Why the Global South needs different sustainability benchmarks for buildings

  • As world governments grapple with environmental crises, the construction industry rushes to reevaluate sustainable design and develop new ways of measuring its efficiency.
  • Consequently, green building certification systems (GBCS) started gaining traction in the 20th century to evaluate and promote sustainable construction practices.
  • The Global South faces distinctive challenges in building sustainable cities.
  • Its developing nations demand an exclusive approach to designing an appropriate, economical, and inspiring architecture for their promising futures.

Green building certification systems are formulated to evaluate a building’s performance from a sustainable and environmental lens. They seek to provide tools and methods to assess the environmental impact and resource efficiency of a building. Aspects from energy usage to material performance are measured in a standardized manner to allow for optimized comparisons between design options. Structures that meet a required level of quality earn a certificate proving so from an international or local green building council.

The most popular GBCSs are ‘Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’ (LEED) and ‘Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method’ (BREEAM). Originally developed for the USA and UK respectively, both benchmarks are currently used to assess building performance in more than 50 countries worldwide. While international GBCSs allow for a standardized and effective assessment, they fall short when addressing the needs of countries in the Global South.

Benchmarks primarily catering to North America and Europe are created for developed economies, factoring in characteristics like fossil fuel usage and mega carbon emissions. International certifications can be challenging to comply with or expensive to obtain in developing economies where the public sector and low-income housing projects fuel growth. “Ideally green building certifications should be tailored to local conditions and building policies”, shares Carolin Schramm from Kenya-based BuildX Studio.

Most international rating systems are not adapted to the environmental, cultural, historical, social, and economic settings of Global South settlements. Additionally, modern green building methodologies are relatively in their infancy in the emerging economies of this region. Certificationsystems such as Pakistan’s ‘Sustainability in Energy and Environmental Development’ (SEED) were developed on standards from the Global North, failing to address their unique conditions. Context-sensitive sustainability benchmarks for Southern nations are evidently the need of the hour.

Masdar Institute – FosterPartners. Image© Tyler Caine

In these countries, a common need to sustainably meet rising housing demands calls for low-carbon local building materials and techniques. Infrastructural projects are growing at an alarming rate in the next megacities of the world and require ecologically-friendly innovations. Exclusive consideration of the region’s tropical, temperate, and arid climate zones would further help retain locally-relevant building technologies.

International green standards are often difficult to attain or afford for project stakeholders in the South. Countries require tailored and accessible green building benchmarks to meet their individual sustainability goals. “In developing economies, funding or green credits can be used to support projects aiming for certification”, states Schramm. “In the long run, the industry must advocate for a shift in building regulations to make sustainability a norm”, she adds.

As a response to the need to incentivize green buildings, the World Bank Group, through the International Finance Corporation, devised the system ‘Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies’ (EDGE) in 2012. The certification was created especially for emerging economies such as countries of the Global South, where affordability and regional relevance restricts projects from obtaining certification.

Currently, only a small proportion of buildings in emerging economies are certified due to a lack of cost-effective systems. EDGE is positioned as a quick, widely available, and affordable certification system, significantly influencing economic growth and environmental sustainability in these regions. Its free software allows designers to assess green design strategies based on occupant behavior, building type, and the local climate. By establishing an attainable certification system sensitive to the needs of developing countries, GBCSs for the South can move beyond greenwashing attempts to intentionally craft sustainable habitats.

The Global South is well equipped with vernacular climatology-driven architectural solutions that meet the essential needs of their communities and ecologies. To embrace local cultures and sustainable futures, tailored green benchmarks must support the development of countries, cities, and economies. A thorough understanding of the contextual conditions and challenges of the Global South will lay the foundation for a sustainable tomorrow.


This article was first published in ArchDaily and is republished with permission.


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Green Building Africa promotes the need for net carbon zero buildings and cities in Africa. We are fiercely independent and encourage outlying thinkers to contribute to the #netcarbonzero movement. Climate change is upon us and now is the time to react in a more diverse and broader approach to sustainability in the built environment. We challenge architects, property developers, urban planners, renewable energy professionals and green building specialists. We also challenge the funding houses and regulators and the role they play in facilitating investment into green projects. Lastly, we explore and investigate new technology and real-time data to speed up the journey in realising a net carbon zero environment for our children.

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