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Why green buildings hold the future of our cities, major towns

Solar panels at the National Housing Corporation building, Nairobi. September 2021. [David Gichuru, September]

Where do you live? Maybe you live in a flat somewhere in Mathare North or Pipeline in Nairobi or Nyalenda in Kisumu where buildings are packed so closely together that natural light is a dream.

In these flats, most people have to switch on their lights even during the day. Or maybe you stay in a middle-class neighborhood with heated showers that consume a lot of energy. Where do you live? The answer to this question reveals how the houses that we live in are having grave repercussions on our environment, society and economy.

Here is a snapshot of the housing situation in Kenya: 61 per cent of our households live in rented housing units that are mostly in the urban areas. As revealed by the Kenya Population and Housing Census (KPHC) 2019, about 90 per cent of Kenyans living in urban areas live in rented houses. Sixty-five per cent of these live-in informal settlements.

Despite this sheer housing challenge, the housing market remains unconducive for low-income Kenyans. According to the Kenya Economic Report 2021, only two per cent of formally constructed houses target the lower-income segments of the market, yet this is the segment in need of decent houses.

Consequently, a staggering six out of ten people in our urban areas continue to live in overpopulated informal settlements with insufficient water and sanitation. These settlements are not energy or water efficient. Although it is a herculean task to transition them into decent green buildings, we must commit to do so.

Indeed, the jury is out on the Government’s scorecard as regards the affordable housing goal. However, we should proceed in a solution-oriented manner. Just as mobile phones leap-frogged landline phones and provided phone equity for the masses, greenhouses can leap-frog mainstream housing and deliver decent housing equity for the masses.

The current non-green buildings generate almost 40 per cent of annual global carbon emissions. These emissions come from building operations together with building materials and construction. Building operations are the activities through which buildings are operated, managed and maintained. Such activities include plumbing, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.

Workers installing solar panels on a high-rise building along Moi Avenue in Nairobi. November 10, 2021. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

It is particularly critical to green our buildings because of the rapid urbanisation taking place globally, including here in Kenya. If urbanisation keeps up with the current pace, we shall add 2.4 trillion square feet of new floor area to our worldwide building stock in few years’ time. This is equivalent to monthly addition of the entire New York City, for forty years. If these additions are going to comprise of non-green buildings, then we will deal a severe blow to the environment and our economy.

Out of Kenya’s 12.2 million households, 7.4 million live in urban areas. Unfortunately, most of them live in houses that are not energy or water efficient. As Nairobi expands to the wider Metropolitan Area; as the other 46 Counties also develop their urban centres, we need to prioritise green buildings.

Thankfully, we are taking steps in the right direction. In its big four agenda, the Government has already committed to construction of EDGE compliant houses. Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies (EDGE) is the globally accepted minimum standard for the design of climate-friendly and affordable homes. EDGE commits to a reduction of at least 20 per cent in these categories: Energy consumption; Water consumption and embodied energy.

Away from technical features of such green building standards, we need green buildings that will be solar enabled; rainwater harvesting enabled, and wastewater recycling enabled. Additionally, these buildings will be constructed from locally available materials. This lessens greenhouse gas emissions from importation and boosts the local construction sector.

Going forward, we need green contractors and green construction laborers to become commonplace in Kenya in the same way that teachers are. For that to happen, our institutions of higher learning should mainstream green construction courses. 

Let us Think and act green for posterity.