Sustainability
5 min

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES OF SUSTAINABLE CONSTRUCTION IN THE GLOBAL SOUTH

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES OF SUSTAINABLE CONSTRUCTION IN THE GLOBAL SOUTH

We live in a world that is growing ever more urban. Cities across the globe are swelling in size, and this is most apparent in the countries of the Global South. UN-Habitat estimates that the footprint of city land area will increase from 2020 levels by 34% in high-income countries, while in contrast, in low-income countries, the increase will be 141%.

We live in a world that is growing ever more urban. Cities across the globe are swelling in size, and this is most apparent in the countries of the Global South. UN-Habitat estimates that the footprint of city land area will increase from 2020 levels by 34% in high-income countries, while in contrast, in low-income countries, the increase will be 141%.

So, a lot of construction will take place in the Global South. There will be many more people to house and companies to create offices and headquarters for. But as we know, the construction industry and building maintenance significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The building and construction sector contributed 39% of energy and process-related CO2 emissions in 2018, so construction in the Global South as sustainable as possible to reduce the associated carbon emissions must be a priority.

Sustainable construction: growing awareness in the Global South

Sustainable construction is "a holistic process aiming to restore and maintain harmony between the natural and the built environments, and create settlements that affirm human dignity and encourage economic equity." This is according to Agenda 21 for Sustainable Construction in Developing Countries. Therefore, not only is it about reducing the industry's carbon footprint, but construction in the Global South implementing and using design principles, construction techniques, and materials that will prevent the project from becoming unsustainable in the future.

Fortunately, there is growing awareness and practice of sustainable construction. Dario IbargĂĽengoitia, founding president of Sustentabilidad para MĂ©xico, believes that although decarbonization is not thoroughly permeated into Latin American society, there is a growing tendency towards constructing spaces that are energy efficient, healthier, and well-ventilated with good thermal comfort.

Specific challenges and local opportunities 

Sustainable construction materials should ideally be local to reduce the air or road miles needed to transport them to the construction site. This is the case in Thailand, as Bundit Pradabsook, the Commissioner of The Association of Siamese Architects under Royal Patronage, explained. He said using drywall material like gypsum in high-rise buildings is advantageous for various reasons. One is that drywall can save occupants up to 27% on their air conditioning bill. In addition, the material is available locally, reducing the road miles needed to get it to the site. He said: "The cost of transportation is lower per square meter as drywall is six times lighter than a precast concrete wall."    

 

South African building performance specialist Mlondolozi Hempe has also noticed more and more people using light and sustainable materials like timber but recognizes that there needs to be a change in mindset for sustainable construction to be entirely accepted and applied. He said: "The key thing causing difficulty in transition is more centered around people being used to buying a certain product. They are used to making money in a certain way." However, there is increasing support for green construction with official guides and information from sources like the City of Cape Town Smart Building Handbook. Similarly, the Rebuilding 101 Manual: rebuilding strategies for Haiti was published after the severe earthquake in 2010. It offers advice on construction methods for building in earthquake and hurricane-prone zones. Finally, giving a more general perspective, Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa highlights 850 buildings across the continent, offering inspiration and addressing construction challenges. 

 

Reducing carbon emissions… and energy bills 

The countries of the Global South have less money than those in the Global North for various reasons. The effect of sustainable construction is less money to spend on more environmentally friendly materials and passive mechanisms that would reduce the operational carbon emissions of the building project or even the plot of land on which to build. Because those solutions can be expensive to buy or install. Nevertheless, sustainable materials are gaining a foothold, as Hempe has observed that people have built their own shacks using lightweight structures.  

 

Where possible, construction elements that can reduce operational carbon emissions should be added to offices and dwellings in the Global South, even though the cost for this may need to be borne by a charity or an NGO. For example, when city authorities in Cape Town retrofitted 2,300 homes with solar water heating and roof insulation, it reduced the poverty level of the occupants as their heating bills were lowered. In addition, their respiratory health improved thanks to the insulation, and the local economy was boosted as local residents were provided with on-the-job training.