UNEP Headquarters

UNEP Headquarters

A view of the main entrance to the UNEP HQ building
A view of the main entrance to the UNEP HQ building

Environmental conservation and the war against global warming are among the biggest responsibilities of governments today. Scientists have been working round the clock to design innovative ways to build eco-friendly cars, machines and, in the past few decades, buildings.

With statistics from the American Institute of Architects indicating that buildings account for an estimated 48 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, the United Nations and some governments and civil groups have been pushing for “green” features in the design of new buildings.

Unlike the concrete and glass boxes that need huge amounts of non-renewable resources to run, green buildings are designed to support rainwater harvesting, bicycle commuting, solar heating, natural ventilation, and many other environmentally friendly practices.

This, in turn, ensures that the structures emit fewer greenhouse gases, consume less energy, use less water, and offer their occupants healthier environments than those in typical buildings.

These innovations are meant to make urban development environmentally sustainable and user friendly. To walk the talk, the United Nations’ Nairobi office launched one of the most eco-friendly structures ever built in the Kenya, and probably Africa.

Housing the headquarters of both the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (Habitat), the new structure is designed to reflect the two organisations’ mission statement — sustainable urban development.

With 6,000 square metres of solar panels, natural ventilation systems, and many other green features, the building is expected to be energy sufficient in a year’s time.

SOlar panels dotting the roof of the UNEP HQ building
Solar panels dotting the roof of the UNEP HQ building

“The building sector is the single largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, with one third of global energy use taking place in offices and homes,” explains Mr Achim Steiner, director-general of the United Nations Office at Nairobi.

“So the design and construction of new buildings — and the refitting of existing ones — represents one of the key, low cost ways of combatting climate change while reducing electricity bills and dependence on fossil fuels.”

The building is designed like a chimney, allowing warm air from the ground level to waft across the office areas before escaping through the sides of the vaulted roof. This guarantees cool temperatures in the offices without having to use air conditioners.

Besides the washrooms being served by harvested rain water and being fitted with water-saving taps and lavatories, waste water is treated in a state-of-the-art aeration facility nearby and then used to irrigate the interior compound landscaped with the country’s four ecosystems in mind — forest, savannah, desert, and coast.

Solar panels are expected to generate around 750,000 kilowatt hours a year and measures have been put in place to ensure that the complex attains energy neutrality — where all power used by the building and its occupants over the year is met by renewable sources.

“We are aiming to have the building energy neutral over the course of the year, not for it to be completely energy independent,” explains Mr Rob de Jong, one of the experts leading the efforts to maximise the energy sustainability of the building.

More environmental features of the building explained
More environmental features of the building explained

“There will be some days when the panels will produce more than we need and others where there may not be enough sun.”

One of the biggest electricity consumers in the office setup after lighting is the information technology department.

To take care of this, the designers incorporated an innovative data centre cooling system that uses air and water rather than electricity -driven fans. There is an electronic meter at the entrance reading the electricity generated and the carbon dioxide emissions.

The opening of the office complex, graced by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon coincided with the release of a report by the National Environmental Management Board that classified Kenya as one of the most water-stressed countries in the world.

Green architecture gained currency in the wake of the 1973 energy crisis when the concept moved from research and development to reality as governments sought ways of cutting costs and reliance on fossil fuels. But due to the high initial costs of alternative energy, the number of people venturing into this technology was few.

However, over the years research has yielded more innovative and relatively cheap photovoltaic cells, which has made it possible for more building projects to use solar energy.

While Europe and Asia have embraced green architecture, the concept is yet to be fully embraced in sub-Saharan Africa, unlike in South Africa.

The most important factor in achieving green architecture in urban areas is strict legislation and regulation. The South African government has already called for a consideration of minimum energy efficiency levels when setting up new structures.

However, South Africa is far ahead of other states in the continent since it has an institution in charge of green building issues and a fully-fledged grading system.

The Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) is in charge of green movements and has launched a rating system called the Green Star SA.

Some of the environmental features of the building explained
Some of the environmental features of the building explained

Among the major eco-friendly structures to be approved by GBCSA is the new Nedbank Phase II building in Sandton, Johannesburg, the 24 Richefond Circle in Umhlanga Rocks, and Villa Mall in Pretoria

While the green building concept is still in its infancy in Africa, Asia is set for an era of environmentally friendly construction boom in the commercial building sector, what with the many multinational companies striving to be named the most ecologically friendly and responsible organisations in Asia.

Besides the image value, many Asia-based companies are embracing green building due to substantial savings in terms of energy costs that these structures generate.

Asian countries experience warmer climates most of the year, which results in high electricity bills to run air conditioning, sometimes amounting to almost a third of the building’s total operating costs.

According to research conducted by CB Richard Ellis, a leading global property company, Asia accounts for almost 75 per cent of the total annual global office space construction.

This finding is underlined by the fact that the demand for architects, engineers, and design managers specialising in environmentally sustainable construction is on the rise in the continent.

The City Square Mall is Singapore’s first eco-friendly shopping complex. Completed in 2009, the 12-storey mall was awarded the country’s Building and Construction Authority’s Green Mark Platinum Award for innovative “green” features like eco-restrooms designed to save water and electricity.

The $200 million (Sh16.8 billion) building was also hailed for using environmentally-friendly materials such as drywall partitions, a non-chemical anti-termite system, designated parking lots for hybrid cars, and sensors to monitor levels of indoor carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions.

Having invested five per cent of the building costs in installing the “green” features, the mall’s eco-friendly design is projected to cut energy usage by approximately 39 per cent, compared to designs using standard industry code.

Other benefits include saving an estimated 11 million kilowatts of electricity a year, reduction of 5,700 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually — which would have required 25,000 trees to absorb — and saving an estimated $48,000 (Sh4 million) per annum in other expenses.

The biggest green project under construction now is the Freedom Tower at the site where the World Trade Centre once stood.

Branded the “Green Giant” and expected to be complete by 2013, the building will not only be the tallest in the world at 1,776 feet, but will also feature green enhancement concepts never tried in an urban structure before.

“It is going to stand out as a beacon to the rest of the world in pushing the environmentally friendly agenda,” explains Mr Guy Battle, president of sustainability consulting firm Battle McCarthy, that worked with the architects on the structure’s design.

At 1,200 feet above the building’s rooftop observation decks will stand a series of wind turbines that will generate up to 2.6 million kilowatts of electricity annually, which is 20 per cent of the building’s anticipated energy needs.

A perspective view of the UNEP HQ building
A perspective view of the UNEP HQ building

Placing the “wind farm” above the New York skyline is not only meant to expose the turbines to gushing winds, it also aims to display the wind energy enhancement technology to the city’s public.

“The long-term goal is to create carbon-negative buildings,” said Mr Battle. “Buildings consume half of all the energy in the world, but they should be giving back energy instead of only taking it”.

Apart from companies and organisations, there are individuals whose quest for green architecture deserves a mention.

When Bill Clinton was elected the US President in 1992, he announced a plan to make the White House the “model for efficiency and waste reduction” across the nation and the world.

Dubbed the “Greening of the White House”, the project was hailed as a success since the presidential villa saves more than $300,000 (Sh24 million) annually in energy, water costs, and landscaping since 1996 by enhancing the use of renewable resources.

After the successful greening of the White House, other major buildings like The Pentagon and the US Department of Energy have been given a green makeover.

Britain’s richest man, Lakshmi Mittal, plans to build a £30 million (Sh3.7 billion) mansion in the outskirts of London that designers claim will have a “zero-carbon” footprint once it’s completed.

According to the Sunday Times, the “green house” will be self-sufficient in energy and harness outdoor temperatures to create natural air conditioning.

This, in effect, will not only make the house a zero-carbon emitter, it will also make the entire 340-acre estate that it will stand on carbon-negative.

There are also instances where entire cities have gone green by implementing policies that are geared towards the use of renewable resources in building and transport.

The Dutch capital Amsterdam is one of the cities that have been hailed as nature’s best friends. It is termed the “ultra modern energy-saving metropolis”.

Millions of Amsterdamers prefer bikes to cars and hundreds of homes have registered with an innovative domestic energy management project. All these efforts are projected to slash carbon dioxide emissions by an impressive 45 per cent by 2025.

Nairobi and other major Kenyan urban centres, all of which grapple with perennial power and water shortages and traffic jams, can learn a lot from these urban centres which have implemented revolutionary ways of coping with the vagaries of energy deficiency, pollution, and congestion.

The aptly coloured structure — the company’s corporate colour is green — is funded through the KCB Staff Pension Fund.

Source: Daily Nation


  1. Solar power for electricity and lighting has never worked efficiently in the one project I proposed. The owner resorted to use electricity from Kenya Power. These guys at UNEP have dotted their entire roof surface with solar panels. They could afford it but the big question is, apart from hot water heating, can solar power replace the conventional source of electricity?

    • Hi Tairo, I believe solar can replace the conventional sources. here we have people who rely on solar to heat their houses and we have sun for a few months in a yr, so i believe in Kenya that would be like the best idea for reliable and renewable energy.

Leave a Reply