How to make housing in developing countries affordable and sustainable
During the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, governments around the world have been understandably preoccupied with public health policy. Desperate times have called for desperate measures, including the closure of national borders and the introduction of draconian (if ultimately temporary) “lockdowns” on social and economic activities.
While necessary and justified, however, this focus on protecting citizens from the immediate danger of coronavirus infection has unavoidably taken attention and resources away from the other problems we face. We have even been distracted from the looming existential threat posed by global heating.
The 26th edition of the UN’s flagship climate summit, the Conference of Parties (“COP26”), was, indeed, postponed for twelve months due to pandemic restrictions. When it was finally held, in Glasgow late last year, it served as the most urgent reminder yet of the climate crisis.
On the penultimate day of the conference, delegates attended a series of workshops and discussions themed around the role of the built environment. The situation presented to them was stark. Amongst the more striking statistics quoted were:
- the built environment, including housing, is responsible for 2/5 of carbon emissions
- over the next 40 years, the world’s building stock will double
- by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, of whom:
- 800 million, living across 570 cities, will be directly affected by rising sea levels and coastal flooding
- 6 billion, living across 970 cities, will suffer regular exposure to high temperatures of 35°C or more
In our lifetimes, the climate crisis will cease to be something that we read about, make predictions about, and worry about; instead, it will become part of our daily lived experience. Indeed, in many parts of the world, it already is.
Developing countries find themselves in a particularly precarious position:
In recent years, many have enjoyed excellent rates of GDP growth, and with it rises in population and levels of urbanisation. This has resulted in unprecedented and growing demand for decent, affordable accommodation – demand, which is currently nowhere near being satisfied, with already 1.2 billion people lacking proper homes. Policymakers, developers, and other stakeholders are under pressure to find immediate and lasting solutions to this housing crisis.
At the same time, emerging economies are disproportionately located in parts of the globe which will bear the brunt of climate change: rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and increasingly frequent extreme weather events.
Many more homes need to be built, but this needs to be accomplished without contributing further to carbon emissions. These homes need to be low-cost, but designed in such a way that enables them to withstand the brutal physical effects of climate change.
Stakeholders seeking to find practical solutions to these twin problems should adopt a comprehensive approach to understanding and improving the housing ecosystem. Any such approach should start with the five key areas outlined below:
The scale of the environmental and housing crises means that governments must play a crucial role. Signatories to the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 are committed to broad targets, or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), for reducing emissions (mitigation) and preparing for the inevitable effects of climate change (adaptation). To help meet their NDCs, lawmakers have created ambitious new regulatory frameworks, many of which are specifically targeted at the built environment, such as Nigeria’s National Building Energy Efficiency Code (2017), or India’s revised Energy Conservation Building Code (2017).
Such frameworks are intended to provide guidelines for public, private, and non-governmental actors to follow, theoretically ensuring that new building developments are constructed along eco-friendly lines. Energy efficiency (EE) calculation and certification processes are meant to ensure continued compliance.
Unfortunately, many regulatory frameworks have been designed with little attention to the unique socio-economic circumstances of each country. Some even appear to have been copied almost verbatim from that of other nations. This rushed approach should be rejected: while time is of the essence, shortcuts will get us nowhere.
Instead, it is important to work with policymakers and other stakeholders to design tailor-made guidelines from the ground up, which acknowledge international best practice while always remaining relevant to the housing ecosystem as it currently exists in that country. Good contractors make sure that new EE guidelines are communicated in clear and straightforward terms to individuals and groups working across the affordable housing supply chain. This ensures that regulatory interventions are as practical as they are ambitious.
2. Public, private, and non-governmental institutions
Though a fundamental part of the housing ecosystem, even the best-designed regulatory guidelines are insufficient by themselves.
Governments can do more than regulate. They can, for example, spearhead efforts to improve the collection and sharing of data relating to buildings’ energy efficiency – as is currently being undertaken as part of Morocco’s National Plan Against Climate Change (2019). Or they can establish new institutions which deliver or manage affordable and sustainable housing, at either national, regional, or local level – this can be particularly needed in countries which are currently over-reliant on an informal, self-build approach to housing.
Often, governments may build institutions in partnership with the private sector or non-governmental organisations (NGOs). For example, Ireland deploys a “social employment delivery model” under its Better Energy Warmer Homes scheme, which sees independent community-based organisations tasked with identifying homes for retrofitting.
Meanwhile, state financial incentives can encourage architects and property developers to integrate EE concerns into their projects from the outset. But private sector actors need not wait for the state to get involved – the cost savings inherent to EE adaptations often dovetail with a strong sense of corporate social responsibility.
While the climate crisis is at the most dangerous stage it has ever been, it is also true that human technology has never been more advanced. A number of recent innovations promise to make housing construction simultaneously more affordable, more climate-friendly, and more sustainable.
For example, the Swiss-UK joint venture 14Trees has recently delivered Africa’s first 3D-printed house. The unit cost was less than $10,000 USD, and the product was delivered in less than 12 hours. The carbon emitted by its construction was some 70% less than that of a traditional brick house.
Of course, it is not only the construction of a house which contributes to carbon emissions, but also the energy consumed by its residents over the house’s “lifetime”, whether by heating rooms, cooling them, or powering electrical appliances. Innovative EE adaptations can help to reduce residents’ reliance on traditional, polluting energy supply methods, such as portable diesel generators.
These adaptations can not only be incorporated into the designs of future housing stock, but also retrofitted to homes which have already been built. This is good news, as doing so is essential: as bluntly stated by the British Climate Change Committee (CCC), “[we] will not meet [our] targets for emissions reduction without near complete decarbonization of the [existing] housing stock”.
Crucially, however, there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to such adaptations. In many developed countries, EE technology is synonymous with capital-intensive techniques for retaining or generating heat, such as triple-glazed windows or solar panels.
For low-income countries dotted along the tropics, of course, such methods are clearly inappropriate. Simple, low-cost adaptations – such as improving window-to-wall ratios, orientating new buildings either southward or northward (depending on their position relative to the equator), or rainwater harvesting – can have a huge impact in reducing the carbon emitted by a building over its lifetime.
As relatively cheap as many new technological innovations are, it remains true that they, alongside housing more generally, are still beyond the means of many households in developing countries. Enhancing the availability of housing finance is thus a priority.
There have already been some promising developments in this direction. Nigeria’s Family Homes Funds Limited (FHFL) – which was set up with vital technical assistance from international experts at Altair – has swiftly established itself as a national pioneer in the provision of products like Help to Own, which provides access to low-interest mortgages for low- to middle-income families.
With the right backing, eco-friendly considerations can be incorporated into such products. Borrowers could, for example, be offered a reduction in interest rate in exchange for purchasing or constructing energy-efficient homes.
5. Culture and Society
Finally, any measures to enhance the provision of affordable, sustainable housing must be firmly situated within the context of the target country’s culture and society.
When designing policies, products, or other interventions, stakeholders should first undertake rigorous research into their target market. Such research should involve both a review of existing data sources, as well as the collection of new, up-to-date data via methods such as interviews, focus groups, and surveys.
Questions to guide this research may include the following:
- How are families or households defined? Do people prefer to live individually, or with large extended families?
- What importance, or social status, is ascribed to home ownership?
- Where do people work? Do they commute? Do they work from home?
- How are people employed? Are they public servants? Do they work in the informal economy?
- How do people use their home? Is it a space for socialising, or is it simply a place to rest and recover?
The insights produced by this research will, in turn, provide guidance regarding the range of appropriate solutions. Workers in the informal economy, for example, would be ill-served by an affordable housing mortgage which requires extensive documentation as part of the application process.
Viewing such issues from the perspective of the end-user is essential, as affordable, sustainable homes are not merely tools for meeting UN climate goals, but, ultimately, places to live.
In housing, affordability and sustainability need not be mutually exclusive; if we are to survive the climate crisis, they must not be.
To find out more about Altair’s International Services, get in touch with Olu, Director.
 Map from Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction & OID (2021) Buildings and Climate Change Adaptation: A Call for Action, Paris, p.19
 Our holistic, educational approach to EE guidelines is inspired by such successful projects as the Accra Resilience Strategy in Ghana, in which the training of building inspectors plays a fundamental role. https://ama.gov.gh/documents/Accra-Resilience-Strategy.pdf
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