Architect Musau Kimeu on environmental values in architecture

Architect Musau Kimeu
Architect Musau Kimeu

(Chairman, Environmental Design Consultants Chapter, AAK)

In the Architectural Association of Kenya Annual Convention, the Chapter of Environmental Design Consultants reflected on the importance of having good quality environment. The quest for environmental values in architecture, for a harmonious balance between man and his environment is not new.

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It is so much that for centuries, mankind adopted this approach out of necessity, particularly in vernacular architecture.

However, since the industrial revolution, this has been increasingly abandoned in favour of universal architecture, which in many parts of the world, Kenya included has led to energy intensive buildings.

The effects of global warming and Climate Change are increasingly becoming apparent, notably in Kenya is the serious famine we are witnessing today, diminishing rains, drying rivers including the once mighty Tana and Athi, and power rationing just to mention but a few.

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Faced with these dangers, the public and policymakers alike must become conscious of the need to protect our environment. One response to these issues as raised in international summit meetings is to approach architecture in a way that respects the environment.

But how many of our professionals are ready to take this route? Is the older generation of professionals in our country ready for this shift in the way we design or do they feel threatened? What about young professionals? For us in the building industry, we ought to take a leading role especially when we know that globally buildings account for over 50% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and that CO2 is the main cause of global Climate Change.

It is true that if CO2 emission by buildings was effectively addressed, this would be a major intervention against global warming and Climate Change.

As building professionals, we must take a keen interest in green buildings and always remember that the architecture of the 21st Century is about environmental design. We must remember that green buildings will only result from building professionals working together to achieve this common objective. Since buildings have a long life, the effects of decisions made today will be felt for many years to come.

Thus, low environmental impact should be a builtin feature of building design by all professionals, clients and developers who claim to be producing quality buildings since quality requires that today’s buildings not only meet the needs of the present occupants but also be an asset rather than a liability for our children and future generations.

To achieve this, we must ‘touch this earth lightly’. From around 1980 to present, we have constructed too many buildings that are poorly designed from an energy consumption point of view and sadly society will have to pay the price for many years to come.

Power rationing has become the norm in Kenya yet if we design buildings that are low in energy consumption we will be dealing with power rationing and Climate Change head on. Amongst architects practicing in the tropics, one of the favourite energy intensive buildings is the air-conditioned glass clad building. This building type is very fashionable in Kenya and is still on our architects’ drawing boards even though it is one of the worst building types being erected in the tropics today.

A survey in most of our towns will confirm this, with Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu City being top on the list. Yet how much louder must it be said that the glass clad building is only good in the temperate (cold) climates of Europe, North America etc and is not suitable for the tropical (hot) climates?

That notwithstanding, if you must build one in tropical climates, Kenya included, then all the glass must be fully sun-shaded throughout daytime, in addition to having the building naturally well ventilated. That is not rocket science! As a rule of thumb for good design in the tropics, all buildings should be fully sunshaded against direct solar radiation and naturally ventilated.

In spite of that, many of us professionals are busy on our drawing boards and computers designing the next glass clad building in town.

When did glass buildings that are suitable for Chicago and London also become suitable for Mombasa and Kisumu? Must we copy the West? Why must we build these glass furnaces in our towns? Shame on those of us who are designing these buildings! For practicing architects in Nairobi’s tropical upland climate, if you find yourself designing buildings that requires air conditioning to achieve habitable thermal conditions, then let truth be told: you are most likely an insensitive designer… period.

The effects of these airconditioned glass clad buildings and energy intensive buildings in general are today without doubt being felt by all and the end result is what everyone is talking about: Climate Change.

It is important that architects, engineers and developers make a decisive attempt to combat global warming by putting up environmentally friendly buildings. Consequently, the need for building professionals to work together to achieve this common objective cannot be over emphasised.

At present, what we need is a new generation of buildings: low in energy consumption and environmentally friendly, that will set new standards in our urban centres.

Hence, we must stop copying the West and instead design buildings that are suitable for our tropical climates. We must realise that the importance of environmentally friendly buildings has never been more central to both the economic and environmental welfare of our country.

Economic welfare in the sense that well designed environmentally friendly buildings reduce energy bills, encourage greater productivity as well as improve the user’s image etc. Environmental welfare in that this will lead to reduction in CO2 emission, create better-Built Environments and help us to move towards sustainable development.

At present, the Government should take the leading role to facilitate and encourage best environmental practice. So much so that practically all the new government buildings should be environmentally friendly and should be good case studies for “green” building principles.

This is not difficult to achieve if the government is willing, considering our country has one of the highest number of architects in Africa with specialised post graduate training in Environmental design in architecture, most of whom are graduates of University of Cambridge,

United Kingdom. The government should seriously make use of these experts. At the same time, the private sector should not be left out too.

As part of AAK’s response to the challenge of Climate Change, the association urgently needs to appeal to the government and together develop a Climate Change Policy, which should set out guidelines on how best to use design to counter Climate Change.

Further, the association should push up its public awareness campaign on the threat posed by Climate change and also lobby influential organizations and government.

It is important that the government moves to the forefront and be seen to guide the construction industry by developing comprehensive targets to counter the challenges of Climate Change.

Meanwhile, let the various government ministries whose portfolio is related to the construction industry come forward and support the initiative currently underway to operationalise the recently registered

Kenyan chapter of the World Green Building Council: The Kenya Green Building Council.

(Source: AAK Annual Convention magazine)

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