This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact in the column “Asian Verbal Impact” 

“Pepper it was that brought Vasco da Gama’s tall ships across the ocean, from Lisbon’s Tower of Belem to the Malabar Coast.” So wrote Salman Rushdie in his 1995 novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, with such insouciance that you could be forgiven for missing the point. Indeed, pepper has an almost bland ubiquity today that belies its superstar status in the history of commodities trading. Long before da Gama and his tall ships, the Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder lamented the annual drain on the empire’s economy due to pricey imported pepper from India, while Alaric the Goth who sacked Rome in the 5th century demanded 3,000 pounds of pepper as part of his ransom.

When dominance of the spice trade passed from Rome into Arab and Venetian hands, others took to the sea in a bid to break this monopoly. Genoan-born Christopher Columbus, acting for Spain, struck out West in the hope of reaching India and instead found America and a place in history. Da Gama, from Portugal, sailed in the opposite direction, rounding the Cape of Good Hope to reach Calicut in 1497, opening up India to European trade and ultimately colonisation.

For the spice that launched so many ships, pepper’s name comes to us via an apparently careless misunderstanding. Two similar species grow native to India: Black pepper (Piper nigrum) in the south and long pepper (Piper longum) further north. Long pepper is now largely restricted to certain Asian and North African cuisines and to the more adventurous patrons of London’s specialist food markets. In ancient times, however, it was traded alongside black pepper and the name given to it in Dravidian (South Indian) languages, pippali, was mistakenly used by the Romans, corrupted to piper, to refer to both types of pepper.

It doesn’t take a degree in linguistics to guess that the Latin piper gave rise to the English pepper, alongside similar words across Europe – the French poivre and the German pfeffer, for example. More distant cousins include the Arabic filfil, which travelled to East Africa into Swahili as pili-pili. This name later attached itself to a variety of chilli, which in Portuguese became piri-piri – now immortalised in a popular sauce.

Botanically-speaking, chilli is unrelated to black pepper and grows native to the Americas, taking its name from the Mesoamerican language Nahuatl. The Swahili case, however, is just one of many examples of a word for black pepper being redeployed to describe chilli and its relatives. “Pepper” itself is an obvious example when prefaced with chilli, bell or jalapeño and equivalents can be found in many other languages.  It is ironic that chilli, spread worldwide by Portuguese traders, not only supplanted long pepper as the world’s culinary firecracker of choice but also appropriated its name. Even more ironically, the bona fide Indian word for black pepper (the Sanskrit maricha) in addition to being gazumped elsewhere by pippali, has now been pressed into service in a number of languages (e.g. as mirch in Hindi) to describe chilli! Indeed, to specify black pepper in Hindi, as opposed to red or green chilli, you need to put the qualifying word kali (black) in front of mirch.

Word origins notwithstanding, chilli is now integral to Indian cuisine and India today is one of the world’s foremost chilli producers and consumers. The country that produces the most pepper, on the other hand, is not India but Vietnam, and one can only hope that it proves as powerful an aphrodisiac there as it did for Rushdie’s hero and heroine, who consummated their love atop sacks of “Black Gold” in a Cochin warehouse and called it “pepper love”.

Can you tell your K-GBCS from your PRS? Approaches to sustainable construction in Asia

This article was first published in Asian Global Impact Volume 2 Issue 01

America and the UK have paved the way for sustainable building rating systems with LEED and BREEAM, but the rest of the world is catching up fast. Environmental consultant Jonathan Galton investigates building standards from Asia and the Gulf.

Buildings are bad news. They guzzle energy (more than a third of global consumption each year), binge on water, destroy habitats and put a huge strain on natural resources. And that’s just what goes into them. Out the other end come torrents of dirty water, greenhouse gases, toxic waste and, in densely packed cities, waves of hot exhaust air that can raise surrounding temperatures by as much as 5°C.

You could argue, of course, that all this is the fault of the people who occupy the buildings rather than the buildings themselves and, rightly, “behaviour change” is now a well-established principle of environmental reform. That said, a great deal can be achieved by ensuring new buildings are designed with a view to limiting resource consumption (and thus fuel bills) and reducing their adverse environmental impact.

As it happens, recent decades have seen a proliferation of policies and standards to regulate just this. Germany and Scandinavia are generally fêted as years ahead of the rest us, although the UK and the US are starting to catch up and in one respect the UK leads the way, having devised the first holistic method of assessing and rating building sustainability. Scoring the design and construction of buildings against a spectrum of criteria encompassing (amongst others) energy and water use, waste produced and ecological impact, the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) was developed in the late 1980’s and is now ubiquitous in the UK construction sector. Its younger but broadly similar American cousin, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) has caught up fast, and now outranks BREEAM in global popularity.

Despite their international presence, however, BREEAM and LEED aren’t universally admired, and accusations that they don’t translate well into different climates and cultures are common. In response, many countries are developing their own standards and Asia has leapt wholeheartedly onto this bandwagon. Read on for examples from India, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates.


INDIA: Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment (GRIHA)

Griha means “abode” in Sanskrit, and the aptly-named GRIHA rating is the brainchild of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). Like its British equivalent, it is based on quantifying building impacts such as energy consumption, water use and waste generation and awarding efforts to reduce these below nationally accepted benchmarks with a rating of one to five stars. Unlike a BREEAM rating, which is issued on the basis of an assessment conducted straight after construction is complete, GRIHA certification is tied to a one-year post-occupancy energy audit.

Over 330 building developments of varying scale and function are being constructed across India based on GRIHA guidelines. 5-star ratings have been awarded to buildings such as IIT Kanpur’s Centre for Environmental Sciences and Engineering, which has been designed to optimise the use of sunlight and natural ventilation alongside highly energy efficient artificial lighting and cooling, and the corporate headquarters of wind turbine supplier Suzlon in Pune.

GRIHA is not confined to the pioneering elite, however: it has been adopted by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and it is now mandatory for all new government buildings to achieve a 3-star rating. Moreover, municipal councils are beginning to enshrine GRIHA ratings in local policy. Pimpri-Chinchiwad in Maharashtra, for example, is offering discounts in building permissions charges for GRIHA-rated buildings alongside a 10% reduction in property tax for the end user. Meanwhile, a simplified version (SVA GRIHA) has been developed for smaller building projects including domestic dwellings, and a rating system for existing buildings is currently in the pipeline.

As an India-specific rating system, GRIHA has been widely praised, but how it will continue to develop in the face of new pressures, and whether it will retain its edge over international standards like LEED remains to be seen.

ABU DHABI: Estidama and the Pearl Rating System

Estidama, meaning “sustainability” in Arabic, is an initiative developed and promoted by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC). Described as “a vision and a desire to achieve a new sustainable way of life in the Arab world”, Estidama adds a fourth pillar of culture to the traditional three-pillar conception of sustainable development: environment, economy and society. Indeed, the luxury of the Emirates seeps into the language of Estidama, which includes a “Pearl” rating system (PRS) with a specific application for villas alongside versions for buildings and communities. While superficially similar to other standards, proponents of PRS are quick to point out its locally-specific features. A huge emphasis is placed on the “Precious Water” category, for example, reducing the need to desalinate water, and among the toolkits created to facilitate Pearl-rated development is a water consumption calculator designed specially for mosques.

Since 2010, all new buildings have been required to achieve a 1 Pearl rating, while all government funded buildings must achieve a minimum 2 Pearls. While this may seem unambitious compared to the GRIHA 3-star rating required for government buildings in India, direct comparisons are difficult and the UPC deserves some kudos for extending the requirement to all new buildings. A Pearl Operational Rating, to be conducted at least two years after construction, is currently under development.

In all, over 40 new developments have achieved a 1-5 Pearl rating and nearly 400 more are in progress. As with GRIHA, the future direction that PRS will take is not clear, but it is to be hoped that, in time, feedback from hundreds of operational assessments will be channelled into improving the rating system further and perhaps stepping up the UPC’s planning requirements. 

SOUTH KOREA: Green Building Certification System (K-GBCS)

Green building makes sense in South Korea, where energy, mostly imported, is pricey, and economic growth is correspondingly energy intensive (twice as much as the UK). The Korean Green Building Certification System (K-GBCS), now enforced by two government ministries, is already in its thirteenth year and been applied to over 1,000 buildings. Alongside the expected issues of energy use, water conservation and recycling (amongst others), assessment criteria unique to K-GBCS include “Access to rivers, mountains and/or forests around apartment complex” – a far cry from Abu Dhabi! – that can be seen as a reflection of the high priority Korea places on human health and connection to nature.

Unsurprisingly for an Asian tiger that has made conscious efforts to rebrand itself as a bastion of environmental innovation, South Korea has its fair share of eco-glamour, such as National Institute of Environmental Research which promotes itself as the first zero carbon office building in the world, and Eco Lab, the main building of SK Chemicals. This building has not only received Korea’s first LEED Platinum rating, but has also achieved the highest score to date under K-GBCS. The lobby features a “wall stream”, an indoor waterfall against a backdrop image of fir trees which reduces cooling load in the summer and assists with humidification in the winter.

In the face of understandable criticism that these examples are one-off publicity stunts with little hope of widespread replication comes some welcome news from a recent study of house values between 2010 and 2012. The study concludes that K-GBCS-certified houses have a higher value than non-certified houses, a marked contrast to the UK where evidence for sustainability credentials boosting house sales is patchy to non-existent, and a glow of hope that green building principles are permeating the mainstream market. The effects of a recent change of government, under which the benefits of “Green Growth” are being questioned, are currently unclear, but with market pressures from the energy sector and house-buyers, not to mention a national predisposition towards the high-tech as well as the natural world, a bright future for Korean green building can plausibly be envisaged.


These examples are by no means the only green rating systems found in Asia and the Middle East: Japan, China, Singapore and Qatar, amongst others, have developed locally-appropriate building standards that are challenging the hegemony of LEED or BREEAM. On the face of it this paints a healthily pluralistic picture of choice and competition, although there is an underlying question of how much “local-specificity“ is genuinely essential for delivering low impact buildings and how much is gratuitous. With the current trend firmly in the direction of localism, it will be interesting to see which, if any, of these standards will spread their wings globally. Qatar’s rating system, GSAS, for example, is also making waves in Kuwait, Jordan and Sudan, while Singapore’s Green Mark award has been used in Malaysia. That said, the recent launch of BREEAM International New Construction 2013, described on its website as “the world’s foremost environmental assessment method” should dispel any doubts that the UK will attempt to maintain its position as a stalwart of the global green building elite.