Challenges to operationalizing resource and energy efficiency during household construction

By Pallavi Sharma, an independent sustainability practitioner/ researcher working in India.

Sustainable development or resource efficiency may or may not have become parlance to a common house owner interested in or pursuing home construction. However, efficiency is understood as the quality of performing to the maximum within the least time, effort or money. Value for money is an oft-communicated phrase. Construction is a rare and expensive venture undertaken once or twice in a person’s lifetime unless it is incremental, as this requires large funds and time to pursue. Therefore, unless required, there is little advantage in keeping up with the market trends or new advancements in the field. At the same time, the buyers or home owners may not be aware of the duping, duplicity or the associated terms and conditions for functionality of the product that they purchase. This process requires purchases in a number of segments for example for provision of electricity one would purchase wiring cables, MCB box, sockets and switches, switch boards, besides appliances such as AC, fans, lights etc. Likewise, for water and sanitation, pipes, faucets, cisterns, sink, toilet seats etc. need to be purchased. Similarly, there are purchases for type of flooring, walls, plastering, woodwork etc.


There are number of ways in which these buyers interact with the market; firstly it might be through the recommendation of the engaged developer, sometimes interior designer, or the intermediaries make the purchase on behalf of the owner through consented choices or the owner themselves tread the market. In general, the kind of interaction changes the incentives of purchase and the quality and quantity of product procured. For example, a developer may have incentive to purchase from certain shop owners for commission or discount; this allows them to buy in less quantity as the goodwill ensures possible exchange of unboxed items and reuse for similar further construction. For an interior designer, the aesthetics form the first priority, the incentive is to create new, therefore their interaction has to be with a wider set of players in the market, or bigger brands for them to create new designs and have possibility of return. These two groups might factor their own long-term profitability than that of the owner, this may or may not align with the efficiency in terms of both cost and long term saving for the owner. The owner when purchasing for themselves, is at the losing end with consideration of time and market knowledge but value for money would be the highest priority for this case. Therefore, the target audience for information of new advancements should also be customer itself.


The listed products may or may not come with the standardised markings, both for efficiency and safety. Electronic and electrical items do have labelling, even star ratings for electronic items. For example, the type of insulation, or the conducting metal used would be responsible for energy loss during transmission. However, the questions that are important for efficiency would be; are the labelling able to communicate their advantage to the buyer, are the shopkeepers equipped to do the same, how much is the cost differential, how much is at stake for purchasing a low branded product? The invisibility and the technical expertise required for the system makes matters worse. The option with the customer is to rely on experience of those in business and makes choices based on non-technical choices for example like the aesthetic of switches, electronics etc. and when applicable based on ratings if convinced of cost saving involved in the long term. For other systems like water and sanitation, though standardizations are available, it is hard to understand their significance as cheaper products are available in the market that may not abide by the laws. Therefore, the onus to be aware lies with the customer. Water used per flush is not mandatory disclosure for all brands. How much does this contribute in decision making is a little known fact. The market trend also plays a role in purchase; the ubiquity of a product in the market is at times taken as a mark of its success. For example, PVC pipes have replaced the old galvanised steel pipes in the market, emphasising their success in terms of cost and operation. Other items of use like the bricks, titles, or stones do not necessarily come with standardization. The sustainable variants like fly ash bricks or sun reflective tiles or paints are yet to make the mark in the markets; the reluctance for these to pick up is in terms of both cost and availability of raw material. Strangely, the markets are quick to create bankable duplicity without replicating the quality. For example Johnson and Somany are the two companies that certified make sun reflective titles, the product name is Techno Shield Binaco for Somany tiles and Endura Cool Roof for Johnson tiles but the markets have variants named, heat proof tiles, heat shield tiles etc. that so not have certifications. They may be selling other products like paints that are certified for heat resistance but also sell tiles that are white thereby tacitly taking advantage. There are new products like onyx, PVC wall panels etc. that are available without heat resistance or fire safety tests. Therefore, communication of significance of the standardised products, check on duplicity of branded products, and labelling for new materials are challenges in this domain.


For the products that do not follow the rigorous process of standardization, their efficiency cannot be mapped but for those that come after testing the installation condition impact their usage. There is invariably common guidelines associated the efficiency of any standardised product that measures the performance under test conditions, in the real world the values do receive a hit as the conditions are not similar to the control conditions. The installation process requires different players, bigger brands come with technicians those are trained to install their products, these can be ACs, TV, toilet seats, geysers, airtight windows etc. But, the preparation for electricity, water pipeline or the platform for window installation remains the responsibility of the engaged electrician, plumber or developer. This concealed base, affects the efficiency of the product for example for installation of a split AC, the outdoor and indoor unit are to be connected with a concealed condensation pipe and wire, for efficiency both of these should follow separate insulation and then further insulated.

The product comes with packaged pipes and wires, but the system is often prepared before the purchase of AC unit. If the work is well coordinated then also, there might be requirement of addition length through soldering which impacts efficiency. In the real world the owners aren’t aware of these conditions, moreover this may require new set of technicians as there is coordination needed between the mason and the technicians. This requires both management of condensation pipe that carries water and the electric wire therefore knowledge of plumbing and the skills of electrician. Since the nature of work is concealed once done, the veracity is possible only when the unit is installed, therefore these technicians do not have the liability of proper functioning of their work. They might not revert once they get their money. However, installation does impact the efficiency of the product, this can lead to an increase of energy usage by 30% (Domanski P.A. et al, 2014; MOEF&CC 2018). According to India Action cooling plan currently 8% households have room air conditioner, this projected to grow by 21 in 2027-28 to 40% in 2037-38, thereby further emphasising stringent implementation of steps discussed in the plan.

Likewise, the conductivity of a 0.5 mm wire would not only differ from the 1mm wire based on the thickness but also the number of established connections. It is important that the engaged electrician is aware of the requirements and able to forecast future demand. In addition, the standardised products come with all needed accessories like screws that are customised for the product. The electricians often use the materials they are comfortable with thereby compromising on the efficiency or safety. This does apply to toilets seats, faucets etc. plumbers also do not necessarily use the accessories that come with the product. Therefore, time of purchase, skill set of the technician involved, responsibility of the person doing the work and use of mentioned accessories are challenges on the installation side.

Quality Control

There is a need for quality control at each step and for each technician. Lack of availability of skilled workforce and schedule of rates applicable for skilled workers drive engagement of unskilled technicians. The legal requirement of submission of a plan to the municipal body is dealt as an additional work load not as an integral part of the process. The rules do not object to engagement of unskilled workforce, as construction employs maximum people and utilises most resources. In India, registration and compulsion of skilling is still a long road as 80% of those employed in Building and construction sector are minimally skilled and only 30% (9.8/32 million) construction workers are registered (NSDC 2007). Unless there is accountability of the employed people disaster safety and efficiency would both suffer. Violation or deviations from the shared plans work as impediments to reach out for government aid for the owner. While lack of manpower or skill for providing aid are lacunae at the side of local bodies. The sense of distrust of each stakeholder and sense of loss in formalised interactions gives way to informal practices, thus motive thus becomes to overlook than support. There is need for new players that can aid in quality assurance without punishing any of the stakeholders.

Return and replacement

Since construction is currently utilizing maximum resources, this is also producing huge amounts of waste. The disposal is done by the developer, generally into the nearest dhalao or dumping ground, where it gets mixed with other waste. There have been attempts for reusing construction and demolition waste, but their collection cost is a big impediment. Utilization of refurbished products also remains a challenge. Other waste like wood work, furniture items, electronics items may have a resale value on the online platforms, but availability of new materials, and the space occupied hampers their resale. In addition, the transport cost is often too high, as these products are both bigger in proportions and heavy. Therefore, there is a need for reverse logistics business models that can internalise delay in resale, transport costs and have ample storage spaces.


This is the experience of a person with little knowledge of the work being done, being forced to learn on the job, with little or no support from the different stakeholders. The sources of help were people who had previously undergone similar journey; the certainty of aid from this pool is limited, as it depends on personal outreach, willingness and time of the knowledge provider. Thus, community sharing of best practices and caveats is recommended where possible. However, as mentioned, the customer may not have the time to engage in community and the community may not have recent information. Therefore, in the current day, simplifying the standards and making them available digitally to aid a customer verify the claims of the shopkeeper are a needed short-term measure. Eventually, barcoding, greater disclosure of details of products would be helpful.

Digitalization has not seeped in the construction sector in India there are not as many e-commerce sites in this domain as for groceries or textiles. It would be interesting to understand reasons for the same and pursue it for greater transparency. Digitalization also helps in fair competition, as there is availability of price comparison. It would important to have certified vendors and service providers that are bound by grading and answerable for product quality or service. Though there are new platforms. An attempt to help customers in learning about standards and other important information may be done in collaboration with these sites.

For skilling, there are a number of government owned training institutes and various models are being tried in collaboration with the private sector (NSDC 2007). However, the percentages of those trained are still low, as the market does not incentivise skilling. A local developer hardly asks for skills or gives benefit for the same. This is work learned on job with experience. Work opportunity comes based on experience and connection to a developer, not the quality of work conducted. In addition, labour in this sector is non-perennial, which shrugs of their liability for any damage or inappropriate use. Therefore, the developer also has less incentive to get in trained workforce, as he may not be able to or willing to retain them. Until the developer is charged based on the quality of work done, instead of completion of work, there would be low incentive for change. Therefore, it would be important to provide incentives or regulate developer to hire skilled labour, provide labour training and to ensure their retention. Customer demand for skilled labour and pressure through bigger brands to engage skilled workforce to guarantee the promised efficiency can be two levers to try. Formation of connection between product owners and developers may substantiate in this front. New business that have trainers those are certified by the government but provide training is association with private sector brands, should be explored.

Lastly, greater accountability is needed for developers, since local bodies do not have the wherewithal to pursue these. A third party audit system for quality control may be instituted at the state level. This can be attempted in association with disaster management authorities. This audit system must derive its utility from customer demand, suggest ways to the engaged developer to for efficiency and disaster preparedness. Therefore, there are a number of untied ends that need to addressed for sustainability, resource efficiency and disaster preparedness in the construction sector, the efforts should be carried in unison across all aspects.


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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are solely of the author and AEEE does not necessarily subscribe to it. AEEE shall not be responsible for any damage caused to any person/organisation directly or indirectly.

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