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Developing countries need strong building codes

Korky Koroluk
Developing countries need strong building codes

The idea of a system of well-researched, strictly enforced building codes got a boost recently from the executive director of the International Energy Agency.

He said the world’s top priority in tackling climate change must be to ensure that buildings being erected in the developing world meet higher standards of efficiency and safety.

Fatih Birol said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper that as things now stand, the building boom in places like Africa, China and elsewhere is locking the world into high greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come.

A strong system of building codes would mean higher building standards, including improved energy efficiency, he said.

"This would be the single most important step I want governments to take, and they can take it tomorrow," he said.

Enacting high standards could be done immediately, he said, although ensuring those standards are always enforced might take longer.

In much of the developing world, and even in some richer countries, building standards are frequently lax and often ignored. This has led to tragedies such as a factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 that killed more than 1,100 people and injured thousands more. Recently, more than 50 people died when an illegal apartment building in Nairobi, Kenya collapsed.

Sitting in Canada it’s easy to be smug. We have one of the strongest sets of codes in the world ever since the first National Building Code of Canada was published in 1941.

Then, in 1947, a research facility was established to provide support for the code-writing endeavour. Known first as the Division of Building Research of the National Research Council, it became the Institute for Research in Construction.

Other countries have strong code systems. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands come to mind. So does the United States and Germany.

But in a lot of countries, building codes aren’t nearly as strong, or may not exist at all.

And while the LEED rating system has proven popular in some areas, it hasn’t caught on in others.

There are a number of things happening in the world that could be cause for concern. China, for example, is investing heavily in Africa.

China designated the city of Shenzhen a "special economic zone" in the 1980s. Since then the city has grown from about 20,000 to about 15 million today.

Copying that success, China is now building a walled-off city next door to Lagos, Nigeria.

It’s designated as a special economic zone in order to attract investors.

Inside the walls will be the new city’s airport, a complete electric grid, a harbour and a police force. The walls are necessary, say developers, because the city of Lagos is "dangerous and chaotic."

There’s another special economic zone outside of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where a Chinese shoe factory employs local workers.

In all, 50 economic zones are planned for Africa, of which six have been built.

And what sort of energy efficiency is being built into those zones? What sort of building codes are in use?

It seems virtually impossible to find out.

But China’s involvement in large international projects is part of the backdrop against which Birol issued his warning about high greenhouse gas emissions.

If higher standards were enforced, he said, it would not only protect people from needless disasters where buildings collapse, the buildings that are built would use less energy. Better windows, more efficient cooling systems and higher quality materials and design would all result in savings through energy efficiency.

The world needs people like Birol, and groups like the International Energy Agency, to urge energy efficiency upon us all. But it also needs widespread agreement on the value of strict, and strictly enforced, building codes.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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