Even in the intense noonday heat, the new library at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Kenya's capital stays cool - but without an air conditioner in sight.
Instead, stones in the basement absorb moisture from the ground that creates a cooling effect as it evaporates, and the building's large windows and doors are protected from the sun's heat by shades.
The building's energy-efficient design has won it an award this year from the Kenya Association of Manufacturers' Centre for Energy Efficiency as the best green building in the country.
Meanwhile, the University of Nairobi Architectural and Building Department took the same group's Green Architecture award for promoting the design of green buildings in Kenya.
Environmentalists and architectural organisations are working hard to promote green design throughout Kenya and to position their country as a leader in sustainable construction and energy-efficient design, even as they admit that businesses are slow to take on board the advantages being touted.
"The building is airy and well lit with natural light during the daytime. Its orientation is along the east-west axis of the sun that allows natural lighting, and hence minimising energy demand," said Hiab Gebreselasie, who manages the Catholic University library.
The library is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and needs no artificial light, even in its basement. It harnesses the prevailing winds for natural ventilation, and collects and stores rainwater to use within the building.
Green buildings are designed to use natural sustainable materials, be energy efficient and reduce water use.
GREEN BUILDING STANDARDS
Green Africa Foundation, (GAF) a local nongovernmental organisation, has developed a "Green Mark" standards for buildings and provides guidelines for best practices for environmentally friendly design.
The new standards cover the sustainability of building sites, water conservation, energy efficiency, construction materials, indoor air quality, innovation, operation and maintenance. GAF plans to start offering certification of green buildings in the near future.
"You can't talk of (energy) conservation while ignoring buildings, because people spend 90 percent of their time daily in buildings, which generate 40 percent of carbon emissions," said Nickson Otieno, an architect with GAF and owner of a building company.
GAF works with the Kenya Green Buildings Society (KGBS), whose standards are benchmarked on South African ones. The building society also helps owners of old buildings retrofit them to improve energy efficiency and water conservation.
South Africa, Otieno explains, was the pioneer in sub-Saharan Africa in developing green buildings standards.
Mutua Mweu, an architect whose firm also promotes green building construction, says that assessing the green rating of a building requires considering aspects besides energy efficiency, such as land use, ecology, emissions levels and handling of sewerage waste.
He agrees with Otieno that public interest in adopting green standards is growing rapidly, and says that all architecture courses at Kenyan universities now include green technology in their curricula.
"The green moment is here and strong and no architect can ignore it," Mweu said.
Peterson Karumi, principal superintendent architect at Kenya's Ministry of Public Works, which is responsible for designing and constructing public buildings, says the government prepared a draft policy on green building standards in 2013, which may be approved by 2015.
According to Karumi, the policy will enable the private sector to play a key role in promoting green buildings by providing subsidies and clear guidelines. He believes the country has the technical capacity to successfully promote and construct green buildings.
The United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat) has been working with the Architectural Association of Kenya and other groups since 2011 under a four-year programme to promote energy efficiency in buildings in East Africa.
SOUTH AFRICAN LEAD
Ruth Maina, the project's coordinator in Kenya, says that no figures are available on the number of buildings that qualify as green in the country, but she believes that in sub-Saharan Africa Kenya comes second in this respect only to South Africa, and it leads East Africa in the adoption of green building standards.
"There's been change of the people's mindset, though gradual, and the future is bright," she said.
Green buildings play a wider role beyond mitigating the impacts of climate change. Vincent Kitio, an architect at UN-Habitat's Nairobi office, said green buildings with natural ventilation also safeguard the health of occupants by increasing the circulation of oxygen, helping to minimise respiratory diseases.
"Our energy efficiency programme is aimed at addressing climate change issues and safeguarding the health of occupants of buildings," he said.
Through its East Africa programme, which covers Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, UN-Habitat is liaising with governments to make efficient use of resources a part of building codes. The organisation has trained 300 architects and construction engineers and advocates for change with policy makers. The programme is due to expand to cover southern, central and west Africa.
Kitio says cost-effectiveness is the key factor driving the adoption of green building standards in Kenya and the region, as private individuals seek homes that are energy efficient.
The programme is preparing a building manual offering guidelines on constructing sustainable buildings in the tropics, including proper siting of buildings to harness natural light, use of locally available materials, and capacity for rainwater harvesting and water recycling.
"It will not only define what a green building should be like, but how to construct one," said Kitio.
However, Kitio sees several challenges to wider adoption of green buildings in Kenya and East Africa. The first is that big players in the building sector do not see compliance with green building standards as a priority.
"Although the government has expressed interest, there is no strong engagement with other stakeholders," he said. According to Otieno, the private sector appears slow to comply with green building standards, even though it could save resources by doing so.
For Karumi, one factor hampering construction of green buildings is the cost of materials. Solar panels and construction materials that meet green buildings standards tend to be expensive, he pointed out, although in the longer term they are cost-effective, he said.
Taxation, noted Mweu, is another hindrance. He said that the government should subsidise the cost of equipment for renewable energy generation - much of which now attracts import duties - to promote investment in green power.
Also, "accurate climatic data is vital, (as) the requirements for a green building in one region of Kenya are different (from) another one," Mweu said, adding that some of Kenya's figures are out of date and unreliable.
Finally, Otieno said there needs to be better assessment of the quality of local construction materials for green buildings. Currently, some materials are imported from as far away as China, while others contain toxic asbestos.
"If we continue importing material, it is going to be unsustainable in the long run," said Otieno, adding that if materials are made locally jobs and local expertise will be created.
Justus Bahati Wanzala is a writer based in Nairobi.