Why LEED Doesn’t Work in Rural Africa and What Will

Community Architecture in AfricaThis is a guest post by friend and former classmate, Charles Newman. Charlie has committed his architectural practice to helping communities in places around the world. He is currently working for International Rescue Committee in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo as the Community Driven Reconstruction Manager and he keeps a great blog on his architectural travels in Africa. Aside from being a LEED AP, his work consistently seeks to integrate sustainability.   

While in a small southern town of the Democratic Republic of Congo in mid 2012, a colleague of mine approached me for some guidance on a large health proposal he was putting together. A portion of the grant would be earmarked for the construction of hundreds of clinics across the DR Congo, and he mentioned that the donor would be very interested in “green” building standards. Knowing that I was a LEED Accredited Professional, he began asking how we might be able to incorporate such building standards into the designs for the pending projects. I rattled off some general guidelines such as using local materials – recycled ones if available, incorporating existing infrastructure, natural ventilation, etc. He jotted down a few notes, then began to pry a little deeper. “What about the LEED point system? Could we incorporate that into our strategy?”

My response was frank: “No, not really. LEED doesn’t work here in rural Africa.”

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and has become the most recognized standard for “green” building in over 30 countries worldwide. LEED is a point system that grades buildings throughout design, construction and performance. One hundred points are available: a score of 40 secures the “Certified” label; 50, Silver; 60, Gold; and 80, Platinum. The rating system is broken down into 7 categories, such as Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, and Indoor Environmental Quality. Most points carry with them quantified benchmarks; while others, such as the Innovation in Design credits, call for explanation and interpretation. A good reference guide that outlines each point and its requirements can be seen here. LEED has become widely used around the world for good reasons: creating a structure within LEED guidance ultimately lowers a building’s carbon footprint, creates a product that can be financially (and responsibly) profitable, and provides inspiration for others to follow suit.

Many of these points can be applied to work in rural development in Africa.

Materials and Resources credits 1.1 and 1.2 for example, recognize the reuse of existing building components. While in rural areas there may not be many existing structures available to reuse, such a standard can easily be incorporated into building practices in Africa. The Indoor Environmental Quality credit 6.2, control of systems for thermal comfort, can also be achieved by providing operable windows and calculating radiant temperatures and air flows. Sustainable Sites credit 7.1, Non Roof Heat Island Effect credit, can also apply by specifying light colors on building surfaces and by strategically locating trees and other vegetation.

These credits and a handful of others can be achieved in most any project in the developing world.

Where LEED Falls Short

Sustainable Architecture Africa

Learning center incorporating thousands of bottle caps in into community designed decorative siding.

Many more of the points however (as many as 45 of the 100), are simply irrelevant or financially irresponsible. In some cases, adherence to these credits can actually be detrimental to project success and community prosperity.

The most obvious of these irrelevant credits is the Sustainable Sites Credit 4.3, Low-Emitting and Fuel-Efficient vehicles. This point is gained by providing preferred parking for fuel-efficient vehicles. Where parking is not part of the project scope, a fuel efficient car lending program must be provided for a minimum of 3% of the building occupants. Hopefully, an explanation of this credit’s irrelevance is not necessary. It shows that some of the LEED credits are geared towards urban “first world” problems.

Commissioning of Systems EA Credit 3, Enhanced Commissioning of Systems, specifies that a third party must be contracted to oversee the design, commissioning, and monitoring of all mechanical systems for a ten month period. Such a “handoff” of building maintenance can be very useful when working in rural developing communities. However, this credit simply implies that mechanical systems must be incorporated into the design of the building. Generally, specifying systems that require substantial technical knowledge is ill-advised. Even if such knowledge can be effectively transferred, the financial resources available to maintain such a system are often extremely limited. Further, hiring a third party to oversee the design process, installation and monitoring can add substantial expense to a project – expenses that could be better applied to other initiatives within the community.

Energy and Atmosphere Credit 6, Green Power, is one of the easiest ways for a project to “buy” a LEED credit. Essentially, the building owners engage in a minimum 2-year contract with their energy provider that ensures that at least 35% of the building’s purchased energy will be from renewable sources. First of all, as with the previous credit reviewed, this credit stipulates that electricity must be used and incorporated into the design of the project. For many projects in rural Africa, electricity simply isn’t a priority. Such projects are therefore eliminated from achieving this credit and many others in the Energy and Atmosphere category. To further complicate the issue, such renewable energy service providers in Africa are often not recognized by the American Center for Resource Solutions Green-e Energy product certification or its equivalents. Moreover, requiring a rural community to purchase more expensive electricity can endanger the financial sustainability of the programs housed in the building.

African Renovation Architecture

Existing kitchen renovated with new roof and fuel efficient wood burning stove.

Renewable energy is good, of course. Efficient light bulbs, Low-flow faucets, recycled materials and innovations in design are also good – though the vision of the LEED rating system is severely limited. The point system only applies to architectural building standards; stopping short of financial relevance, client relations or, simply, development. When considering rural development in Africa, the needs and standards of construction must shift not simply to a new geographical and cultural context, but to one of development needs and capabilities. Energy standards must first recognize the importance of electricity itself a major step forward; and, for example, points for electric cars could be replaced by points for mosquito nets. This may sound like a simplification or a lowering of the LEED standard system. I am suggesting nothing of the sort; as building sustainably in Africa spans far beyond a simple system of design and construction standards. One size does not fit all.

Plenty of Room for Sustainability

If we want to have a truly productive conversation on building sustainability in Africa, we must consider social and economic factors as well. A school with a gold LEED rating that does not have books, teachers, or even students would receive recognition that is irrelevant and undeserved. An NGO that imports building materials and introduces a “green” building system squanders an opportunity to help stimulate the local economy by buying locally. Moreover, if that NGO brings volunteers to help in construction, local laborers miss out on much needed salaries that could be used to send their children to school.

Since the conversation with my colleague in that small town in Congo, I have come across a pair of other systems that better categorize rural development needs and seek to quantify the effects of quality design and development.

One team of thinkers looking to help guide building and development standards in places such as rural Africa is the SEED Network. SEED stands for Social Economic Environmental Design, and is structured over 5 clear principals:

  • Principle 1: Advocate with those who have a limited voice in public life.
  • Principle 2: Build structures for inclusion that engage stakeholders and allow communities to make decisions.
  • Principle 3: Promote social equality through discourse that reflects a range of values and social identities.
  • Principle 4: Generate ideas that grow from place and build local capacity.
  • Principle 5: Design to help conserve resources and minimize waste.

African construction photoSubmitted projects are reviewed individually by the SEED Awards Jury according to these principals – with no need for specific points or totals. You can learn more about the application process here.

Jeremy Gibberd, an architect in South Africa, proposes Social Economic and Environmental building standards (further elaborated into a point system here) as a measuring tool for the success of a rural development project. He divides his development standards into Environmental, Economic and Social standards – simplifying the language surrounding technical building, and expanding the conversation to that of Use, Cost, Participation and Contracts. His work is still in progress, but I think he’s on the right track.

These standards from Gibberd and SEED seem to touch at the heart of what I am talking about: that sustainable building in disadvantaged, rural communities cannot be limited to architecture. Project success must be considered at a larger scale to include community involvement, building techniques, financial relationships, and development. Perhaps a further expansion of these systems could include local governance engagement – bringing those responsible for their community’s development into a position to sustain the projects programs and goals.