudinal thinking can be understood. However, in Mauritius, our slower demographical expansion does not necessitate such linear progress. Up to now current sustainable development practices still do not lay enough emphasis on the importance of ecological retrofits to our existing buildings. The foundation of this school of thought lies in the fact that those involved in the development of ‘sustainable’ architecture operate on the precept that sustainability is merely a temporary distinction since in the future all infrastructure will inevitably have to be environmentally sustainable. However, according to Hagan’s “Taking Shape, A new Contract between Architecture and Nature”, the prevailing question that arises is “will existing-architectures-made-more-sustainable, modernist and post-modernist, be able to remain as they are, or will they inevitably be re-formed by the exigencies of environmental design?”

The Green Building Council of Mauritius highlights that even though only a handful of buildings have been given the ‘green’ label so far, the application of green development is well under way. There is a consensus that the progress towards the adoption of ecological design is slowly making solid ground. However, this green movement is operating on a very narrow ideology and have restricted their focus to the application of green design and construction to new infrastructure only.

While the Mauritian Statistics Bureau have no data on the issue of urbanism, a global study does demonstrate the importance of old buildings to our architectural skyline. Existing buildings inevitable comprise the majority of current building stock. Indeed, in most developed countries, they represent 98% of the stock. By contrast, new construction account for 1 to 1.5 percent of properties at any one time. However, this percentage may be less in dense urban areas. Statistics imparted by New York City Office of Sustainability reveal that of the 950,000 buildings that currently make up the city, 85 percent will still be standing in 2030. Such figures clearly delineate the importance of old buildings in our ecosystem. New construction, no matter how sustainable or environmentally sensitive cannot, on its own, contribute a significant change towards the environmental impact of the built environment.

Latest research and practice in the field of Ecological Architecture, such as those initiated by Davis Langdon, show that it is ultimately more expensive not going green. This is highlighted by the fact that while a green building might represent a more expensive initial investment, it is however more cost effective in the long run. This is mainly due to the fact that it decreases its energy consumption by up to 80%. Should we take into account the Mauritius Energy observation report of 2011, we notice that our energy consumption for sectors such as manufacturing, commercial and household summed up to 419.8 ktoe, which equates to nearly half of our energy consumption pattern. One can only imagine the massive savings to the Mauritian economy should not only our new buildings embrace the green concept but our old ones be retrofitted to the same standard too.

Collective awareness
The above approach makes perfect sense and yet, the global community continues to wrongly interpret the term ‘sustainable development’ as merely being an increase in construction trends. Simply adding new green buildings to our old, unsustainable infrastructure does not portray development at all. It is an archaic vision at the very least. This might be one of the reasons as to why, according to the World Energy Outlook 2012, that four-fifths of the energy efficient potential in the building sector and more than half in industry, remains untapped.

Thus a collective awareness should be encouraged with regards to the promotion of the concept of adapting existing buildings with green retrofits. Efforts should be made to perform this in a cost effective manner so that we tailor it to our current market, excite the attention of the mass and also set an example for others. Sensibility about sustainability should be aimed towards, not only customers but also towards organisations involved in real estate. External and internal issues such as the current pressing problem posed by global warming, are powerful incentives for organisations to change in order to adapt and thrive. However, one major barrier to such a change lies in the fact that governmental or private organizations are made up of people who are inherently resistant to the concept of change. Thus, educating those parties is to be considered the primary objective of any organization. A change embraced by big corporations, be they private or governmental, is more likely to influence others to model that trend and also creates more confidence in customers.

An incentive should be given by governing bodies so as to facilitate the adaptation of such retrofits. Successful implementation of those green designs should be documented and logged into a collective database so that architects can refer to one another’s portfolio and marshal their resources for the common good. An urgent revolution is our energy sector is called for by various experts from different professional spheres as well as by our nation’s citizens. Given that 60% of our local carbon dioxide emission is the result of our energy industry, sensible and intelligent approaches to such an issue is primordial for a sustainable country. We need to re-evaluate our approach to becoming a green nation. While it is undeniable that the green movement is still in its infancy in Mauritius and that the aim of achieving an 80% cut-back on our energy consumption is ambitious at this stage, there are however other means of reducing energy use that yield unquestionable results in other countries. What is simply required of us is an open mind and a willingness to adapt and grab the opportunity to enrich our current urban fabric.

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