How sustainable construction in developing countries is making a difference

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Construction is a global business and it would be easy to think that we in the west are the only ones who are taking the need for sustainability seriously – but it is not true. While the challenges are significant, many developing countries are pioneering innovative approaches to reduce carbon emissions within their own construction industries, showing how sustainable construction can make a difference to climate change – just check out the evidence - writes John Ridgeway.

Limited financial resources to implement renewable energy infrastructure and clean technologies is expensive, particularly for third world countries. Balancing economic growth with environmental sustainability requires careful planning and policy measures and developing countries may not have the same access to advanced clean technologies as developed nations, but in spite of these limitations, they are making considerable progress.

Colombia

Guaduas, Colombia, a town known for its traditional bamboo architecture, is leading a movement to promote the material as a sustainable building product. Bamboo is a fast-growing, renewable resource with a low carbon footprint and the town uses it for construction projects, reducing reliance on deforestation and promoting local businesses.

For centuries, Guaduas has been renowned for its beautiful bamboo architecture. Spanish colonists introduced the technology and it became deeply ingrained in the town's identity. The specific species used is Guadua angustifolia, a native giant bamboo known for its strength and versatility.

Bamboo is a fast-growing renewable resource with a much lower carbon footprint compared to traditional building materials like steel or concrete. Its rapid growth cycle allows for sustainable harvesting without deforestation concerns.

Guaduas has now become a hub for bamboo construction knowledge. Workshops and training programnes educate architects, engineers, and builders on best practices for using bamboo in construction.

Nepal

Following the devastating 2015 earthquake, Nepal has seen a rise in earthbag construction, a sustainable and earthquake-resistant building technique. Earthbag construction uses readily available local soil packed into polypropylene bags. These bags are then stacked and tamped down in a specific pattern, creating strong and stable walls.

To enhance structural integrity, barbed wire or other reinforcements are often placed between layers of bags. This helps distribute stress and prevents cracking during earthquakes. The filled bags act as individual shock absorbers, dissipating seismic energy and minimising structural damage. Following the 2015 earthquake, all 55 existing earthbag structures reportedly survived intact, highlighting their effectiveness.

Earthbag construction uses local materials, reducing reliance on imported resources like concrete and minimising environmental impact. Additionally, the technique requires minimal energy for construction compared to traditional methods.

Since earthbags use readily available soil, the construction process is highly accessible and cost-effective, particularly in remote areas. This makes it a viable option for communities rebuilding after disasters.

With its success in Nepal, earthbag construction is gaining interest in other earthquake-prone regions. Sharing knowledge and best practices through training programmes is likely to further promote its adoption.

India

Startup companies in India are developing prefabricated green housing units that are energy-efficient and minimise construction waste. Prefabricated construction reduces on-site emissions and construction time. These green units often incorporate features like solar panels and rainwater harvesting, further reducing the environmental footprint.

Prefabricated construction takes place in a controlled factory setting, minimising on-site waste and noise pollution. Additionally, the controlled environment allows for efficient use of materials, further reducing environmental impact.

Prefabricated green housing units prioritise energy efficiency. Features like high-performance insulation, energy-efficient windows, and LED lighting systems help to significantly reduce energy consumption.

India faces a massive housing shortage, and prefabricated green units offer a promising solution for rapid and sustainable housing development. These units can be designed for various needs, from affordable housing projects to disaster-resilient structures.

Prefabricated green housing design is constantly evolving, incorporating new technologies and sustainable materials like bamboo or recycled content. We can expect even more innovative and eco-friendly units in the future as the benefits of prefabricated green housing become evident.

China

China's construction industry is massive, and its environmental impact can be significant. However, China is taking a proactive approach by implementing a national green building rating system and mandating green building standards in various regions.

China's green building rating system, often referred to as the "Three Star" system, is a comprehensive approach to evaluating the environmental performance of buildings. It sets standards for various aspects including energy efficiency, water use, material selection, and indoor environmental quality.

Buildings are rated on a scale of one to three stars, with three stars being the most environmentally friendly. This rating system provides a clear benchmark for developers and builders to strive for.

Various regions in China are also taking further initiatives by mandating green building standards in their construction codes. This ensures that a baseline level of environmental performance is achieved in new buildings.

By promoting energy-efficient practices, sustainable material use, and improved indoor air quality, China's green building initiatives are contributing significantly to reducing the construction industry's environmental impact.

Effective enforcement of green building standards is crucial the success of the three-star system. China faces challenges in ensuring consistent implementation across its vast and diverse construction market.

That said, China's green building initiatives are setting a positive example for other countries and as it continues to refine its policies and share its experiences, it can play a leading role in promoting sustainable construction practices on a global scale.

Rwanda

Kigali, Rwanda's bustling capital, is leading the way in sustainable urban development with a green roof initiative. Kigali, like many urban areas, experiences the urban heat island effect, where temperatures are higher than surrounding areas and green roofs are helping to mitigate this effect by providing shade and reducing heat absorption by buildings.

The Kigali green roof initiative promotes sustainable practices in construction and urban planning, positioning the city as a leader in environmental responsibility. By helping to raise awareness about the benefits of green roofs among policymakers, developers and the public is gradually leading to wider adoption of this technology in Rwanda and other African countries.

Ghana

Ghana is piloting projects that convert plastic waste into construction bricks. This not only reduces plastic pollution but also creates a low-cost, sustainable building materials.

Ghana, like many developing countries, faces a significant plastic waste problem. This initiative aims to divert plastic waste from landfills and waterways, promoting a cleaner environment. Collected plastic waste is sorted, cleaned, and shredded. The shredded plastic is then mixed with other materials, often sand or local soil, to create a composite material.

The resulting composite material is compressed into durable and eco-friendly construction bricks. These bricks can be used for various construction purposes, including walls, non-load-bearing partitions and even paving.

By using plastic waste in construction, Ghana is significantly reducing plastic pollution and promoting a more circular economy within the construction sector. The plastic recycling and brick manufacturing process is creating new job opportunities, contributing to economic development.

Scaling up production, however, to meet wider construction needs remains a challenge. Additionally, ensuring consistent quality and performance of the recycled plastic bricks requires ongoing research and development.

Recycled plastic bricks may need to undergo further testing and approval processes to meet building code requirements in certain regions. Raising awareness about the benefits and structural integrity of recycled plastic bricks is also crucial for wider adoption in the construction industry.

Brazil

Brazil is exploring deconstruction techniques, dismantling old buildings and reusing salvaged materials for new construction projects. This reduces construction waste and promotes a circular economy within the industry. A global leader in biofuels, Brazil also has a significant portion of its energy mix coming from sugarcane ethanol, reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

Traditional demolition methods generate significant amounts of waste. Deconstruction, on the other hand, involves carefully dismantling buildings and salvaging reusable materials like bricks, wood and metal for new construction projects. This significantly reduces construction waste going to landfills.

By promoting material reuse, deconstruction fosters a circular economy within the construction industry. Salvaged materials get a second life, reducing reliance on virgin resources and minimising environmental impact.

Equally as important, Brazil is a global leader in biofuels, with sugarcane ethanol accounting for a significant portion of its transportation fuel mix. Ethanol is a renewable fuel derived from sugarcane and offers a cleaner alternative to traditional fossil fuels.

By using biofuels, Brazil reduces its reliance on imported oil and lowers greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transportation sector.

Morocco

Morocco is at the forefront of educational innovation with its project to build schools equipped with integrated solar panels. This initiative offers a multitude of benefits, promoting both education and sustainability. The integrated solar panels generate electricity for the schools, reducing reliance on the national grid. This ensures schools have a reliable source of power, crucial for operating lights, computers, and other essential equipment.

By generating their own electricity, schools can significantly reduce energy costs, freeing up resources for educational materials and programmes. These solar-powered schools also serve as a living example of sustainable design for students, teachers and the surrounding community. This fosters environmental awareness and inspires future generations to embrace renewable energy solutions.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia, known for its vast hydropower potential, is utilising this renewable energy source to power construction projects. This reduces reliance on fossil fuels and promotes clean energy use within the industry.

Hydropower offers a reliable and clean source of energy and is less susceptible to price fluctuations associated with fossil fuels. This ensures a stable power supply for construction activities, minimising disruptions and delays.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is a massive hydroelectric project and upon completion, is expected to be the largest in Africa. The dam's generated power can be used to provide clean energy for various construction projects across the country. Even during construction phases, surplus power can be used to run machinery and equipment at the dam site itself.

For smaller-scale construction projects in remote areas, Ethiopia is expected to explore the use of mobile hydropower plants. These portable units can be easily transported and set up near rivers or streams, providing clean power for on-site operations.

Effectively utilising this hydropower for construction projects relies on a well-developed electricity grid infrastructure. Ethiopia may need to invest in expanding and modernising its grid to ensure efficient transmission of energy.

Vietnam

Vietnam's construction industry is witnessing a fascinating trend – the revival of traditional vernacular architecture. This approach offers a sustainable and culturally rich alternative to modern construction methods, with several key benefits.

Because vernacular architecture emphasises the use of materials readily available in the local environment, this reduces reliance on transportation and minimises the impact associated with extracting and processing new materials. In Vietnam, this might include bamboo, wood, clay bricks, and natural fibres.

Traditional Vietnamese homes incorporate design elements that promote natural ventilation and passive cooling. This can include features like open floor plans that allow for air circulation throughout the living space, elevated floors, for air to flow beneath the house, overhanging eaves to provide shade for walls and windows, to reduce heat absorption and strategically placed windows and ventilation openings to facilitate natural cross-ventilation.

By employing passive cooling techniques, vernacular architecture significantly reduces the need for energy-intensive air conditioning systems. This translates to lower energy consumption and a smaller carbon footprint for buildings. The revival of vernacular architecture also helps safeguard Vietnam's unique architectural heritage and cultural identity.

This policy does, however, present certain challenges and considerations. Some traditional building methods may not comply with current building codes, requiring adaptations to ensure structural safety. Certain natural materials may also require more frequent maintenance compared to modern materials.

That said, Vietnam is demonstrating a commitment to sustainable construction. The revival of vernacular architecture offers a path forward that is not only environmentally responsible but also respectful of local traditions.

Mali

In the scorching heat of Mali's arid climate, traditional building practices are making a comeback. Earthen construction techniques, passed down through generations, are being recognised for their remarkable ability to keep homes cool and comfortable, while also offering significant environmental benefits:

Earthen materials such as mudbrick and rammed earth have high thermal mass. This means they absorb and retain heat during the day, releasing it slowly at night. This natural thermal regulation keeps indoor spaces cooler, reducing reliance on energy-intensive air conditioning systems.

Earthen construction uses readily available local materials, minimising transportation needs and environmental impact associated with manufacturing and processing modern building materials. The production of earthen materials also requires minimal energy compared to materials like concrete or steel. This translates to a lower carbon footprint for the construction process.

Traditional earthen structures are also often designed with features that promote natural ventilation and airflow, further enhancing their cooling capabilities.

Mudbricks, made from sun-dried earth mixed with straw or other natural fibres, are a common building material in Mali. Walls constructed with mudbricks offer excellent thermal insulation and breathability. This technique involves compacting moist earth into moulds to create strong and durable walls.

Earthen structures may, of course, require more regular maintenance compared to modern buildings, particularly during heavy rains. Techniques such as applying protective coatings can improve weather resistance. Proper construction with earthen materials also requires skilled craftspeople with knowledge of traditional techniques. Reviving and supporting these skills is crucial for the continued success of earthen construction.

In spite of these challenges, Mali is demonstrating a path towards a cooler future. The revival of earthen construction offers a sustainable and culturally rich approach to building that is not only kind to the environment but also provides much-needed comfort in a harsh climate.

Philippines

The Philippines, a nation prone to natural disasters, is fostering a powerful movement – community-driven housing projects. These initiatives empower residents to build their own disaster-resilient homes using recycled materials. This approach offers a multitude of benefits:

Residents actively participate in the construction process, gaining valuable skills and fostering a sense of ownership over their homes. Community members also contribute their local knowledge and understanding of the environment, leading to the development of contextually appropriate housing solutions.

By using recycled materials like plastic bottles, scrap wood and salvaged metal, these projects promote sustainable practices and reduce reliance on virgin resources. Such construction techniques are also designed to withstand typhoons, earthquakes and other natural disasters, providing residents with safer and more secure homes.

Reusing materials diverts them from landfills, minimising environmental impact and these projects contribute to poverty alleviation by providing residents with safe and secure housing, leading to improved living conditions and overall well-being.

The Ikea Foundation and Habitat for Humanity collaboration, is one such partnership that promotes the construction of disaster-resilient homes utilising innovative building technologies and recycled materials. Community-driven housing projects like this have played a crucial role in rebuilding homes destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan, empowering residents to participate in their own recovery.

So we can see that community-driven housing projects in the Philippines represent a powerful model for empowering residents, promoting sustainable practices and building disaster resilience. By fostering a sense of ownership and leveraging local knowledge, these initiatives pave the way for a brighter and more secure future for Filipino communities.

Kenya

Kenya stands out as a beacon of geothermal energy in Africa. This renewable resource plays a vital role in the country's electricity generation, offering a multitude of benefits:

Geothermal energy accounts for a significant portion of Kenya's electricity mix, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and promoting energy security. As of 2023, Kenya had over 890 MW of geothermal capacity, enough to power millions of homes. Geothermal energy is derived from the Earth's internal heat, making it a virtually inexhaustible and very much a sustainable energy source. Unlike fossil fuels, it doesn't contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

Such power plants can produce electricity consistently and reliably, regardless of weather conditions. This provides a stable and dependable source of power for the national grid. Once geothermal power plants are operational, the cost of electricity generation is relatively low and stable, compared to fluctuating fuel prices associated with fossil fuels.

Kenya's Geothermal Powerhouse: The Olkaria Geothermal Fields in the Great Rift Valley are at the heart of the country’s geothermal energy production. Several operational geothermal power plants utilise steam from these underground reservoirs to generate electricity.

The Olkaria fields hold immense potential for further development, with the Kenyan government aiming to significantly increase geothermal capacity to help it transition to 100% clean energy by 2030. Expanding geothermal power generation will be crucial in achieving this target.

Kenya's leadership in geothermal energy demonstrates a strong commitment to clean and sustainable power generation. By harnessing the Earth's heat, Kenya is paving the way for a brighter future, not just for its own citizens, but for the entire African continent.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica has also emerged as a global leader in sustainability, boasting impressive achievements in both renewable energy generation and forest conservation:

Costa Rica stands out for its remarkable reliance on renewable energy sources. The country generates a very high percentage (often exceeding 95%) of its electricity from clean sources like hydropower and geothermal power. This significantly reduces dependence on fossil fuels and minimises greenhouse gas emissions.

Hydroelectric and geothermal power plants form the backbone of Costa Rica's renewable energy mix. Hydropower utilises the power of flowing water, while geothermal energy taps into the Earth's internal heat, both offering clean and sustainable electricity generation.

Costa Rica also has a significant portion of its land area covered by forests. These forests act as vital carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and mitigating the effects of climate change. In the past, deforestation posed a serious threat in Costa Rica. However, through innovative policies and community engagement, the country has achieved remarkable success in reforestation efforts, significantly increasing its forest cover.

Costa Rica's commitment to renewable energy and forest conservation sets a powerful example for other nations. This approach promotes environmental sustainability, combats climate change, and protects biodiversity.

Looking Forward:

So we can see, that in spite of significant financial challenges, developing countries are increasingly recognising the importance of sustainable construction practices. As access to technology improves and costs become more competitive, we can expect to see these initiatives gain further traction – and when they do – Talk.Build will be there to report it.

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