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Kenya is home to the greenest building

By | Apr 4th 2011 | 4 min read

The UN has built an office complex said to be the cleanest in the world...and a living model of a sustainable environment, writes JAMES RATEMO

Kenya is setting pace for a green economy with the opening of a first-of-its-kind solar energy-powered office complex at UN headquarters in Gigiri, Nairobi.

The office complex is "energy neutral" — meaning the building generates as much solar power as it consumes over the year.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President Mwai Kibaki officially opened the new offices of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) on Thursday.

The offices have set a new benchmark for sustainable buildings in Africa and similar ‘green’ initiatives are to be adopted in all UN offices across the world.

The complex boasts of 6,000 square metres of solar panels, environmentally friendly paint on walls, rainwater harvesting and wastewater recycling systems.

Central atrium

A central atrium running through the three-storey building makes maximum use of natural light.

Each office area features a translucent roof panel made of toughened glass, enabling natural light to penetrate right down to the ground floor.

The new building also uses low-energy bulbs and light detection controllers, which can yield savings of up to 70 per cent on lighting costs.

Water-saving taps and lavatories in the new offices will reduce water consumption, while rainwater collected on the roof is used to irrigate landscaped areas. No freshwater will be required to irrigate plants and grass areas.

The 6,000 square metres of solar panels lining the roof generate the energy that serves the building.

The photovoltaic panels convert the sun’s rays into power that runs computers, lights, cafeterias and other features of the building. Excess power is used to power other buildings and installations on the UN compound.

The design of the new UN offices means the building acts as a chimney, where warm air is drawn up from ground level and through office areas, before escaping beneath the sides of the vaulted roof.

This natural ventilation system ensures comfortable internal temperatures while cutting energy consumption.

The United Nations Office at Nairobi estimates that the money invested in the solar panels will be repaid through lower energy bills in around seven to 10 years.

Use of solar energy in Nairobi’s sunny weather is ideal since the city daytime temperatures typically range in the mid-20s Celsius with cooler evenings.

Modern showcase

This means with good design, buildings in this climate can do without heating or cooling apparatus — typically the biggest source of energy use.

Hotter Northern and Eastern parts of Kenya are even better placed to invest in solar energy.

"Our new office building is a showcase of how modern design and sustainable IT can play a critical role in helping organisations globally address climate change and achieve energy neutrality," said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of Unep.

"New technology is enabling companies everywhere to embrace and create sustainable 21st Century working environments," he said.

Living model

"This building is the greenest and cleanest in the world. It is beautiful, comfortable and efficient. But more than any of that, it is a living model of our sustainable future," said Ki-moon.

According to Ki-moon, the venture is a showcase of how sustainable buildings can help tackle climate change as well as the transition towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy.

"If our growing population is going to survive on this planet, we need smart designs that maximise resources, minimise waste and serve people and communities," Ki-moon said.

"This facility embodies the new, green economy that can usher in a cleaner future, create jobs and spur growth."

By using notebook computers instead of desktop PCs, electricity use can be reduced by around a third. The building’s 1,200 staff members walk on 100 per cent recyclable carpet and environmentally friendly paint coats the office walls.

Indigenous trees have been planted on landscaped areas surrounding the building.

Greenhouse emissions

The building industry is the single largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, with one third of energy use taking place in offices and homes.

Moreover, building-related carbon emissions are set to rise from 8.6 billion tonnes in 2004 to 11.1 billion tonnes in 2020.

It was with these challenges in mind that UN set out in 2009 to design a new headquarters for Unep and UN-Habitat that would maximise sustainability without compromising the quality of the working environment of the 1,200 employees.

The unveiling of the new office complex came as the United Nations released details of its greenhouse gas emissions for 52 institutions, covering 200,000 employees, in a new report published as part of ongoing efforts to reduce the organisation’s carbon footprint.

The report, co-coordinated by Unep, calculates the UN’s total greenhouse gas emissions for 2009 at 1.7 million tonnes of carbon or 8.3 tonnes per capita.

Over 50 per cent of UN’s emissions are from air travel — making this the biggest challenge for the organisation in reducing its overall carbon footprint. Around 37 per cent of emissions are from buildings and 13 per cent are from vehicles.

One UN agency estimated that up-front investment for video-conferencing equipment would total $3.3 million, but that the resulting 10 per cent reduction in air travel would lead to year-one cost savings of $4.6 million and a reduction of 1225 tonnes of carbon.

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