Healthy Green Buildings

Healthy green building initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa

The term “healthy green buildings” refers to buildings that take into consideration environmental and human health impact in their design and execution. Examples of environmental impacts include the building’s energy, water and materials efficiencies and greenhouse gas emissions. Human health considerations include the incorporation of design features that proactively aim to positively impact the health of building occupants through strategies like better ventilation systems to improve indoor air quality. To date, green buildings globally have been shown to contribute to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and improvements in occupant health and wellbeing when compared with conventional buildings. But evidence from Africa is limited. 

Sub-Saharan Africa is the world’s fastest urbanising region. A key feature of the rapid urbanisation is a proliferation of infrastructural projects to meet the needs of the growing urban population. As such, this region is in a unique position to leverage these urban activities to promote and support planetary health (the interlinkages between human health and the environments we depend on). Planetary health considerations within green building principles can be of value to urban development in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the evolution of the green building standards and systems providing an opportunity for growing cities to develop in ways that simultaneously address climate change, ensure environmental resilience and sustainability, whilst protecting the health of urban populations. 

Methods

Using Google Search, we conducted a state-of-the art review (a structured review of research studies) to identify publications or information on green building initiatives that have been conducted in sub-Saharan Africa with the aim to:

  • Identify and describe green building initiatives that have been implemented in Sub-Saharan African countries.
  • Explore the green building certifications or guidelines that have been used to rate the initiatives.
  • Identify the health considerations expressed within these certification and guideline systems.

Key findings / Progress

1. Green building initiatives

Our search identified 36 green building projects spread across 17 sub-Saharan African countries (Benin, Botswana, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia). These projects included 21 non-residential, 7 residential, and 7 mixed land use community projects.

Across these projects, we found that:

  • The building projects used 5 internationally recognised green building certification systems namely, the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology (BREEAM), Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), Green Star (GS), and Green Mark (GM) and Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies (EDGE). These certification systems were developed in the UK, USA, Australia, Singapore and by the International Finance Cooperation, respectively.
  • In some projects, green building principles were incorporated within already existing building standards. An example is the addition of the Rwanda Green Building Minimum Compliance System to Rwanda’s existing building codes.
  • Six conceptual green building community guidelines were developed by national and local government authorities providing conceptual guidelines that stipulate the design of community designs at the neighbourhood, city and national levels. Examples include the Msunduzi Green Building Standards (MGBS) in South Africa, Zambia Sustainable Housing Standards (ZSHS), Akana Masterplan and SmartCode in Gabon, Cocody Green City Plan (CGCP) in Cote d’Ivoire and Green City Kigali in Rwanda.

The use of various green building certifications and guidelines is encouraging as it highlights existing planetary health considerations within Sub-Saharan Africa’s urban development sector. However, all the identified green building certification systems were developed outside Africa in countries with remarkably different contexts. As such, our findings suggest that there is a need for certification systems and guidelines that are adapted and validated to African urban contexts adaptation. Some of this work is already underway as exemplified by the existing community-centric green building guidelines developed in South Africa, Rwanda and Zambia.

2. Health considerations in green building certification systems 

Firstly, we noted that the green building certifications and guidelines tended to use generic terms when describing health considerations such as ‘liveability and enhanced health’, ‘health and wellbeing’ ‘wellbeing of building occupants’ as opposed to specific health outcomes. Only five of the certifications and guidelines (GM, MGBS, ZSHS, GS, LEED) mentioned specific health outcomes such as building-related lung diseases, mental wellness and road traffic accident injuries. These terms were used to convey health considerations but did not specify exact outcomes. The use of generic terms instead of specific terms has the potential to confuse understanding of the linkages between green building attributes and health outcomes. This could practically limit the impact of green buildings because people with an interest in green buildings who are not well versed on health issues may not fully comprehend the full extent of the health benefits linked to green buildings.

When health considerations were specified, these were either individual or population health considerations. 

Individual considerations focused on health behaviours and outcomes linked to the architectural design of the green building interior and immediate surroundings. Highlighted features included:

  • Improving indoor air quality by limiting the use of building materials that emit pollutants, and by improving indoor ventilation systems to reduce concentration of indoor pollutants. These parameters were highlighted as important to reducing the occurrence of building-related lung diseases whilst improving general comfort.
  • Access to indoor daylighting to improve mental wellbeing. 
  • Access to outdoor green spaces and views of green spaces from within the buildings to foster connection to nature and improve general physical and mental health and wellbeing. 

Population health considerations were expressed through the need for community designs that foster physical activity, social interaction, and cohesion. 

  • Walking and cycling were the main health behaviours considered in six of the green building certifications and guidelines (ZSHS, CGCP, MGBS, BREEAM, GS, LEED).
  • Considerations for physical activity were largely expressed as community spatial plans that incorporate pedestrian and cycling lanes within existing and prospective road networks. 
  • Physical activity was also incentivized through the establishment of bike sharing facilities, increased number of green outdoor spaces, building density, and land use diversification. 
  • The addition of green public spaces and recreational facilities were also identified as ways to promote social interactions and cohesion within green building communities. 

Overall, our findings point to an, as yet fully harnessed, opportunity to centre health considerations into sustainable urban development. Achieving this potential will need individual and institutional collaboration, between those working in the health and urban development sectors, to develop and integrate specific health indicators within already existing and new green building guidelines and certification systems.

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We are currently writing up this study for publication. Watch out for the paper, coming soon!

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