Sixth Debate

Should Construction and Urban Projects in Developing Countries Adopt Green Building Certifications (LEED, BREEAM, OTHERS) Created in Developed and Industrialized Nations?

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The moderator’s opening remarks:

The Canadian Disaster Resilience and Sustainable Reconstruction Research Alliance (Œuvre Durable for its acronym in French) and i-Rec (Information and Research for Reconstruction) are organizing an on-line debate (and competition) that explores the following question:
Should construction and urban projects in developing countries adopt green building certifications (LEED, BREEAM, others) created in developed and industrialized nations?
Some scholars and practitioners have recently encouraged the adoption of green building certifications, such as LEED, BREEAM, EDGE, PASSIVHOUSE, and others, in developing countries. Others, however, have challenged the appropriateness of adopting these type of certifications – that were originally developed in and for industrialized economies – in developing countries. The former often note that urbanization in developing countries is projected to rise from 46% in 2010 to 63% in 2050, and their population density is expected to double over the next three decades. There is, they argue, an urgent need to reduce the use of resources extracted from nature in such countries. They also contend that green certifications are increasingly adapting to local conditions in developing countries, and thus they are becoming useful tools to: a) decrease negative impacts on nature and ecosystems, enhancing resilience; b) reduce project and operation costs by encouraging the use of durable materials and increasing energy performance; c) mitigate negative social impacts, and d) create awareness about environmental impacts and risks, and stimulate the demand for sustainable solutions.
Critics of this approach often highlight that green certifications encourage the adoption of standards that were developed for developed countries and economies, neglecting local values and principles that suit particular conditions in developing countries. They note, for instance, the significant role of informality, adaptation, and flexibility in less industrialized construction sectors. Critics also deplore that certifications generally focus on buildings and neglect the complex and dynamic interactions between society, nature, the city, and the territory. They also argue that these certifications encourage the use of imported construction components and foreign technology, increasing project costs, carbon emissions, and dependency on industrialized solutions coming from the “North.” The use of imported materials and technology sometimes overshadows the financial benefits of energy savings achieved through green certifications. Finally, the prescriptive nature of green certifications and their emphasis on energy consumption often hinder local and context-specific innovations and overlook social and physical vulnerabilities that might be a priority in developing countries.
In this debate, we invite two internationally-known experts in the sustainable development field to defend two opposite viewpoints. Over the next ten days, our panelists will present their most persuasive arguments, but the result of our debate rests in your hands. Do not be afraid to vote immediately—you can always change your mind. Even better, once you have cast your vote, add your voice to the debate and explain your decision. We look forward to reading the comments of all of those who participate.
Gonzalo Gonzalo Lizarralde is a professor at the School of Architecture of Université de Montréal. He has long experience in consulting for architecture and construction projects and has published important research in the fields of low-cost housing and project management.  Dr. Lizarralde is the director of the IF Research Group (grif) of Université de Montréal, which studies the processes related to the planning and development of construction projects. He is also the co-director of Œuvre Durable, a multi-university research team focused on vulnerabilityresilience and sustainable reconstruction. Dr. Lizarralde is the author of the book The Invisible Houses: Rethinking and designing low-cost housing in developing countries and the co-author of the book Rebuilding After Disaster: From Emergency to Sustainability.  
 Jared Blum1 Jared 0. Blum
Jared Blum has chaired the Environmental and Energy Study Institute’s Board of Directors since December 2010. From 1990 to 2016, Jared Blum acted as the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Polyisocyanurate Insulation Manufacturers Association (PIMA). Since 1997, as Vice Chair of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, Mr. Blum has participated in numerous UN climate negotiations, demonstrating business support for the Conferences of the Parties process.
 davidwachsmuth_sm David Wachsmuth,
Dr. David Wachsmuth is the Canada Research Chair in Urban Governance at McGill University, where he is also an Assistant Professor in the School of Urban Planning and an Associate Member in the Department of Geography. Dr. Wachsmuth is an urban political economist whose research interests include city and regional governance, urban sustainability, housing policy, social theory, and the politics of urban public space.
The proposer’s opening remarks
Ever since the time of Hammurabi’s Code, society has struggled with creating performance standards for buildings. These efforts initially focused on structural integrity, then fire safety, and—with the advent of electricity—mechanical performance. Now there are several private-sector programs such as LEED and BREEAM that rate and certify a building’s “green” design attributes (low energy and water consumption, use of recycled/recyclable materials, etc.), as well as Passivhaus Institute and Passive House Institute U.S., which focus on super energy efficiency.
All these standards save resources, resources—like water and energy—that are often in particularly short supply in developing countries. The U.S. National Institute of Buildings Sciences reports that green standards can result in energy, carbon, water, and waste reduction savings of 30 to 97%. Operating costs of green buildings can also be reduced by 8-9% while increasing property values by up to 7.5%. Other benefits of green buildings, such as higher productivity, greater climate resilience, and increased occupant health, have been attributed to certain certification programs.
Why should these benefits be denied to developing countries? Given what we know about the toll on human health and the environment from unsustainable energy and building products, it would be irresponsible to watch developing countries make the same mistakes we did. Buildings use about 40% of the world’s energy: it is critical to make them more sustainable if we are to reduce our impact on the environment. Luckily, countries no longer have to choose between economic development and sustainability. From solar panels to insulation, sustainable building technologies and products have advanced tremendously in recent years and costs have gone down. Building performance standards, rating systems, R&D and pilot programs are guiding the way.
We recognize that no one program covers all “high performance” criteria. Indeed, ask a building professional what standard or certification should be used and the answer is likely to be, “It depends.” Even in developed countries, guidance or requirements for building design and performance are evolving, just as society evolves.
The impact of these environmental challenges is felt more keenly in developing countries than anywhere else. Look no further than Beijing, which had to virtually close down before the 2008 Olympics to reduce its appalling air pollution, or New Delhi, which had to close schools and restrict traffic due to critical air quality issues this past year. Emerging economies must be able to take advantage of our research, technology, and indeed our standard-setting processes, to raise the bar for their building stock.
China, which called itself “a forever developing nation” when it opposed the Kyoto Climate Protocol in 1997, now has the third most green buildings in the world. Energy and water use, occupant health, waste management, and site selection are as critical there as they are in the European Union and United States. India has already adopted the LEED India Certification program.
This does not mean that developing countries should necessarily adopt existing programs in whole or in part, but they can and should use the knowledge and lessons-learned the programs represent. They can choose criteria and materials that best suit their unique circumstances, needs and goals. Besides, developed countries’ green standards do not discard building strategies or materials just because they are old. A reflective roof in Africa makes sense whether it is merely painted or made from EPDM. The physics of building performance have not changed, even with new materials and technologies.
The role of national and subnational governments is critical to achieve the successful adaptation of green standards such as BREEAM and LEED, as well as the recognition that each region has different traditions, cultures, materials, and skills. In developed countries, it has been state and city governments, adapting selected aspects of green certification standards to their specific regions, that led the way to rapid green building growth. By using local pilot programs based on programs such as Passivehaus and LEED, and local advisory councils to set achievable higher-performance standards, developing countries can protect their local environment and human health while opening their countries to economic progress. Green building programs provide helpful guidance. They aren’t perfect—they are evolving in the U.S. too—but we have to start somewhere.
The opposition’s opening remarks
The need to radically increase the sustainability of the urban built environment is one of the most urgent collective challenges human society faces at the moment. On a certain level, any good-faith attempts to meet this challenge should be encouraged. And voluntary environmental programmes such as LEED and BREEAM which offer recognition to developers who meet certain environmental criteria for their developments are an encouraging indication that sustainability is increasingly valued in the development industry. But there is plenty of reason to be skeptical of LEED and similar green building standards, particularly with respect to their applicability to the developing world. First, even in the context of wealthy countries, the use of green building standards is likely overrated with respect to their ability to deliver sustainability benefits. Second, all of the reasons to be skeptical of green building standards in the context of wealthy countries apply even more strongly in the context of developing countries, while there are additional reasons for skepticism in the latter context.
What’s the case against green building standards even in a wealthy-country context? First, there is no compelling evidence that LEED certification actually leads to more sustainable buildings and even evidence that it sometimes appears to lead to less sustainable buildings (Scofield 2013). There are significant gaps in the LEED methodology (de Leon 2013; Suzer 2015; van der Heijden 2015), and actual building performance is frequently worse than the projections that led to certification in the first place (Kern et al. 2016).
Second, even if we grant that LEED certification is effective at reducing the environmental footprint of individual buildings, zooming out to the regional scale complicates the question considerably. LEED standards are site-bound, and will give developers credit for using “sustainable” materials even when the transportation costs for these materials cancels out any reduction in carbon emissions resulting from their use (de Leon 2013). Some critics have suggested that the LEED criteria inadvertently encourage urban sprawl by making site-specific demands which are only feasible with large plot sizes (Orr 2014).
Moreover, the greater expense of LEED-certified buildings can have knock-on effects on regional land use that may swamp the building-level sustainability gains with regional sustainability losses. This is because LEED-certified buildings tend to be more expensive there’s an ongoing debate about the expense of LEED certification, but in general estimates find it to add a few percent to the overall construction cost of a project), and more expensive buildings in “eco” neighbourhoods push poorer residents to less expensive neighbourhoods at the urban periphery, where carbon footprints are higher. As Wachsmuth et al. (2016: 396) conclude, adopting a regional perspective on costly building- or neighbourhood-level environmental improvements reveals that “many sustainability gains are simply a regressive redistribution of amenities across places.”
These concerns about the effectiveness of green building standards are even stronger in developing countries, where the cost increases are both likely to be proportionately higher and to fall on a more vulnerable population. Dollar for dollar, urban sustainability outcomes can almost certainly be improved in a more cost-effective and more socially equitable fashion by investing in dense affordable housing and public transit—policies which distribute environmental gains more broadly among the urban population instead of concentrating them in a few expensive buildings (Cohen 2017; Wachsmuth et al. 2016).
Finally, even if we grant that green building standards are effective and worth the cost in developing countries, the simple fact remains that developing country construction should have developing country standards for green buildings. Cole and Valdebenito (2013) found, by contrast, that 80% of the 136 countries where LEED or BREEAM are active do not have any domestic system in place, and instead rely exclusively on one of these two international standards for green buildings. Yet LEED, in particular, is quite inflexible to different local contexts—either cultural or climatic (Suzer 2015). Different places have different sustainability needs, and these should be reflected in building standards if the latter are to be meaningful rather than just a marketing feature for new high-prestige urban developments.
In sum, while building greener cities is an urgent task, certifying greener buildings with LEED or BREEA doesn’t appear to be the most socially just or cost-effective way to accomplish that task in developing countries today.
The proposer’s rebuttal remarks
It is no coincidence that green building certification programs such as LEED and BREEAM began contemporaneously with two benchmark international environmental agreements, the 1987 Montreal Protocol and the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio. The former dealt with ozone depletion, and the latter created the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Both of these landmark international agreements were formulated to address the urgency of now, and both of them anticipated the use of technology transfer to reach their critically important global goals.
Skepticism as to whether or not developed countries can create transferable standards for developing countries to use in the built environment is understandable. Concerns about material costs; cultural dissonance; and availability of technology, technical expertise, and skilled labor can flow from a narrow analysis of possible problems. The perfect, however, should not be the enemy of the good.
The Montreal Protocol, the most successful international environmental agreement in history, shows that many of the impediments cited above can be overcome. By the creation of a Multilateral Fund made up of seven industrialized nations and seven developing countries, ozone-depleting chemicals are being phased out globally through technical assistance, training, and capacity building in developing countries. In November 2017, the UN Environment Programme announced that developing nations will receive over $540 million from 2018 to 2020 under the Montreal Protocol to continue phasing out harmful chemicals.
Why not such an effort in developing countries for green buildings? In fact, as per the Paris Agreement, developing countries have signed on to limit global temperature rise to less than 2°C, and countries from India to Ecuador are taking measures to fulfill this commitment. Since nearly 2/3 of the world’s countries do not have any building energy codes in place, the use of a comprehensive voluntary standard or rating program could fill that gap and address additional critical issues such as water quality and efficiency, safe indoor air quality and waste reduction. To the concern that this would be too expensive and difficult for developing countries, I say that bold action to use resources more efficiently will ultimately serve more people and cost less in the long run.
The Green Climate Fund was established through the UNFCCC in 2010 to assist countries in using new technologies to upgrade building stock. Indeed, the International Energy Agency recommends access to global finance to help developing countries adopt best practices and high-performance technologies and integrate them into their own building traditions. Armed with new knowledge and a growing supply chain, they could leapfrog hurdles and mistakes that industrialized countries are still struggling to overcome, such as a reliance on fossil-fuel energy and over-engineered buildings that consume too many resources.
Some observers view the utilization of a developed country standard, such as LEED, in emerging economies as a form of neocolonialism, or as insensitivity to the possible socio-economic impacts of new approaches to community living. While there’s no question that this type of concern has some validity, localized innovation can address these concerns. For example, the World Bank has developed a new application, EDGE, which is focused on emerging markets and uses some of the LEED categories in a simplified compliance path.
What is evolving in developing countries is a partnership of local officials, building designers, contractors and manufacturers. This partnership will be needed to create community resiliency in both developed and developing countries as we confront rapidly changing climate conditions. With resilience planning, natural hazards like floods, droughts, wind, and fires do not have to become natural disasters. USGBC has already recognized the need for resilience by incorporating RELi, a resilient design platform, into the LEED rating system. The major challenge to both developed and developing countries, and which a globally-recognized, consensus-based process may be able to address, is the future impact of climate change on our communities and the ability of all countries to reap the rewards of sustainable and resilient design and construction.
The opposition’s rebuttal remarks
Mr. Blum and I agree that reducing energy consumption in—and, more broadly, decarbonizing—cities and societies is an urgent task. And at the end of the day, LEED and BREEAM are voluntary programs—developers are free to adopt them or not adopt them as they see fit. And the fact that a large and increasing number of construction projects in the developing world (albeit mostly those built by multinational rather than local developers) are working to achieve LEED gold certification and the like shows that there is economic value for developers in these programs’ existence. If that economic value (which consists partially in realizing some downstream cost savings from lower energy and water use, and partially in increasing the prestige of a development for environmentally-conscious buyers or tenants) motivates some environmental action, that’s something to be applauded.
However, the evidence is at best mixed, at least from the perspective of fighting climate change. (While Mr. Blum discusses sustainability in a broad register which combines environmental and economic considerations, my opinion is that we should evaluate the suitability of green building standards or any other “sustainability”-related policy primarily in terms of its potential for reducing human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, as opposed to other considerations such as economic development, as important as they may be.) While many studies have found that LEED-certified buildings have lower carbon footprints than non-LEED buildings, other studies have found the opposite.
It’s possible to imagine, though, that green building standards could be designed to unambiguously reduce GHG emissions where they are implemented, even taking into account the larger citywide or regional context. Then the question comes down to opportunity costs. Given the other possible strategies for reducing urban carbon footprints, is it sensible for developing countries to devote relatively scarce money and attention to these schemes, given the alternatives? Because of course if money and time are no object then we should let a thousand sustainability strategies bloom. But time and money are limited, and governments and societies need to make choices.
So here I want to reiterate the point I made in my opening remarks, that there are far better ways to spend time and money than green building standards if we want to improve sustainability outcomes in the developing world. Affordable housing, public transit, and disaster preparedness are all good options.
Mr. Blum makes the vital point that the impacts of the unsustainability of human society are felt most strongly in the developing world. This fact implies an ethical responsibility on the part of developed nations to mitigate these impacts. But the North isn’t going to do this through its building standards. Because the fact of the matter is that the subordinate environmental position of developing nations has little to do with buildings and much to do with the way the global economy operates. We have a worldwide “spatial division of labour” where high-value, low-pollution economic activities (such as designing iPhones) occurs in rich countries, and low-value, high-pollution economic activities (such as manufacturing iPhones) occurs in poor countries. Poor people tend to live in areas more vulnerable to sea level rise and other climate-related risk, while rich people (and rich countries) can better afford to protect themselves from this risk.
Mr. Blum asks, in reference to a set of benefits ascribed to green building standards, “Why should these benefits be denied to developing countries?” We might well ask the same question about the whole range of social and material divergences between the developed and the developing world, which have led to worse environmental outcomes and greater pressure on the natural environment in poorer countries. These problems aren’t going to be solved with green building standards, but we might begin to solve them with equity-focused urban environmental policy, and that’s where I think we should be investing our scarce time and money.

 

23 comments

  • I have voted against the forceful pressing of standards of industrialised nations on to developing countries. The basis for this argument being that the conditions are different at different instances. Developed nations have far to many facilitation as compared to developing countries. Forcing them to follow the developed nations norms would be like expecting too much from the already impoverished. It’s important to voluntarily encourage them towards following the norms than mear imitations as committed by developed nations. Keeping it simple will always do than to market it and get devalued name. Take for example the shpere standards which can be aptly followed by developed nation like USA but can’t be even met by Sudan. Mear blindly forcing standards on other would be like the stick attitude. (Carrot and stick approach) The way people’s should be motivated towards the conservation of environment must be towards sustainability not towards machines to blindly follow the orders. For illustration in forest trees and shrubs don’t ask where I should grow and where I should not, let it be evolving….!!

  • MODERATOR: Thank you very much for these interesting opening remarks. Green building certifications are not “perfect” they are evolving in the U.S. and in many industrialized nations, but “we have to start somewhere,” sais Mr. Jared Blum. His argument is compelling. Defenders of adopting green building certifications in developing countries often highlight economic and environmental benefits, and believe that “it would be irresponsible” if we reduce the opportunity of developing countries to access these achievements. Acknowledging the fact that each region has different traditions, cultures, materials, and skills, Mr. Blum argues that it is local governments’ responsibilities to adapt selected aspects of green certification standards based on their specific needs.

    Yet Dr. David Wachsmuth is skeptic; particularly regarding the applicability of green certifications in the developing world. And he provides hard (research-based) evidence. For instance, he argues that green certifications may encourage urban sprawl by making site-specific demands which are only feasible with large plot sizes; and how regressive redistribution of amenities across places push poorer residents to less expensive neighborhoods at the urban periphery, where carbon footprints are higher. David concludes “certifying greener buildings with LEED or BREEAM doesn’t appear to be the most socially just or cost-effective way to accomplish [greener cities] in developing countries today.”

    Readers may hold different opinions or would like to challenge our panelists with facts, examples and cases. We very much look forward to reading your opinions in the comment section. What do you think?

  • (Retrieved from comments on Facebook)
    Kent Thomas says “I’m from the Caribbean and I think we are often unable to economically achieve the standards of BREEAM and LEED and can only do so for our greatest engineering feats(aka most expensive ventures with long design life). I think though building our own standards is very much trying to redesign the wheel. What we should do as Caribbean nations is to work with consultancies from BREEAM or LEED and streamline these standards toward our available resources. Maybe creating a new standard BREEAM-C or LEED-C meant specifically for Caribbean standards.”

  • As a professional in the field of green building and sustainable neighborhoods, I share the interest in these certifications. However, it’s not easy to adjudicate whether we should or not adopt theses labels in developing countries. One thing is sure: they should not be an end by itself. The related question that matters here should be how certification can help to structure the sustainability of the exponential urban growth in developing countries. And to respond to this question we should underlined these three important issues:
    First, the issue of adaptability of the certification to the developing context. By being developed in an occidental perspective, despite the attempts to adjust the certification to other context, it stays, overall, very specific to some regions (“location-specific”). As good examples, the fast spread of LEED certifications in North America and BREEAM certifications in the UK, GBCA in Australia, DNGB in Germany, CASBEE in Japan, to name only few In other words, all labels are developed in a specific regional context. The World Green Building Council (WGBC) has been established to coordinate (and perhaps harmonize) the efforts of various green building councils over the world. From this observation, we can question whether we should adapt existing label to the context of developing countries. If the response is yes, so which one is the most appropriate? Or should we go through the WGBC help and coordinate the creation of new certification for and from developing countries?
    Second, the scale of analysis can’t be limited to the building. The resilience of vulnerable regions relies on the capacities and capabilities of the social networks. If we limit the performance to energy and comfort, we may trigger -as a result- “green ghettos” for rich people that can afford this type of certification. The new pilot certification rating RELi is a first attempt to address this issue.
    Third, the issue of balancing the intervention on formal construction processes vs informal construction processes. Sameep Padora, an Indian architect, has a very interesting view on understanding the legitimacy of local models of urbanization that question the western models that comprise a conception of the urban tissue. According to this perspective the informal system has many advantages like the knowledge of local materials, rapidity of execution, polyvalence of space and usage, and vitality of the informal city. A certification would have to carefully weight these informal contributions.
    Consequently, my response would be a qualified “Yes” in regard with these three important issues.

  • Are green building certifications tools to create awarness about environmental issues? If so, is that a sufficient contribution to the field (regardless of their secondary effects or drawbacks)?

  • (A reply retrieved from comments on our Facebook page)

    Non. Parce que nous ne vivons pas les mêmes réalités climatiques. Si nous occupons la même planète terre, mais les réalités climatiques sont totalement différentes. Il neige dans certains pays, d’autres non. Il pleut abondamment dans certains pays, d’autres non.

  • From the point of view, of a person who has experimented the criteria of sustainability certifications in developing countries, the initial problem is the environment, the urban and social fabric in which the project is built.
    It is by adding this criterion, that of the political and economic context, that one can decide whether the adoption of green building certifications in each environment is an option to consider or not.

    As we can see, most buildings in developing countries today are adopting international certifications, for economic and marketing reasons and their willingness to enter the international market, as promoters of sustainability and eco-sustainable designers, while reducing environmental footprints.
    Unfortunately, the population in developing countries does not integrate a sustainable lifestyle. And their lifestyle is not compatible with that targeted by the promoters, or even by the criteria of these international certifications. In addition, social aspects, such as socio-economic inequalities, population needs, and urban integration are generally not taken into consideration for economic gains. So, in some cases, the construction of buildings is completed according to international standards, but the entire urban and social environment is not up to these standards. And even users are unable to change their lifestyles to adapt to these criteria.

    Thus, the adoption of certifications is not a proof of the sustainability of buildings. And there is no guarantee that sustainability will be respected, and environmental footprints will be reduced. But in the absence of any other local certification, or even in the absence of any law appalling the sustainability of buildings in developing countries, these certifications remain a hope and a tool for any developer and designer who wants to start a sustainable project.

  • Dear Monique: thank you for the interesting remark. You claim that “Unfortunately, the population in developing countries does not integrate a sustainable lifestyle.” Do you consider that this applies particularly to the population in developing countries or to the population in general (developed and developing nations)?

    • From my own experience, i think that in developed countries people are used to more sustainable lifestyle. This also, can’t be applied to all people in the developed countries.
      But since they are more used to sustainable behavoirs and exposed to more sustainable approaches (waist management, water reduction, sustainable energy), and since the local governments or the government in general adopts laws regarding sustainable subjects, i can assume the people tend to have another sustainable lifestyle, and they are more willing to change or adapt to a sustainable lifestyle.
      From another side, i can also say that the sustainable lifestyle in developing countries are personal initiatives or in some limited communities, that try to apply some changes toward the environment.

  • Julien Deschênes

    First of all thank you for opening such an interesting topic in a debate. I would also like to introduce myself as a student in urban planning that could somehow be describe as an outsider when it comes to those certifications (not because of my field but because of my usual interests). So I might hold a neophyte position but I am there to enhance my critical comprehension of those certifications and their implications with our society, as they seem to take more space.

    My position is nuanced because, like Leyla, I feel that there are specific elements that do affect a stand on both sides. Throughout the arguments I found a few points or gaps I feel are worth to emphasize or develop. As M. Blum puts it, the certifications tend to reduce operating costs and raise property values. According to those benefits, an implementation of those certifications appear to be a good fit with developing countries that are usually carrying higher ratios of expenses related to utilities as salaries are lower and directly linked with access to utilities like water or electricity. The green building certifications would therefore have higher impacts in the day-to-day pockets of the developing countries households, as they would be able to retain those precious necessities by the higher standards the certifications provides. However, the access to the material and proper construction methods appears, for me, too costly to offset those eventual operational benefits for smaller households pockets.

    Another point I would like to bring to light is the cost of operating and controlling those certifications that requires permanent research to set higher standards. Those costs are also linked to the knowledge economy that is led by developed countries, their universities and the funding of green practices by governments. In that context, I feel that those certifications are disconnected with the countries in development that often have to treat higher priorities linked to basic needs and human rights. To that extent I feel that they shouldn’t focus on high standards programs and more on practical or pragmatic constructions or planning that respond to higher priorities and then proceed with green standards when those basic provisions are fully covered.

    Finally, I always found those certifications quite rigid. The rigidness in my sense blocks creativity, innovation and creates a norm of practice that appears (from an outsider I repeat) virtuous and almost impossible to question. In the common understanding those certifications are perceived as holy symbols of green development and often as the unique path to green construction or planning. In that sense it is much more a form of labeling or recognition then a form of green construction because a greener building could exist without recognitions. This race to the label constitutes an international recognition that a certain building or master plan follow certain characteristics. In my opinion, reducing the labeling to increase the content whether in projects affordability for the countries in development or with greener initiatives in developed countries is a more sustainable path for all.

  • My knowledge in the field is quite limited and my opinion is based on readings and perceptions rather than empirical or scientific expertise.

    The twentieth century has witnessed a return to vernacular and traditional approaches. Hassan Fathy was one of the pioneers of sustainable architecture for/by the poor, integrating traditional material with modern architecture principles and involving the less fortunate in the design and building process. This helped in reducing labor cost, creating jobs, and involving people, which created amongst them a sense of place attachment. Salma Samar Damluji is another architect who worked partly with Fathy. Earth architecture and building technology led her design research in the urban and rural fabric for addressing the social, environmental and architectural balance. In a context of construction after disasters, Rohit Jigyasu was one of many researchers who demonstrated through various case studies that local knowledge and capacity in building techniques and materials can reduce vulnerabilities, and that vernacular architecture proved to be more resilient than contemporary methods.

    A trip I recently did to Marrakesh allowed these concepts I read about in books to become a reality I could personally experience. In this city, ancestral wisdom and learning were in fact noticeable in interventions on space on many levels, in rich as well as in modest neighborhoods. I will only cite what caught my eyes the most: In the old town, streets are very narrow and pedestrians remain in the shade and protected from the heat of the desert. Streets are oriented in such ways to create triangles, which generates air currents. Mud houses are destined for all social classes, Their thick walls and small windows create a natural thermal insulation. The ‘Kasbas’ (mud houses for the rich) are usually courtyard houses. However, since traditional architecture often supports cultural values, external facades are almost identical, and inhabitants’ social class is only revealed on the inside. In palaces, floors are covered by mosaics with multiple joints that allow the soil moisture to soften the atmosphere. The bas-reliefs carved in the plaster on walls are beveld with angles preventing dust to accumulate. This is without mentioning the distribution of different functions in space according to the orientation, and natural ventilation and light.

    In conclusion, while certifications apparently concern ‘buildings’, they actually implicate economic and socio-cultural dimensions, and may therefore represent in some cases serious drawbacks for vulnerable populations. Moreover, climate, landscape, nature, culture, social fabric, etc. are characteristics that differ from one place to another and certifications of any kind can be adopted only if they do not disregard the context where they are being implemented, and if these characteristics are carefully taken into consideration.

  • (A reply retrieved from comments on our LinkedIN page)

    I am in the No campaign, as I think that local context must come first. Maybe settling performance targets, without prescribing how to achieve them, could be a solution ?

  • Do our panelists agree with Monique and believe that people in developing countries tend to have a less sustainable lifestyle?

    • Demonstrating the value of ancestral wisdom in architecture and building techniques answers the question: Stating that people in developing countries tend to have a less sustainable lifestyle may be true in some cases but can difficultly be generalized…

      • Maybe the “less sustainable lifestyle” is not to be taken in a bad way. The sustainable lifestyle concept is new in the developing countries, where conflicts and corruption are more common in the society. These problems lead people to prioritize other interests, instead of putting sustainability into their priority.
        To link this point to the main debate subject, when a building adopts green building certifications, it adopts in an indirect way a certain lifestyle and a certain acceptance of the change in daily routine and daily activities, for the occupants of these buildings. Which is rare to find, because it’s not a priority.
        So, we find innovative buildings with high sustainability standards and certifications, but the process of change in the society is slow.

  • I agree with Monique on this point. Green certifications may fail to respond to priorities and more vital issues in some contexts. I also agree with Leila on the risk of creation of green ghettos inaccessible to the less fortunate. I would like to raise an additional concern: people in developing countries would be passive recipients of alien technologies. This would reduce their participation in the building process (less job opportunities) and their sense of space appropriation towards an environment with imported concepts and approaches.

  • Thank you to Jared and David for their rebuttal remarks and this heated and much interesting debate. Both panellists seem to agree on one significant issue: green building certifications are imperfect solutions to a crucial challenge. The debate then boils down to decide whether implementing imperfect solutions is “good enough” or, else, if societies in developing countries should aim at higher objectives and (probably more complex and difficult to implement) methods to achieve them.

    Whereas Jared believes that many of the implementation challenges of green building certifications can be overcome, David questions the very pertinence of these certifications and their capacity to produce long-term, wide-scale (one feels tempted to write “sustainable”) change. In a world with sufficient resources, “any” solution (regardless of its impact scope) should be welcome. But in a context of limited resources and limited public and political attention to environmental issues, he argues, we cannot afford this strategy.

    Interestingly, Jared responds to David’s concern regarding the increasing risk of natural disasters due to climate changes. He argues that this has been already recognized and a resilience design platform, called RELi, is incorporated into the LEED rating system. David reminds us of the ethical responsibilities of developed nations for environmental damage — effects that are now felt most strongly in the developing world and among poor communities. He concludes “These problems aren’t going to be solved with green building standards, but we might begin to solve them with equity-focused urban environmental policy.”

    Given these comments and comments raised by the pubic one wonders: Do the developed and developing countries fight the same enemy? If so, do they need to be armed with similar tools and solutions?

  • First, I’d like to thank the Canadian Disaster Resilience and Sustainable Reconstruction Research Alliance and i-Rec for organizing this on-line debate on the relevance of the adoption of green building certifications in developing countries.

    I did my master thesis on a closely related topic, which questioned the value of sustainability certification schemes and tools at the neighborhood scale. At the time, seeing the multiplicity of such tools, I was wondering how much marketing was into such tools and what did it add to the sustainable development at a greater scale. We all live on one planet (not to point to another certification scheme, namely One planet living).

    Speaking about One planet living, I’d like to go back to Monique Moussa’s comment on populations of developing countries not having sustainable lifestyles, before I tell my position on the actual debate. Moussa’s comment demonstrates, I think, how sustainable development is more than ever a marketing tool. The Global Footprint Network says that in 8 months of a given year, the inhabitants of Earth are consuming the resources we should consume in 12 months. It is not the developing countries that are overconsuming, but the developed countries. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Luxembourg, Australia, the United-States and Canada are the countries that have the highest ecological footprint per inhabitant. However, greenwashing makes us collectively think that we live more sustainably in the developed countries than in the developing ones. Hence, to answer the moderator’s question, I do not agree with Moussa’s comment.

    Now, going back to the main debate. I completely agree with Wachsmuth’s rebuttal remarks. We need to think ‘big picture’ in a world with scarce time and money. Of course certification schemes are interesting tools, but global warming, one of the effects of unsustainable development, is a problem that we need to address in a more efficient manner than any problem the Earth ever faced. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that building accounts for only 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions, far behind electricity and heat production (25%), agriculture, forestry and other land use (24%), industry (21%) or transportation (14%). Does that make of costly sustainable building certification tools the most efficient way to help developing countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions? Would it even contribute to sustainable development? As Wachsmuth underlined, science is skeptic on the real impacts of certified buildings.

    When we go back to the Brundtland report, we see that the two core principles behind sustainable development are to respond to the basic human needs and to interact with the environment to enable it to regenerate so that next generations’ needs will be fulfilled. With this in mind, solutions to sustainably house poor in developing countries as proposed and realized by Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena, or solutions to sustainably transport poor in developing countries as realized by mayor of Bogota Enrique Penalosa Londono with the TransMilenio seem far more promising than adopting green building certification schemes.

  • Jared and David both make a number of valid points, but on balance Jared’s position offers a stronger, more positive argument.

    Both debaters agree on the urgent need to take steps to address climate change. Jared points out the many benefits of green certifications for building performance, the people who live and work in those building, and for the planet in general. On the other hand, it is reasonable for David to be a bit skeptical about whether certified buildings will always achieve projected savings. Sometimes they don’t. But even if green buildings fall a bit short of perfection, they will still be far better than the alternative – another generation of buildings based on short term cost considerations with little or no concern for long-term sustainability.

    Some debate comments imply that Jared would impose green certifications from developed countries on unsuspecting counties in the developing world as some form of colonial exploitation. That view is not accurate. Jared appears to be advocating offering certification programs to all countries. He does not suggest that they be forced on anyone. Instead, he presents proven certification programs as constructive ways to share guidelines and hard learned lessons so that others might leap frog over some of our mistakes.

    Yes, it is right for David to raise concerns that rigid imported standards might dampen local innovation or miss out on some traditional local wisdom. I too want to see diverse global architecture that reflects local materials and building traditions. No one wants to see homogeneous bland buildings around the globe – the building design equivalent of eating at McDonalds in every country to the exclusion of wonderful homegrown flavors. However, it would be a mistake to use that argument to insist that every country reinvent their own wheels. Far better to offer proven certification guidelines, knowledge and incentives that move us faster on the urgent path to global sustainability. We can do that by offering broad certification programs that also provide room for local variation and innovation.

    David, I respect your concerns, but while you clearly agree that the need for global sustainability is urgent, you point out some minor flaws of certification programs without offering any alternatives at all. Given the need to avoid wasting precious time while the planet heats up, aren’t we better taking a few less than perfect steps forward rather than doing nothing while Rome burns?

  • Both Kirk and Raphael offer interesting perspectives on this issue. Thank you for your valuable comments. Should developing countries invent their own wheels? Should they focus on adaptive housing and transportation solutions rather than in green buildings? Are those strategies mutually exclusive? These comments seem to be taking this debate to a higher level. Yet voters seem to keep favouring green certifications, however imperfect they are or mught be. Will this trend change over the weekend?

  • Julien Deschênes

    To address the sustainable lifestyle question I’d like to use an idea presented by Franck Scherrer, a professor of urban planning at the School of urban planning and landscape architecture of the Université de Montréal, about water and electricity networks in the actual context of sustainable goals. As a specialist in underground networks like electricity, water or sewage facilities he was pointing out that with the increase of green buildings and more importantly green neighbourhood those collective infrastructures were becoming obsolete. It is important to note that they were built in developed countries as tools of democracy to satisfy new needs for hygiene and economic progress. Cities and regions made them accessible for all because of their direct effects on economic and social progress. Recently, with the shift in paradigms caused by climate change concerns and the need for a more sustainable development those infrastructures were left behind to new goals aiming for a reduction of resource consumption. This ideal was leverage through certifications like LEED or eco-neighbourhoods. In this transition we forgot the existence of those major infrastructures that were built to function with high capacity or volume of activity. For example, Hydro-Québec built major hydroelectricity power plants since the 60s but those big infrastructures are not relevant anymore if they are considered in the new paradigms of climate change where we search for self-sufficient building or even positive impact building. According to Scherrer a lot of sewage systems in Europe are affected by the reduction of water consumption linked with the proliferation of green buildings and neighbourhoods. Drinkable water is often injected in sewages for them to function properly and costs are rising for cities that are losing revenues due to the decrease of users now autonomous. This reality brings to light problems of justice in the access to those green improvements or initiatives and incoherence when we look at the big picture of sustainability. However, it tells us that developing countries could maybe benefit more then developed countries from those certifications.

    The problem of access is shown by the initial costs that are difficult to cover by the average or the lower tiers households. More dramatically, they are the ones that are left behind with inefficient structures abandoned by richer households, which are leaving those democratic networks for self-sufficient facilities and building thus creating inequalities that aren’t coherent with sustainability. Secondly, the major networks like water sewage and electricity were designed to face peak usage and some growth but the reality is that they are now facing a decline in resource consumption. The scale economies are now decreasing and operating costs are increasing considering the stock is getting older. Like it wasn’t enough their high capacities and volumes are source of waste because they are made to fill peak demands, as it’s a democratic tool. Therefore in developed countries where we are surround by sustainability ideals this appears like our principal weakness. The developing countries are fortunate enough on that level because they are, by definition, in development. Since they haven’t reached our level of development it means that those green buildings and neighbourhoods can be placed without affecting major infrastructures. From my experience in India and a research I’ve made on micro grids in Sagar Island (India) the networks are being thought and develop bottom up instead of the other way around. It means that micro grid and local infrastructures are linked to the broader network that has this democratic goal of providing equal access to resources. Certifications and standards could then be tools to enhanced local or building capacities before they are linked to the broader network. From this angle the context of developing countries infrastructures and networks appears to be more welcoming then developed countries to those certifications, tools of sustainability.

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