climate change design development sustainability

Sustainable architecture in developing countries

One of the topics I write about most often on the blog is sustainable buildings. There are a few reasons why. One is that in another life, I could happily have been an architect. (I’m not a complete geek, but the doll’s house I’m currently building for Christmas meets Le Corbusier’s five points) Beyond my personal interest, buildings are priority number one when it comes to lowering our carbon emissions. It varies across regions, but globally, buildings account for around a third of CO2 emissions.

US-emissionsAround 45% of America’s emissions come from constructing or running buildings. The battle for a safe climate is being fought over how we heat, cool and light our homes, shops and public buildings.

Improving the efficiency of buildings also has multiple benefits, so it should be an uncontroversial place to start in bringing emissions down. While cutting CO2, sustainable buildings also save their occupants money and make them more comfortable. Sustainable architecture should be something we can all agree on, and President Obama’s Better Buildings Initiative is one of his environmental proposals that hasn’t been stamped on by opponents.

Finally, there is an urgency to this particular topic because the built environment locks us into high energy consumption. If you make an energy inefficient mobile phone, it’ll be used for a year to two before it is replaced by something better. A car will be on the roads for 10-12 years on average. But a home or a school? That’s going to be there for a century or more. If you make a bad building, it pushes us into high energy use for decades to come.

There is an added dimension to all this that makes it particularly important for developing countries, as I was reminded while reading Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything recently:

“It makes sense to focus our actions where it can have the greatest impact. ANd that’s clearly in the Global South… Building stock in the Asia Pacific region is projected to grow by a dramatic 47 percent by 2021, while remaining relatively stable in the developed world. That means that, while making existing buildings more energy efficient is important wherever we are, there is nothing more important than helping ensure that the new structure in Asia are built to the highest standards of efficiency.”

In Britain, our infrastructure is well established, and while there’s a lot of retrofitting to do and no excuse not to deliver the best possible new-builds, most of our big building projects are in the past. For fast-growing economies in Asia, Africa and South America, there’s a huge amount still to come. To avoid dangerous climate change, architecture in emerging economies has to be sustainable first time round.

This is a challenge to me in my building of the week series. I’ve tended to feature British projects, since those are the ones I’m most likely to hear about. But the real action is in China, Brazil, or Indonesia, and I’m going to have to work a little harder to find good case studies from there. It’s also a challenge to you, since many of the buildings I write about are suggested by readers. Let me know what you find!


  1. Hi Jeremy
    I’ve been following your site ever since leaving England in 2010; Keep up the great work.
    I’m currently trying to resolve how the global carbon budget (at IPCC level) translates into the required energy reduction per m2 of built stock. my question is quite simply what is the ‘required by science’ benchmark energy consumption for buildings for developed and developing nations. In South Africa we have great UNFCCC-level emissions data but zero on-the-ground benchmarks. Any ideas? Otherwise I’m going to string together some assumptions and interpolate.

    1. Hi Bruce, good to hear from you. I’ve heard that sustainable architecture is growing fast in South Africa, and I hope you have a hand in that!

      That’s an interesting question, and an enormous one. I’m not sure I’d know where to start, but off the top of my head perhaps one approach is to start with a one-earth emissions share per person, and then extrapolate outwards into our average use of buildings. Not sure that would work at all across different sectors, or even if you can have a per capita built stock requirement.

      Looking at energy intensity might be another way in, working out the ‘base load’ of a building and how much that could be reduced. You could look at the carbon efficiency of a building, the amount of economic and social value created per unit of GHG.

      It’s going to be fiendishly complicated any way you look at it! Have you consulted BRE or someone similar? They may have done some of the legwork as part of Britain’s Zero Carbon Homes plans.

      I tend to think that, while a ‘required by science’ angle gives us a minimum, buildings can do some of the heavy lifting for us and we could aim higher. Since it’s possible to create zero carbon or even carbon positive buildings, we should aim for that wherever possible. That then gives us more leeway for things that will never be carbon neutral in any real sense, such as transport or even agriculture.

  2. “But a home or a school? That’s going to be there for a century or more.”

    Maybe… This is a growing issue with the design and building industry. Even as codes are helping us pull the baseline performance of buildings higher, in many cases we are developing systems that could render buildings that do not last as long as their predecessors. A perfect example is glass curtain wall. The past decade has seen an explosion of tall buildings encased in glass curtain wall (in the developing and developed world) bringing the benefits of mass production, panelized and inexpensive price, and ability to install from the inside to make installation costs low.

    At the same time, aside from often designing glass buildings in environments with climates that call for something else, the integrity of these systems hinges on the glazing seals of the glass–most often silicone. Curtain wall manufacturers often warrantee their products for around 30 years… but then what? Are we really building structures to last for a century anymore? What happens when the glazing seals of a tower begin to fail?

    This is even more of an issue in the developing world where building codes are less stringent, inspection is less thorough and the design to build less expensive buildings leads to cheaper products assembled by less skilled labor. Either we should be making sure that we are working with systems that can last long enough to withstand the test of time or we should be going the other way and designing buildings that are more easily taken apart.

  3. “To avoid dangerous climate change, architecture in emerging economies has to be sustainable first time round.” I definitely agree with this notion but for developing countries, including other countries Klein did not mention in her quote that are in the Global South like say, Africa, is there enough education and investment being poured in there to empower the people to look at green building as not only good but necessary for the environment? Ironically I think we (the Global North) has a long way to go as well as long as we have voluntary green building practices in place (i.e. LEED) and convenient non-green materials sold at places like Home Depot/Home Base.

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