With concerns growing over the fast rate at which the climate is changing, industries are being called upon to adopt sustainable practices that reduce the impact their activities have on the environment.
Being one of the biggest contributors to rapid climate change, a lot of the sustainability focus has now shifted to the construction industry, which accounts for 40 per cent of all the carbon emitted in the world.
Indeed, mining and fabrication of construction materials have been known to have a negative impact on the environment, such as pollution of water sources, pollution of land, as well as increased carbon emissions.
Statistics given during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), held in Egypt this month, reveal that the manufacture of cement alone, for instance, is estimated to result in global emission of 2.8 billion tonnes of CO2 annually and that this could go up to 4 billion tonnes annually, should current rates of urbanisation continue.
For this reason, architects and developers are being called upon to adopt sustainable construction practices that reduce the industry’s impact on the environment, as governments and investors support only the projects which pass the sustainability scorecard.
“From where we stand, we do not have a choice. Sustainable projects and developments are set to get the larger share of the property market, and those who are not a part of the shift are going to have a hard time selling or even remaining relevant. The construction industry needs to adopt sustainable practices, and the sooner they do this, the better it will be for them,” notes Chacha Collins, a realtor.
Adopting green buildings
Chacha observes that though there is still more that can be done, as a country, Kenya is making some progress in the sustainability journey. He points out that more people are adopting green and sustainable buildings, especially in cities where populations are rising.
“Density and sustainability are not necessarily contradictory. In fact, they can be mutually dependent and synergistic. Garden City and Mivida are among the projects that have been certified and have proof of sustainable development. The uptake in these projects is very good,” notes the realtor.
He adds that most buyers right now are looking for homes that are eco-friendly, self-sufficient, that use natural resources, as they look to cut the cost of electricity, water, and disposal of waste, among other utilities.
“Developers too are embarking on green projects, seeing the benefits that they have in terms of utility costs. By embarking on these types of projects, they are also encouraging buyers to pay more to have appliances and fittings that are energy efficient and that improve their health and quality of life,” notes Chacha.
He says that though the sustainable building has been criticised for using expensive materials, green buildings can be considered more valuable than traditional ones. That is because, in the long term, occupants are able to save on utility bills. Indeed, statistics indicate that the value of green buildings over traditional buildings can increase by up to 7 per cent over time.
“Green buildings can not only reduce or eliminate negative impact on the environment by using less water, energy or natural resources, they can also have a positive impact on the environment by generating their own energy, which also increases their value,” notes Chacha, noting that sustainable construction has also been known to improve an organisation’s reputation by demonstrating its’ sense of corporate social responsibility in the support of greater causes.
For this reason, developers are adopting more sustainable practices in construction as they seek to boost their image, and also influence buyer behaviour, as most buyers generally tend to gravitate towards working with organisations that promote noble causes.
These organisations are also partnering with others that seem to promote similar causes, for example, suppliers that are committed to reducing their carbon footprint by coming up with sustainable products.
Nickson Otieno, who runs sustainability consulting firm, Niko Green, says that although a lot is being done to promote sustainable building, to fully realise this dream, industry stakeholders will have no choice but to invest in research, development and uptake of alternative construction materials that are more environmentally friendly.
“Sustainable building is a long-term trend that has already firmly established its roots as a going concern for players in the industry. We are living in an age of Environmental Social Governance (ESG), increased consumer awareness and investors who are interested in seeing their funding going towards sustainable projects,” notes Otieno.
He adds that advances in technology have made it easier to obtain sustainable construction materials, and, indeed, stakeholders can now develop construction materials out of products that are renewable and recyclable in nature, therefore reducing reliance on finite natural resources.
Plastic, for instance, which previously was considered a major hazard to the environment, is fast becoming a sustainable construction material. Plastic can be converted into products such as concrete, and as plastic does not degrade for a long period of time, you find that concrete made from plastic will most likely be durable, with little requirements for maintenance.
Recycling plastic in this manner helps to reduce greenhouse gasses emitted by landfills that are overrun with waste materials. Plastic is also relatively easy to obtain, as it is available in most of our households and communities.
Advances in technology have also made it possible to develop alternative bricks using materials such as wool and mud that do not require the use of kiln fires to strengthen. Traditional bricks required kiln fires to strengthen their composition, but this resulted in an increase in the emission of greenhouse gases that are harmful to the environment.
Another renewable resource being adopted into construction is straw, where compressed bales of straw are used to fill wall cavities as a replacement for concrete or plaster. Straw bales are said to provide better insulation than concrete plasters.
They can also be used to replace wood as a structural component of a wall. Straw is not only sustainable but affordable too, which helps keep the costs of building materials down. Indeed, straw bale houses are estimated to save about 15 per cent of the wood used in a conventionally framed house.
Traditionally, straw has been used mostly in more advanced economies, but its use for construction in Africa is slowly picking up, supported by progress in research, and construction innovations.
The focus is also now shifting to the use of sustainable concrete, obtained from the recycling of various forms of waste. This significantly reduces the amount of carbon dioxide produced. Advances in technology have even made it possible to produce concrete blocks, which can easily be assembled on-site.
These require less time and labour to assemble, therefore reducing the carbon footprint left behind on-site. They also demonstrate good noise reduction and fire-resisting properties, which makes them more sustainable.
Perhaps the biggest debate, however, in the use of sustainable building materials has been on wood. That is because while it is an affordable and renewable source of construction that does not require a lot of energy to harness, it is not necessarily infinite, and its improper exploitation could have more devastating impacts on the environment than any other material.
However, Oliver Stevens, an architect with Nasta Nashe Architects, holds the view that timber can be used as an alternative building material despite the concerns raised about its impact on sustainability.
“Tanzania has been a good case study on sustainable building with timber through controlled felling, proactive afforestation projects and planting six trees for every one tree that has been cut,” notes Oliver Stevens of Nasta Nashe Architects.
He further notes that properly managed forests can provide an adequate supply of renewable building materials, while at the same time promoting wildlife preservation.
He points out that sustainable construction can be achieved by reducing the embodied energy in building materials, reducing on-site waste, and reducing the energy consumption of the finished building.
Working with renewable energy on construction sites can also help to significantly reduce the level of carbon emissions. One of the popular solutions is the modular battery system that can be used to power vehicles, among other electric equipment in construction sites.
These batteries can be charged using solar panel energy, thereby helping to offset tons of carbon emissions brought about by the use of diesel, for instance to power engines.
“Using renewable energy and building materials will help in the fight against climate change, plus greener buildings will improve waste management and emissions. The social benefits of green building have also been growing as a driver, particularly occupant health and wellbeing, which reflects the importance of people in the built environment,” notes Stevens.
Indeed, not only does sustainable construction mean improved health for the people who use the buildings, it also has been shown to improve workers' productivity during construction thanks to better surroundings, work environments, and noise protection.
The architect further notes that sustainable construction can also be achieved by adopting practices that ensure natural habitats are protected during and after the construction phase.
“The role of architects does not end at the design phase of a project, rather, continued consultation with off-takers and post-occupancy evaluation of projects should be adopted to ensure lessons are learnt and adapted to promote the sustainability agenda,” notes Stevens.