When one thinks of the word “environment”, romantic images spring to mind: idyllic green fields, rolling hills, picture perfect beaches and oceans, our ancestors frolicking around in generally untouched, pristine nature. On the other hand, the term the “built environment” evokes entirely different images: think cities, roads, infrastructure and all the trappings of modern life. In other words, the antithesis of nature. But environmentalists like myself know that nature was never untouched or pristine, not since the arrival of man on the scene. And the “built environment”, when designed responsibly with our dwindling resources in mind, can be sustainable, environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient.
According to the World Bank, around 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas. This has accounted for massive urban sprawl, and consequently greater increase in water, land and air pollution. Now barring some global natural disaster (which might very well happen if we don’t reign in our rampant consumerism) or an alien invasion that would wipe humans and any traces of them off the face of the earth, cities are here to stay. But we need not let urbanism run amok. As it stands, in terms of resource consumption, buildings account for:
- 45 -50% of energy
- 50% water
- 60% of materials for buildings and roads (by bulk)
- 80% of agricultural land loss
- 60% of timber products for construction (90% of hardwoods)
One way we can make our cities more sustainable and therefore, more livable is through the application of green building design principles – a subject that is near and dear to my heart. Having worked in this particular industry for a while, I have gained a new appreciation and respect for architecture and urban planning. I’ve come to realize that a building need not simply be mortar, and bricks, steel and glass. Rather, it can be a living, breathing entity: functional, dynamic, beautiful and environmentally responsible: an ode to its natural surroundings, rather than a disruption of it.
So what is a green building? “It is a structure and a set of processes that are environmentally responsible and resource efficient throughout a building’s life cycle from design to construction right through its operation and demolition.” Emphasis is placed on minimizing as much as possible their impact on the environment through the use of reclaimed and recycled materials in construction; minimizing waste during the construction and operational phases and diverting it from landfills; appropriately siting a building near public transportation to reduce the number of cars on the road and consequently the amount of atmospheric CO2 emitted by vehicles and traffic congestion; using renewable energy systems (solar, wind etc) for heating and cooling; using water-conserving fixtures; providing access to the outdoors through views and ensuring the well-being and comfort of the building occupants. Furthermore, sustainable design makes good social and economic sense in terms of lower utility bills, lower operating costs, increased building value and lower levels of absenteeism of employees in office buildings, greater occupant comfort, well-being and productivity and an overall improvement in the quality of life.
Over the last few decades, many different rating systems have emerged that offer certification to energy-efficient, “green” buildings based on a set of criteria: waste management strategies, passive cooling strategies, daylight and views, thermal comfort of occupants, sustainable building materials during construction, sustainable site location etc. These rating systems ensure that sustainable strategies are incorporated in the decision-making process from the very beginning and informs every stage of the building’s life cycle – from design to construction, operation and demolition. The most well-known certification system is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), devised by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) which is widely used in North America, but also applicable to other parts of the world. Some countries have adapted the American system to suit their specific environmental and cultural conditions, for example, GSAS (Global Sustainability Assessment System) in Qatar, the Pear Rating System in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. Another notable system is BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method), mostly used in UK and Europe. In Egypt, the Green Pyramid Rating System was recently established, a derivative of LEED, but more adapted to Egypt’s local geographic and socio-economic conditions.
These systems award plaques or other forms of recognition based on the number of points a building achieves and a set of criteria it must meet in terms of its environmental performance. Such recognition increases the property’s value and oftentimes a company’s profits as many consumers have become much more environmentally conscious and choose to deal with companies that are more sustainability-minded.
Walking or driving around Cairo, one might very well think all the above seems like a Utopian dream. Cairo is decades behind even acceptable standards in construction, let alone sustainable green ones. If you live in Cairo, you’ve no doubt been exposed to the unholy amount of pollution in the city, or noticed the substandard quality of buildings or despaired at the city’s deplorable infrastructure. Which is a shame because Egypt’s vernacular architecture (local or native architecture adapted to the local climate and conditions practiced by indigenous societies) emphasizes the use of locally available construction materials and natural resources efficiently, as opposed to conventional architecture which focuses solely on a building’s aesthetics and performance (often in a copy-paste fashion) dismissing the natural environment completely. After all, how were the pyramids built? or traditional dwellings in agricultural areas that were designed and built in such a way that capitalized on passive cooling strategies in a region that knows no end of sunlight and heat?
But one might glimpse a turning of the tide in the solar panels that line the roofs of some of the buildings and streetlights. Many homeowners prefer to use some form of renewable energy to meet their electricity and hot water needs, for example, solar panels on villas and solar hot water heating. Solarize is a company in Egypt that provides installation and operation of solar panels and has done so for not only commercial buildings but residential buildings and villas as well.
Despite this, awareness of sustainability in the built environment is not as widespread as it should be, evidenced by the lack of consultancies or architectural firms specializing in this emerging field in Egypt. Or the depressing amount of construction waste on the side of the roads, which are an environmental and health hazard. Before there can be an overhaul of conventional architecture as practiced here or even of environmental policies (Arab Gulf countries, like Qatar, the U.A.E, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia are already years ahead with laws that have been passed requiring buildings to comply with green building design rating systems), the Egyptian collective mindset must change. People have to be educated enough to realize the environmental, social and economic long-term benefits of green buildings. Change cannot happen unless it is first desired and envisioned. Sustainable design and infrastructure can radically transform not only our built environment but our society, as a whole. For as we instinctively become more mindful of the impact that we as human beings have on the environment we will work towards minimizing it. In doing so, we will have created a much more sustainable built environment for not only our generation but our children’s as well.
For more information on sustainable design or green building rating systems, check out the following resources: The World Green Building Council LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Egyptian Green Building Council
Photo credits: Inhabitat and Asia City Farmer, Valentina Cattane for the feature image