Take a look inside UNEP's Gigiri eco-building

Wed, 14/03/12

This article by Catherine Karongo appeared in Capital News FM on 7th March 2012.

A walk around the new United Nations Environment Programme “Green building” is breathtaking.

The four-block complex located on the vast 140-acre piece of land in Gigiri has everything and anything you would call green.

From the glorious thematic landscaping to the natural lighting, the building is a true picture of what countries should embrace as they move towards a green economy.

A green economy is an ambitious measure taken by governments to have strategies, policies and programmes that have greater resource efficiency and promote low-carbon development.

Most of these plants require very little water which we get from rain water harvesting from the roof,” explains Shoa Ehsani, UNEP’s Climate Neutral Strategy Officer.

About seven million litres of water has been captured from this new building in the last year through rain water harvesting from the roof.

Ehsani who took Capital News on a tour of the premises noted that the landscaping is representative of Kenya with forests, savannah, deserts and coastal touches.

The landscapers wanted to do something that is calming,” he said.

The one-year-old building which has a stack shape is seen as a key pillar of the UN’s broader goal of reducing green house gas emissions that cause climate change.

There is a lot of natural lighting and apart from the light there is also the central roof that allows light in and there is temperature control,” Ehsani says.

And in the one year that the building has been in use, close to 460,000 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide, a green house gas that causes climate change, have been prevented.

The walls of this building are painted in earth colour representative of Nairobi. This was done purposely to reduce the need for cleaning and any other maintenance.

The building has much more glass than other buildings at the United Nations Office in Nairobi.

This allows a lot of lighting and there are light wells on the rooftop that goes down three levels reducing the need for electricity lighting,” Ehsani goes on to say.

However, Ehsani cautions the building has to be used in such a way that it diffuses lighting as opposed to having direct sunlight in.

If your glass is not North-South and the orientation of your building is dictated by the road, then you can get strong sunlight in there which may then require cooling and that’s not very efficient so you have to use glass wisely,” he warns.

The peaceful ambience coupled with the energy efficiency practiced has left even the staff here elated.

It’s a brilliant building to work in; the light around our office space is wonderful and it’s nice not to hear the sound of generators and to have everything running efficiently,” one staff member told Capital News adding that it was a building of the future.

Coming to the office, I have to walk through these nice gardens here and even this morning I thought wow! we are privileged that we work in this type of building,” said another employee.

According to the United Nations, it is estimated that the building sector accounts for one third of global energy use taking place in offices and homes and this is a figure that is expected to double by 2030 unless urgent action is taken.

The sector is said to be the single largest contributor to global green house gas emissions.

This is why the United Nations Environment Programme encourages that as the world transits to green economies; it is important to design and construct new buildings as low carbon and appropriately refurbish existing ones. This, the UN says, is one of the key low cost ways of combating climate change while reducing electricity bills and dependence on fossil fuels.

For example, in the past one year, the solar powered United Nations building has saved at least 650,000 kilowatt hours of electricity and up to Sh1.4 million shillings in electricity bills.

With 6,000 square meters of solar panel, the building has the largest installation of solar panels on a roof in East Africa. It has energy saving lighting, natural ventilation systems and other green features.

The building was designed from the ground up to be green. In the existing buildings one of the easiest things to do is to put hot water solar heaters on top of the roofs which could make a huge reduction in our energy needs and this is a quick win. Also, use of films on windows to reduce solar influx so that you don’t get high temperature rises, is another change that can be made on existing buildings to make them greener.” Ehsani says.

Carbon was also saved in construction of the building through use of low carbon cement but as Ehsani says, more could be saved through behavioural change of staff and some operations.

If we go through a paperless operation, this could improve. We also still use energy in appliances such as fridges, freezers and hot water boilers,” he says.

The staff are also encouraged to use the staircase instead of using the elevator unless when carrying heavy luggage or in case of a physically challenged individual.

Working here is pleasant because of the ambience; it’s an education process you even try to bring it home with you,” says a staff member.

And as Kenya plans to construct the 5,000 acre Konza Technology city which is targeted to be one of the most successful cities in Africa competing economically and culturally with the best in the world, there are many lessons it can draw from this UNEP building.

The use of natural materials which are local so that the travel footprints and the transportation footprint is kept minimal, features that use the sun to help in lighting within buildings, for heating. Water is a scarce commodity again in Kenya so using the roof for rain water harvesting rather than just digging boreholes is a good idea but all of this depends with the budget and what you are willing to do,” Ehsani advises.