Surely, you must have wondered too, or at least know someone within your circles who has asked, what the fuss is all about. Why is this such a buzz phrase these days? What, at all, are green buildings? Not to worry, if you are within that bracket, today is your lucky day, I will attempt to shed a bit of insight and when I am done, hopefully you won’t be as green about the subject as before.
Sorry for my lack of manners, before we delve into the serious matter that is green buildings, allow me to introduce myself and why I have called this meeting. I am what you will call a thought leader, a bridge between industry knowledge and you the seekers. I share knowledge I have acquired from my various experiences and findings within the real estate space. I do not however claim to be an expert, we are here to share, I set the table, you consume and give me feedback. Win win right? Now back to the matter.
As founder of the Ghana Green Building Summit (pops invisible collar), I cannot recall the countless number of times I got asked this question, especially after our recent summit in June. So, when I got offered this column to share my views on topical real estate issues, naturally, green buildings came to mind and hence the subject of this article. My simplest answer to what green buildings are, have always been that they are buildings that are energy and resource efficient and also ones that have less impact on the environment. Trust me, even after this explanation I still get the confused looks. To explain this in the simplest of ways, let me tell you a story. Stay with me, it’s a short and lovely one I promise.
Green to Grey
A very very long time ago, the world had abundant natural resources from which we extracted our building materials. For instance, our favourite ancestor, Nuumo Agbaajena and his kin lived in an environment where the shrubs, trees and earth were available within a touching distance to build mud or earth homes covered with a thatch roof. The arrangement worked well, these materials provided enough cooling for the interior, good indoor air quality, natural lighting and had minimal effect on the environment. These natural materials are variously referred to as sustainable, green or eco-friendly because they don’t deplete the environment.
As generations came and went, Nuumo Agbaajena’s descendants drifted to other modern materials. There came a yearning for firmer and more solid structures, ostensibly to secure these modern buildings, mitigate threats of bad weather and poor security. So with these concerns, along came concrete. For a while concrete worked well, it did, until its effects on the environment and wellness in general couldn’t be ignored further. To understand why concrete and other building materials and technology impacts negatively on the environment, we need to just take a second to review the concrete production cycle. Hold on, don’t go anywhere, I am getting to the punch of this very soon.
Concrete is a composition of sand, gravel or stones and water mixed with a binder, usually cement. Now the problem here is that, production of these building blocks, especially cement contributes to carbon dioxide or CO2 emissions that contribute to rising temperatures and excessive heat in our climate. To put the destructive nature of concrete and cement into perspective, consider these numbers. Concrete is said to be responsible for 4-8% of the world’s CO2 or greenhouse gas emissions. Half of these emissions are created during the manufacture of clinker, the most-energy intensive part of the cement-making process. Concrete production sucks up almost a 10th of the world’s industrial water use thereby a big strain on our water bodies. When also used to pave our surroundings, it prevents the surface of the earth that would hitherto have been natural earth or a green landscape soaking up water freely, thereby causing unnecessary floods and disasters. If you live in Accra, you can bear testimony to how easy it floods these days, all at the mercy of so called “modernity”. The sand used is so significant that, its extraction is causing gaping holes in our environment. The dust from production and mixers contributes as much as 10% of the coarse particulate matter that together with transportation of materials between these production and building sites contributes to respiratory disease.
It’s very much a grey world now, such a big drift from Nuumo Agbaajena’s green and blue world. The bad news is, concrete block production or material usage is only a fraction of the negative impact that construction of buildings have on the environment. There are other elements like energy, design, indoor air quality, water conservation which all go to determine if a building is green. Can we all agree that the green building conversation is therefore a must have? Well, here are the solutions to counter the negative impacts of building construction.
Back to Green
It will interest you to know that by merely putting up buildings or with increased construction activity, buildings alone around the world account for more than 40 percent of energy use and almost a third of greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations Environment Programme projects that if we continue with business as usual in the building sector, these emissions will more than double by 2030.
The need to use alternative material in construction as well as ensure green building practices has never been more important. If Nuumo Agbaajene was alive today, he will find it quite curious how his old mud house or atakpame as it was called is now packaged as rammed earth and used in place of cement blocks. Other green or sustainable materials like bricks, bamboo, straw, and certain types of glass are on the rise. These materials trap less heat and hence decrease your usage of ACs, fans etc. thereby cutting down on your utility bills. The easiest or most recognizable feature of green building are those fitted with solar panels which either back up the national electricity grid or generate a building’s entire energy needs. Window placement in relation to the angle of the sun can affect the energy efficiency of a building as well as heating and cooling costs. Most people spend 90 percent of their time indoors hence, lighting is critical. Daylight should be allowed to come into the building as much as possible and in this regard, skylights are encouraged to be incorporated into the design. Buildings with roofing and insulation that also ward off heat and rather maintain a cool interior are considered green. It is also estimated that globally, buildings use 13.6 percent of all potable water, so reducing water consumption with ultra-low flush toilets and low-flow faucets are all key aspects in establishing a green building.
The benefits of building green have both personal wellness benefits and less negative impact on the environment. It is therefore an opportune time because unlike the developed nations with advanced infrastructure, we in Ghana are at the cusp of an infrastructure boom and this marks the best time to spark this conversation and other initiatives to get it right, by not only promoting but also practicing green built methods. Somewhere in a quiet place, Nuumo Agbajeena, agrees, probably exclaiming “tswa omanye aba”
The writer is the Executive director of Yecham Property Consult
& Founder of Ghana Green Building Summit.
Linkedin: Cyril Nii Ayitey Tetteh