Thursday, February 29, 2024

Going green

It is time we brought sanity to our built environment!

I keep wondering whether or not the message from the previous articles has sunk-in, in the minds of the general public, about the significance of green building, issues of sustainability and the risks of not going green, given that Batswana are apparently perceived by their own kith and kin to have a poor interest in reading. Batswana ga ba bale, it is often said. Very few have engaged me on the subject and the content of the previous articles which I hoped was thought-provoking and would generate debate about the highly topical issue of sustainability and the built environment. That the column is not simply about entertaining newspaper reading but serious and real issues of survival, life and death is yet to register, it would seem.

And thus I have been tempted, in this installment and on account of lethargy (a common symptom of the Sick Building Syndrome) to reiterate the message – Sonny Serite style (no offense intended) and dramatize the issues for the sake of a better minority from the Sunday Standard readership. That is the reading Batswana seem to enjoy; a bit brutal in language and perhaps spiced-up in truth as well!

Mine is the truth, nothing but the truth! If someone out there disagrees, let them confront me head-on.

Firstly, and truly so, buildings can be very dangerous places to be in. Period! Not simply on account of safety relating of fire outbreaks, where people can get trapped and choked to death by smoke or get killed by a collapsing building, as most of us seem to be aware, but from harmful pollutants and contaminants in the indoor environment. Some of these substances which are commonly found in buildings are deadly. In-fact, some are so deadly that they have been banned in many countries.

This goes for Lead Based Paints (LBPs), Asbestos Containing Minerals (ACMs) and Asbestos Containing Building Materials (ACBMs), and materials containing Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs). Lead dust from the aging paint on your wall might have already poisoned your child seriously depending on play, fingering and mouthing habits. As such colic, gastric disorders, poor mental development, persistent headaches, nausea, high blood pressure, which might be suffered by your child, just to mention a few of the serious health hazards from such exposure, is likely to be from the indoor environment.

Prolonged exposure is a major factor in developing disease from contact with pollutants and contaminants. The fact that most of us spend, by far, the greatest proportion of our life indoors (90% on average), even though we might not know it, is one reason why indoor air and environmental quality must receive serious attention.

The other important factor is that a lot of contaminants and pollutants lead to similar ailments, some of which result from pollutants in the external environment which might, never-the-less, be originating from activities within buildings. Common to a lot of contaminants and pollutants, i.e. PCBs, LBPs, ACMs, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulphur dioxide and Formaldehyde in wood products, etc, are respiratory disorders and/or cancers. Worse still, some of the contaminants have the potential to cause sudden death. Legionnaires’ disease, a lung infection caused by bacteria from water based heat rejection systems (evaporative cooling systems) killed at least 34 people at a conference in the US in 1976. Although considered a rare disease, it is lethal and must be prevented. Yet some, like dust mites which are biological contaminants, you wouldn’t want on your body.

Secondly, sustainability, which is the primary objective in building green, is about the issue of consumption, environmental impact, sustainable and equitable utilization of resources. The biosphere simply does not have plenty for everybody and the capacity to meet the needs of the exploding world population in perpetuity.

The rich, globally, regionally or locally, who continue to consume the lion’s share, much as they are free to indulge, have no right to do so at the expense of the poor and at the risk of endangering the entire biosphere which is, intrinsically, borderless and not confined to any specific geographical locality.

No entity, corporate, individual, government or nation, has the right to waste energy simply because it can afford it, given that all energy in the biosphere, originally from the only sun, is from natural resources which were never meant for exclusive ownership or enjoyment by any one entity. Ultimately, wastage (including during production), excessive and reckless consumption in one corner of the world is a cost to all of us, irrespective of the consumer or producer.

Conversely, poverty in one part of the world is, ultimately, a responsibility for us all as it has a consequence even for the rich who might be fooled to think that there are safe havens.

Talk about sustainability and the struggle for survival by poor communities; Access to energy, and ever since it was predominantly generated from wood and later coal, oil and nuclear, and now solar, wind, geothermal and other sustainable forms, is at the centre of it all, including basics such as food and shelter.

Access to it and other commodities is determined by the control of the means of production and trade. So, sustainability is also integrally and more and more about the question of governance and power to the people. I do not mean socialism, however, because I believe in the power of incentive and reward for initiative provided by a market economy, not in a trickle-down fashion from big business but integral to communities.

Considering the issues at stake, I am motivating for the urgent establishment of a sustainability forum as part of a green building council. Such a council should have the authority to assess public buildings and infrastructure in general, at the design or built stage and consequently to determine if the said infrastructure passes the test for sustainability, failing which such designs must be amended or existing structures retrofitted to comply with minimum standards, at the developer’s expense. Singapore, which is so much adored by other nations, ours included, has legislated for such minimum standards. Why shouldn’t we?

I do not, in that regard, expect any resistance from Government as the primary provider or stakeholder in the provision of such public buildings or infrastructure. After all, ours is a Government of the people, for the people, and by the people, which government and its people, ultimately bear the brunt of the effects of such hazardous indoor pollutants, colossal wastage of energy and impact on the environment. Notably and judging by the extent of goodwill to empower poor communities and tackle head-on issues of poverty and restore human dignity, as well as the new drive and enthusiasm to ensure value for money on government projects, the new mind-set within Government is highly motivating, in-spite of the astronomical challenges in implementation. I am, therefore, least concerned about government but more about the couldn’t-care-less attitude and the unscrupulous maneuver by big business and bogus professionals in the absence of regulation, checks and balances.
Worse still, I am scared stiff by the prospect of ignorance at corporate and professional level on matters of sustainable design when I cast my eyes, leisurely, around.

And I am not impressed:

Just what does a glass pyramid meant to function as a corporate office do in this part of the world? Why create a heat-trap (greenhouse) in order to install an expensive plant, in both capital and running cost, to bring about human comfort without which it will be virtually impossible to work in such an environment? What right does anyone have to squander our scarce energy, exacerbate its cost and worsen the painful load shedding with such ridiculous designs? Where is the corporate pride and responsibility in such environmentally irresponsible buildings?

Why design and construct a darkroom, suitable only to grow mushrooms or process photographic paper, to serve as a supermarket or auditorium? Since when did people lose their right to see sunlight and enjoy natural ventilation in a public space?

Why create a mountain ridge to divide a settlement in order to build a road and create, at the same time and as a result, a giant hole on the ground elsewhere? Did a road have to become a topographical barrier to curtail peoples’ movement across an entire settlement?

Why create canals that promote surface runoff, hence soil erosion, inhibit ground-water recharge and channel surface water to nowhere in particular. What good are narrow and deep trenches that serve to retain garbage and provide refuge for criminal activity, serve as open pit latrines but are offered as clever solutions for storm-water drainage?

Why must the public endure such professional and corporate over-indulgence and why must we entrust the procurement of important public buildings, like our High Court, to two or three misguided and ill-informed quasi-professionals who happen to be well placed in the process?

You know what I am talking about. So, let us take the initiative, as the private sector, to go green. We need a sustainability forum and a green building council now to bring about sanity to our built environment!


Read this week's paper