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Are we building sustainably?

This is an honest question – Sri Lanka is a relatively small Island in the Indian Ocean, Colombo is the economic capital of the country, with a growing urban population, with increasing demands to the physical infrastructure to sustain and support this growth. In addition, new high-rise buildings are being developed in the city centre, with more to be built over the coming decades as Sri Lanka’s economy grows and evolves to a more service-orientated economy to serve neighbouring countries as in with its port geographically as with its human and intellectual capital. However, so far, from what we’ve seen, which may be wrong, is that all of this is being constructed using relatively traditional construction methods i.e. high-carbon, low use of renewables, low energy independence, high strain and demand on local water, waste and energy infrastructure, and with majority imported traditional materials of concrete construction that is quick to build but has no reusability and little creative expression, at least with our current examples. But the irony, is that the country has largely developed using low-carbon and highly sustainable methods up until this point, at least in a rural context, with little to no translation of this as the city develops.

Seeing how existing developed markets are now shifting their development and planning guidelines in city centres and suburban development areas towards bringing the rural back to urban (vertical farms, greater pedestrian areas, nodal urban planning to reduce travel times and dependence on vehicles, more green public spaces with trees and play areas), it feels like a missed opportunity for us not employing such strategies straight away given we are starting from a strong position with respect to healthy living, sustainable lifestyles, and a good balanced life already. People come to Sri Lanka to experience that relaxation and happiness, and for some reason as we develop our capital city we’re doing it as if it was early 1900s London i.e. highly polluting, little knowledge/ high ignorance to long-term health and environmental consequences, and low technology materials in today’s global standards. Why can’t we develop with 21st century standards for sustainability and green consciousness given we live this way anyway, but to build a fake grey city for the sake of short-term development goals from neighbouring investors. We are investors and developers, and understand the market dynamics that currently do not provide equivalent incentives or opportunity cost on green technologies like in the developed markets. Also there are little government incentives with respect to tax or scoring where carbon could be offset and that additional cost in technologies are recouped another way i.e. not all that cost is born by the developer. We believe Sri Lanka deserves to start in the 21st century, not early 20th, but the standards and incentives need to be set at a policy level otherwise developers with little-to-no incentive will continue to develop in a damaging way with grave longer-term repercussions.

Given the country’s economic position, and stage of development in its future lifecycle, we are not naïve to the realities of the market – Sri Lanka is a high-risk investment market, prices and costs of services are low relatively speaking, and to achieve desired returns on investment one must reduce upfront risk, and so why invest so much in sustainable technologies and advanced sustainable design methods and materials when one can only obtain a certain price for that product. Also, there being no incentives or tax-breaks being offered to compensate for money lost through making such investments – there is very little incentive other than an idealistic one to spend building advanced sustainable buildings when the local market dynamics don’t need one to. But is this right? Sri Lanka might not be the smallest country in the world, but given our relative size, each mega-structure does make a big impact on local infrastructure – infrastructure that was primarily built by the British over 100 years ago, and is still the same that is expected to serve buildings that do little to support the local community and local market, but are huge energy sink holes that will put immense strain on businesses and homes around them. It is easy to forget that being the small leaf on the big pond creates higher volatility for each small tremor i.e. the impacts and effects of climate change together with our underdeveloped urban infrastructure makes us particularly vulnerable as the city urbanises with little sustainability oversight. A strongly welcomed new ‘Green Buildings Guideline’ from the UDA is a huge step forward, with excellent indicators and scoring from Green Certified, to Silver, Gold and Platinum, where developers and Architects are given valuable and useful tools and goals to plan their designs better. But this also presents challenges when it comes to still building economically, where to achieve much of these goals at the scale and format expected from the local and international market, the cost of entry is still very high, and so we would like to see greater incentives from the government when it comes to achieving such status if it means importing supporting materials or technologies that will create longer-term benefits to the local and national growth strategy. And together with incentives there should be penalties for abusers of proper sustainable practices, which will only negatively impact future generations.

We understand we are at the beginning of the country’s national redevelopment, and the future developed nation we are working towards will probably outlive us, but we must at least start with the right strategy and plant the right seed to guarantee long-term success that does not harm the country from the inside out.

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