Challenges and Opportunities of Sustainable Construction in the Global South

Urban expansion in the “Global South” is predicted to boom so wider uptake of sustainable construction is a must. However, it is being hampered by a raft of obstacles from lax implementation of building codes to entrenched mindsets. Fortunately, attitudes are changing as are practices and processes. 

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Building of a sustainable awareness 

We live in a world that is growing ever more urban. Cities across the globe are swelling in size and this is most apparent in the countries of the Global South. UN Habitat estimates that the footprint of city land area will increase from 2020 levels by 34% in high-income countries, while in contrast, in low-income countries the increase will be 141%. So, a lot of construction is and will be taking in the Global South. There will be many more people to house and companies to create offices and headquarters for. But as we know, the construction industry and building maintenance make a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The building and construction sector contributed 39% of energy and process-related CO2 emissions in 2018, which means making construction in the Global South as sustainable as possible to reduce the associated carbon emissions must be a priority.  

Sustainable construction: growing awareness in the Global South 

Sustainable construction is defined as “a holistic process aiming to restore and maintain harmony between the natural and the built environments, and create settlements that affirm human dignity and encourage economic equity.” This is according to Agenda 21 for Sustainable Construction in Developing Countries. Not only is it about reducing the carbon footprint of the industry but construction in the Global South implementing and using design principles, construction techniques and materials that will avoid the project becoming unsustainable in the future.  

Fortunately, there is growing awareness and practice of sustainable construction. Dario Ibargüengoitia, founding president of Sustentabilidad para México, is of the view that although decarbonisation is not fully permeated into Latin American society, there is a growing tendency towards constructing spaces that are energy efficient, healthier, well ventilated with good thermal comfort. He said this is the case Central and South America but especially so big cities like São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Mexico City. 

How can we make future megacities become smart as well?

Specific challenges and local opportunities 

Sustainable construction materials should ideally be local, to reduce the air or road miles needs to transport them to the construction site. This is the case in Thailand as Bundit Pradabsook, the Commissioner of The Association of Siamese Architects under Royal Patronage, explained. He said that the use of dry wall material like gypsum in high rise buildings is advantageous for a variety of reasons, one being that using dry wall can save occupants up 27% on their air conditioning bill. In addition, the material is available locally and so reduces road miles needed to get it to the site. He said: “The cost of transportation is lower when comparing per square meter as dry wall is six times lighter than precast concrete wall.”  

Local and traditional materials are also being used in construction in the Southern Cone of Latin America which changes the form and the design of the construction project. Instead of using concrete blocks which require a lot of water in the process of making them and cement which has a large carbon footprint, there has been a successful push to get people to use adobe or compacted earth instead. The downside of this material is that it requires frequent maintenance and is therefore unsuitable for vertical and commercial building projects.  This material is best suited to single storey buildings, essentially homes and dwellings as the thick walls that adobe creates are inherently energy efficient.  

South African building performance specialist Mlondolozi Hempe has also noticed more and more people using light and sustainable materials like timber but recognises that there needs to be a change in mindset for sustainable construction to be fully accepted and applied. He said: “The key thing that is causing a difficulty in transition is more centred around people being used to buying a certain product. They are used to making money in a certain way.” However there is increasing support for "green" construction with official guides and information from sources like the City of Cape Town Smart Building Handbook. Similarly, Rebuilding 101 Manual: rebuilding strategies for Haiti was published after the severe earthquake in 2010. It offers advice on construction methods for building in earthquake and hurricane-prone zones. Giving a more general perspective, Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa highlights 850 buildings across the continent offering inspiration and addressing construction challenges. 


Construction facing the challenges of climate change 


Reducing carbon emissions… and energy bills 

The countries of the Global South do not have as much money as those in the Global North for a variety of reasons. The effect on sustainable construction is there is less money to spend on more environmentally friendly materials and passive mechanisms that would reduce the operational carbon emissions of the building project or even the plot of land on which to build. Because those solutions can be expensive to buy or to install. Nevertheless, sustainable materials are gaining a foothold, as Hempe has observed that people have built their own shacks using light weight structures.  

Ibargüengoitia said that in places where unsustainable construction materials, like illegally harvested timber, is cheaper or easier to obtain than sustainable materials, getting people to choose the more ecological option can be difficult. However, a solution to this lies in initiatives such as Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Climate Bonds Initiative (CBIs). EPDs are documents based on data generated from Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) and represent a stamp of approval demonstrating a manufacturers commitment to reducing the environmental impact of their products and services. Increasing investors and developers are looking for products with this marker. CBIs offer financing for sustainable projects and Ibargüengoitia said he is seeing that this initiative is encouraging and supporting the green economy across Latin America. 

Where possible, constructions elements that can reduce the operational carbon emissions should be added to offices and dwellings in the Global South, even though the cost for this may need to be borne by a charity or an NGO. When city authorities in Cape Town retrofitted 2,300 homes with solar water heating and roof insulation, it resulted in reducing the poverty level of the occupants as their heating bills were lowered. In addition, their respiratory health improved thanks to the insulation and the local economy was given a boost as local residents were provided with on-the-job training. 

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South-South collaboration 

Sustainable construction solutions developed in the countries of the Global South are often shared with neighbouring nations as they face similar problems and so would benefit from similar solutions. Ibargüengoitia noted that some "green" technology innovations that have been developed in Colombia have been shared with Brazil, the two countries in the region with social housing programmes that are integrating "green" construction concepts. He has seen the same happening among African countries and Asian nations but unfortunately has noticed a lack of intercontinental collaboration among countries of the Global South. However, it should be noted that India is very generous in terms of sharing its construction innovations. Ibargüengoitia said: “India is a marvel. What is changing is the regulation. It is doing amazing things and yes, they are very generous with sharing what they are doing.” 

In addition, globalisation has meant that ideas from the North very quickly reach the South. This results in inspired innovation or imitation of technological solutions with local resources. 

An example of South-South collaboration and South-North collaboration can be seen with 3D printing, a construction method that can be far more sustainable that traditional construction. Tvasta is a fledgling company founded in Madras that builds concrete 3D printing technology. The company prides itself on combining futuristic technology with old-world values. In early 2022 it formed a national strategic collaboration deal with Indian Cements to create a more sustainable cement formulation. The year before that it had formed an international collaboration with Saint-Gobain.  

Training: a key factor 

And so, the greater investment in training and upskilling people in the Global South is necessary so that project workers are more aware of the need for sustainable construction and the methods with which to implement it. The Cape Town Smart Building Handbook points out the importance of having all parties involved in a construction project, including project managers, engineers, architects and demolition and construction workers and subcontractors, familiar with the principles of environmental sustainability and "green" building. 

The level of technical education between the Global North and Global South is not at parity with the South having far fewer architects and construction engineers. This is being addressed by places like the Sustainable Architecture Training Centre in Argentina. And fortunately, there are institutions that offer such instruction, such as the Training Center for Sustainability near Marrakesh. This Center is a forum for disseminating sustainable design methods both conceptually and physically. It was built using earth and wood, and incorporates traditional know-how with modern technologies, as well as passive design mechanisms. The Peru-based ELLA Network has a learning community dedicated to best practices and methodologies for created climate resilient cities. 

Sustainable construction in the Global South is not a new concept, with the Kuala Lumpur’s energy efficient skyscraper TM Tower having been completed in 1998. But limited financial resources and constrained planning laws are hampering in some ways the growth of sustainable construction in the Global South. However there is a strong will to increase green concepts and resulting projects in this sector and in these regions, and an even greater need.