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11 October 20217 minute read

Green Buildings: The call for sustainable retrofitting in Zimbabwe


Climate change has imposed the need to review construction practices to reshape the planet’s disconcerting future. Global studies have shown that the real estate sector has one of the largest carbon footprints. According to the United Nations (UN) Environmental Programme,11 real estate contributes to 30% of global annual greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and traditional buildings cumulatively consume around 40% of the world’s energy. These statistics show the monumental role that real estate stakeholders, owners and investors have to play in the climate change discussion. This article examines the increasingly popular concept of green buildings as a means of achieving environmentally sustainable construction practices in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe – like much of Africa – is constrained by an inability to fully implement sustainable building practices, adopt environmentally friendly technologies and put appropriate measures in place to respond to climate change requirements. This is largely attributed to a lack of institutional and financial resources. Considering these constraints, this article explores the various methods of improving the sustainability of existing buildings that were not originally designed with sustainable environmental considerations in mind, mainly through sustainable retrofitting.

What are green buildings?

Green buildings have been presented as the key to addressing or slowing down the effects of climate change through their energy efficiency and promotion of sustainable building and consumption practices. To attain green building status, a building must meet a standard set of environmentally friendly criteria. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines green building practice as “the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s lifecycle, from design to construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction.” By their nature, green buildings address negative social and environmental impacts through structural design and by encompassing plans that address the way in which the building is managed and operated (Green Building Council of South Africa, 2017). This is done through a combination of innovative design, technology and the use of sustainable resources to minimize the building’s energy and resource consumption (Kerswill, B. 2017).

On a practical level, property developers and architects can adopt different methods in creating green buildings. These include:

  • incorporation of waste recycling systems
  • recycling of domestic waste water
  • use of solar energy
  • planting vegetation
  • use of recycled or sustainable building materials
  • use of natural light and natural ventilation systems
  • installation of water efficient plumbing systems
  • minimizing or eliminating materials that introduce toxins and allergens into the air
Advantages of green buildings

The main environmental advantages of green buildings are that they:

  • reduce water and energy consumption;
  • encourage the use of eco-friendly and plant renewable building materials;
  • enhance the natural environment with green roofs, trees and vegetation;
  • decrease landfill waste, decrease air pollution; and
  • minimize greenhouse gas emissions, thereby slowing down global warming.

There are several other benefits to green buildings besides the environmental benefits. These include social and economic benefits that have been shown to enhance the viability and profitability of property developments. Evidence-based statistics from the World Green Building Council show that the economic advantages include cost savings on utility bills for tenants or households (through energy and water efficiency); lower construction costs and higher property values for building developers; increased occupancy rates or operating costs for building owners; and job creation. The social benefits are reportedly around the health and wellbeing of people who work in green offices or live in green homes. According to studies published by Kukreja R, 2016, What is a Green Building and Bloomington 2017, it has been shown that through the promotion of better indoor air quality (ie high ventilation rates versus low concentrations of carbon dioxide and pollutants) inhabitants show increased cognitive scores or brain function, exhibit improved performance rates and enjoy better quality sleep.

Disadvantages of green buildings

In light of the benefits of the green building concept, it would be remiss to disregard the disadvantages, which can be a deterrent. Disadvantages include high initial construction costs, technological constraints, unavailability of green construction materials, lack of investors, and the dependence on weather conditions for energy supplies. Despite the drawbacks, it is apparent that green buildings play a major role in the reduction of GHG.

Zimbabwe on climate change and green building

According to a country analysis on climate change adaptation by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP),22 Zimbabwe’s geographical location in the tropics makes it vulnerable to fluctuating rainfall patterns and water resource availability. Adaptation measures to address the effects of climate change are required to reduce the impact in key economic sectors, especially agriculture, which is largely rain-fed and is affected by an absence of natural lakes and frequent occurrence of droughts in the region.

In view of the imminent threat to water and food security as a direct result of climate change, green buildings present a formidable means through which greenhouse emissions and climate change can be addressed in Zimbabwe. While it is by no means an all-encompassing solution, it will contribute towards the attainment of sustainable development and equitable growth in the real estate sector.

Through various policy documents, the government of Zimbabwe has expressed its commitment to addressing climate change and adopting measures that promote progressive national economic development which encompasses low‐emission and/or climate‐resilient economic growth. Since 1992, Zimbabwe has been a member state of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Subsequent to its membership, the state submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the UNFCCC. In terms of the INDC, the state reinforced its mandate to secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting economic and social development as embodied in the Constitution. On the local front, the National Climate Policy (NCP) was adopted by the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate in November 2017. In terms of the NCP, the government committed itself to the creation of pathways towards a climate resilient and low carbon development economy.

Notwithstanding the above commitments, green building initiatives for the general populace in Zimbabwe largely remain discretionary. However, depending on the characteristics and size of new property developments, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) may be required in terms of the Environmental Management Act (Chapter 20:27). Existing industrial plants and/or trade facilities may also – through operation of the Act – be subject to mandatory retrofitting to address the discharge of hazardous effluent into the environment. The glaring gap in legislation or polices exists in the lack of bylaws that promote a sustainable built environment for small-scale projects. Due to a lack of institutional capacity, individual housing projects and existing standalone buildings are seldom subject to environmental regulation. Urban and peri-urban policies should promote the design of green buildings across the board and the retrofitting of existing structures.

The case for sustainable retrofitting in Zimbabwe

Sustainable retrofitting is the process through which existing buildings are refurbished to make them environmentally friendly and sustainable. Due to a lack of financial resources through which old buildings can be demolished and rebuilt or through which entire developments can be renovated, retrofit projects in Zimbabwe can be broken down to small-scale projects aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of historical buildings. Retrofit initiatives may include the incorporation of natural ventilation systems as opposed to air conditioning, installation of solar power systems or introduction of roof top gardens to catch rainwater and reduce the building’s latent heat.

The effects of climate change have seen the country experience flash flooding, unreliable rainfall patterns and heat waves, so the need to develop and implement urban resilience policies has never been more pronounced. Public participation – particularly in light of deteriorating urban infrastructure – can be harnessed through incentivized schemes which reward green construction or retrofit projects. Such incentives may be tax or rebate based. It is incumbent on the state, cascading down to the local authorities, to adopt and implement an action framework aimed at systematically addressing climate change in planning, development and urban management.

1 Sustainable Real Estate Investment Implementing The Paris Climate Agreement: An Action Framework