Will Kenya combat climate change through the building sector?

Many Buildings have been upcoming in Nairobi, but changing the face of Westlands and Upperhil, which initially had one story apartments and masionate for residential to Commericial buildings like this Dunhil Towers along Waiyaki way is bringing a whole new face to the areas. [Phillip Orwa, Standard]
Elizabeth Chege, an engineer and chairperson of Kenya Green Building Society, thrives in challenging situations. She beat all odds to attain two master’s degrees in engineering and a holder of a private pilot’s license.

Years later, she had to make the tough choice between pursuing a flying career and engineering. The latter won.

Early on in her career, she was appointed the lead building services engineer for Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 used exclusively by British Airways.

But her biggest challenge yet lies in her home country. Through the Kenya Green Building Society (KGBS), Chege has the unenviable task of convincing the government and developers of the need to build green and combat the ravages of climate change.

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This follows the recent declaration endorsed by United Nations requiring all buildings to be net zero carbon by 2050 and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Less than one per cent of global buildings have attained the goal.

No statistics

Kenya, on the other hand, has no statistics on green buildings or the number of floor space being built versus what is actually green.

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“We only have a list of buildings. Some developers don’t go through the National Construction Authority to have projects registered since some of the structures are illegal. The country too has no clear road map on how to go green by the set deadline. This stems from a lack of a green building policy in Kenya,” says Chege.

According to the World Green Building Council, building operations account for 28 per cent of energy-related carbon emissions, making them among the largest contributors to climate change.

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“We can all see the negative effects of the building industry on our environment. We should arrest the mistakes made by the First World before it’s too late. If you are not part of the solution, you are the problem,” says Chege.

“Ignorance is bliss while the comfort zone is nice. The burden is on those who know.”

Such are the bold statements the mother of two has been making since 2011 to jolt a seemingly complacent industry. But is anyone listening?

Gikonyo Gitonga, who heads Axis Real Estate, says sustainable construction will happen when all developers see the need to go green.

Even the government, he adds, is one of the biggest developers and “nobody checks if the buildings they are putting up measure up to the green standards.”

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“Some developers are just adamant. They know it is the responsibility of the tenant or the buyer to pay for services. A developer will say, ‘I am getting my rent. Why should I worry over the cost of services the tenant will pay?’ However, such an attitude can change if the developer knows that he can recoup some expenses by building green,” says Gitonga.  

But for the green ideology to take root, Gitonga says the best place to begin is the ongoing revision of the Building Code. He feels the government might have started on the wrong footing as there has been little public participation in the process.

Little emphasis

“Apart from lack of such public participation, there is little emphasis on green building in the revision,” he adds.

The next step, Gitonga says, is to engage building professionals especially at a project’s design stage. “If the architects are not knowledgeable in green building, we will go nowhere. The developer is usually guided by the architect,” he says.

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The professional team, he adds, can help in conducting a projects energy audit and guide a developer on the type of materials that are more responsive to climate change.

However, Prof Alfred Omenya, an environmental architect, feels that while individual developers should be encouraged to go green, the climate change narrative has all to do with urban governance.

Cities, he says, are ecosystems that have been interfered with so much that they are almost getting to the tipping point.

Omenya adds that the way our cities consume and dispose of waste is a clear indicator of whether Kenya will make any headway in combating climate change.

“Cities are the largest consumers of food, water and energy, yet they produce nothing except carbon emissions. Production of these consumables is among the biggest contributors to climate change,” he says.

In contrast, he says, some cities in Sweden produce such little waste that they have to import waste in order to produce energy.

“Such efficiency stems from good governance while that cannot be said of Nairobi that is on autopilot due to the current leadership vacuum. A city that mitigates the ravages of climate change must score highly on the environmental, economic and cultural/social pillars. Nairobi scores poorly on all three,” says Omenya.

But it is not all gloom as far as sustainable building is concerned. Some developers have seen the light and designed buildings that lead in this front.

During the launch of the Zero Carbon Buildings for All programme held in Nairobi last month, Dunhill Towers won the award for the first certified Green Star commercial building in East and Central Africa due to its low carbon footprint.

“We had to educate contractors on why we wanted a building with low operational costs, low carbon footprint and that would attract forward looking clientele. While it may have cost four to seven per cent above a normal building of the same magnitude, operational costs will reduce between 14-15 per cent annually leading to a reduction in service charges,” says Nipool Shah, director at Dunhill Consulting.

Jane Waiyaki, Sustainability Programme Lead at Barclays Bank of Kenya, says there ought to be minimum requirements to developers before a building is occupied.

Incentives

On the other hand, she says both the government and the financial sector should give incentives to developers’ intent on going green.

“Banks can review their policies and provide incentives such as lower interest rates for those who want to build green. This will encourage as many developers as possible to consider the green option,” she says.

Some developers have taken advantage of the government’s tax exception on interest from green bonds. Green bonds are fixed income securities that raise capital for sustainable projects.

Acorn Holdings was the first firm in Kenya to issue a green bond last year. The bond realised Sh4.3 billion out of a possible Sh5 billion.

With the trickle of such converts, Elizabeth no longer feels like a lone “mad person” shouting about the green revolution from the rooftop.

“More are joining me in the shout. I am sure the government will make the green agenda a priority. Then we can see how far we will go.”   

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