Like many of us, Arun KS, a Chennai-based financial consultant, was tired of the city life and longed for some peace and quiet, away from the maddening chaos of urban concrete jungles.
“I was born in Chennai, and after living most of my life here, I couldn’t take the traffic, noise and air pollution anymore. My daughters had grown up and on their way to pursue an education, so I decided to finally make a move,” says the 50-year-old.
To this end, he bought a 1800 sq ft plot of land at Ayappakkam, about an hour’s distance from Chennai, in 2017.
He wanted a simple, functional home, but the builders he contacted were unable to understand his vision. To make matters worse, the prices they were quoting were prohibitive.
“The ideas and inputs I received from these builders did not include any sustainable building processes nor were they functional keeping the sustainability factor in mind,” he explains.
Where sustainability meets functionality
When Arun began to research alternatives that would meet his requirements, he read about glass fibre reinforced gypsum (GFRG) panels that are used in the construction process, and was impressed by their properties.
GFRG panels are made from recycled industrial waste gypsum or natural gypsum, and their use substantially reduces the amount of cement, sand, water and steel during construction of buildings.
“Armed with this information, I started looking for sustainable builders in and around Chennai who could employ materials like GFRG panels and help me build my dream house. This was when I came across Cityrene,” he says.
Cityrene is a Chennai-based sustainable construction startup founded in 2016, by Dilipan Bose and A Nivethitha.
“Now that my house has been constructed, I know that 75% of cement and plaster that would’ve been used otherwise, has been saved. Also, since the house has been made from materials like GFRG, it is almost 4 degrees cooler than a house built using bricks,” says Arun.
Resource-saving aspects were also kept in mind while designing the house in addition to using sustainable materials in the construction process. In Arun’s case, his home has a bio-digester which disposes of waste and recycles water.
Meet The Founders of Cityrene
Dilipan and Nivethitha are civil engineers and design engineers, so taking notice of how homes are constructed comes naturally to them.
However, it was a devastating natural calamity that urged them to make a mental note of how sustainable practices in the construction process would be beneficial for home dwellers in the long run.
“In 2015, Chennai saw unprecedented flooding as a result of heavy rainfall, leaving many homes, including mine, severely affected. The walls of my home had cracked and water was seeping inside because of which the house was partly submerged. All lines of communication were cut off, and there was neither electricity, drinking water nor food supply,” recalls Dilipan.
At the same time, Dilipan was also volunteering in the rescue operations and helped flood victims with food packets, water cans, blankets and clothes.
“During the rescue operations in a locality called Saidapet, I saw that people were rushing to take shelter in a solar-powered house. The house was sheltering about 20 people in the locality. That’s when it struck me that if one could provide shelter to so many in such a catastrophic situation, how helpful would it be to have more of these,” asks Dilipan.
This was a turning point for him, and during the process of rebuilding his house, he started researching alternative construction technologies.
About eight months later, Chennai running out of ground water made front page news. The borewells were dry and the paucity of water wreaked havoc in the city.
“I read headline after headline and wondered about what had happened to the millions of litres of water that could’ve been collected during rainfall,” he asks.
Dilipan then became sure that he wanted to design and construct sustainable and resilient homes. He reached out to Nivethitha, who had been his classmate in college. Convinced by his vision, she decided to join forces with him and the duo established Cityrene in 2016.
Special features of Cityrene homes.
Resourceful and Resilient homes
Before we elaborate on the features of the homes built by Cityrene, let us mention the two models on offer to potential clients.
The first model is for a ‘Basic Economical Home,’ where the house is built using eco-friendly technology and comes with features like wastewater recycling, rainwater harvesting and an organic terrace garden. This construction cost of this model is about Rs 1700/sq ft.
The second model is for a ‘Self-sustainable home,’ which includes a solar set up for electricity, a device named ‘Water from Air’ which generates drinking water from the air, and a bio-digester for wastewater recycling.
“The bio-digester is buried underground and is an effective replacement for conventional septic tanks and STPs. It uses live bacteria to recycle wastewater instead of chemicals and electricity, is eco-friendly and also maintenance-free,” says Dilipan.
All the features of a basic economic home are also included in this model and they charge about Rs 2000/sq ft to construct it.
In case there is a need to install additional solar panels, the cost goes higher.
Cityrene uses modern building materials and technology in their building processes like the GFRG and Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (AAC) blocks. AAC blocks are made using fly ash, a by-product in the industrial sector, which makes it eco-friendly and compared to the conventional red bricks, they are much lighter. AAC blocks are also more durable and easy to manage, which helps in hastening the construction process.
Cityrene also sets up organic terrace gardens for the homeowners so that they can eat the food they grow, informs Dilipan.
“We are collaborating with companies in the sustainability space that manufacture devices for conservation of natural resources like water. For example, we work with Geok Energy for the installation of bio-digesters and with Airowater for the atmospheric water generator,” states Dilipan.
Challenges and Impact
In the past two years, the startup has faced several challenges during its operations. The two biggest hurdles were transporting and storing raw materials. The team is still working around this challenge and looking for ways they can more efficiently transport the building materials.
“The other challenge that we face is the scepticism that exists among prospective clients about these modern technologies. However, once they get acquainted with the long term benefits and the feasibility aspects, it doesn’t take too long to convince them,” says Dilipan.
Despite these challenges, Dilipan says that a 1000 sq.ft. home built by them can save upto 5 lakh litres of water every year just by saving the rainwater and recycling the wastewater from the house.
Their work has also been validated by various organisations like the Founder Institute based in California which awarded them with the ‘Founder X Award,’ declaring them as the best startup in India in 2017.
They have also received a certificate of recognition by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion.
So, what does Dilipan hope to achieve in the future?
“I want to build a self-sustaining township of 100 villas. The township will be completely solar-powered, practise rainwater harvesting, and have wastewater recycling units. Government power and water supply will only be backup options. Imagine if we do this. Wouldn’t it be a great example for builders across the country?” he concludes.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)