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Where “Green” Equals “Affordable”…

Ashna Mathema's picture

The construction industry is a major contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the urban housing constitutes a large part of the construction industry. With the urbanization and lifestyle changes taking place in developing countries, the demand for urban housing can only be expected to grow, and accordingly, the GHGs emitted from its production.

There has been much advancement in green technology in recent years, but  much of this “high performance” green building is high-tech and capital intensive, often with high upfront costs, as a result of which it still remains a luxury supported by rich nations and wealthy individuals. In the developing country context where huge segments of the population are in the lower income segment, lacking access to essential services or housing, this type of approach to addressing climate change is unaffordable and largely irrelevant.

Much of the work done on green housing in developing countries has been limited to standalone projects (typically built by NGOs or environmentalists, or green architecture for wealthy individuals, for example), which are not ‘mainstream’. The contention here is that unless this technology penetrates the mainstream industry, it cannot have impact of any significance. In other words, green housing needs to appeal to a much wider audience, i.e. viewed as a socially responsible and commercially viable proposition for the common builder/ developer and an economically and socially viable proposition for the average buyer. Once this begins to happen in the organized developer market, the rest of the market will pick up on it, with a catalytic effect on improving the environment and reducing climate change. 

To be meaningful in addressing climate change, we need to set the stage for ‘low-energy’ development in the most fundamental part of the building industry, i.e. the dwelling unit, which is the only way for ‘green building’ to gain more acceptability and impetus among policymakers, practitioners and end-users as an integral part of the broader development agenda, rather than viewing the two themes—“housing” and “environment/ climate change”—in two different compartments isolated from each other. 


About the pictures: TMC Project, Karjat, India - An on-going low-income housing project of about 6,000 units in Karjat (2 hours drive from Mumbai), where a new technology is being used that has virtually eliminated the use of bricks. According to the developer, this resulted in a reduction of carbon emissions by some 200,000 tons, i.e. about 2 tons of carbon per housing unit built. This project, mentioned above, was successful for three reasons: it is a simple technology with easy transfer of skills to locals, it was replicable and scalable with underlying economies of scale, and it was relatively cheap, so as to keep the price of this high-demand asset competitive enough to be affordable for the ‘masses’ (while generating profits from the scale involved). The Economist recently published a story about the TMC Project, titled "The Nano Home." 

Photos: Ashna Mahtema, 2009


The conventional challenges of urban environmental management have resulted in immense environmental effects such as degradation of green spaces and increased green house gase (GHG) emissions. This is evident from the poor management of waste; emitting methane gas if it is organic or emitting carbon dioxide gas if it is burnt thus accounting for about 3% of GHGs further more, road transport emits more than 70% of GHGs; buildings accounting for 30% of GHGs more so construction itself since cement is a high emission construction material compared to wood (renewable material). With such impacts of climate change on urban areas, it is well known and documented that the urban poor are at most risk since they live in the most hazardous urban environments such as flood plains. The increased urban population growth rate due to migration flows backed by logical responses to changing patterns of economic opportunity has increased informal settlements thence increasing vulnerability. The most vulnerability faced by the urban poor is that governments may demolish their settlements to clear them off sites deemed to be vulnerable to impacts of climate change with very inadequate or no provision for finding alternative accommodation that meets their needs. As for developing countries, adaptation to climate change is already happening though striking. In Kampala city, households have raised beds by adding bricks on the floor to keep their bedding materials free from getting wet incase of flooding. In developed cities, people are being protected against the risks associated with climate change impacts through public investment in infrastructure, yet in developing cities such as Kampala, this has been left to the private sector that have focused at high and middle income earners. In poorest countries, adaptation has and is a matter of self help thence the need for slum upgrading through affordable housing units. Robert Bakiika Environmental Management for Livelihood Improvement Bwaise Facility [EMLI Bwaise Facility] P.O.Box 3430 Kampala – Uganda Email:

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