Peruvian study finds “going back to basics” on sustainable housing solutions can be key: They are simple, and reduce household costs

Gema Stratico, Country Director – TCIS Peru

In honor of Earth Day, this month we travel to Lima, Peru, to examine how Habitat’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter (TCIS) adopts sustainable home improvement solutions for vulnerable families. Specifically, a new TCIS study looks at barriers and opportunities to scale promising sustainable housing solutions in the short, medium and longer term. It finds that currently, demand for sustainable solutions by low-income families is weak. These customers tend to be risk adverse and are more likely to purchase trusted conventional products and services for their home improvements instead of newer, more sustainable options. However, conventional approaches are often more carbon and resource intensive.

Fortunately, sustainable construction solutions exist that make homes more resilient, reduce household expenses, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, they meet families where they are in terms of their preferences. Among the more than 40 solutions identified, four have high implementation potential for feasibility and scale, including:

  1. Natural light (passive design) takes advantage of the sun’s location throughout the year to improve a home’s thermal comfort; and can be implemented for a negligible added cost. It uses a variety of materials to keep the sun off the building in summer, while using the sun’s energy to increase heat in winter.
  2. Cross-ventilation (passive design) uses the wind’s direction to improve air flow inside the home, by locating one or more windows facing the prevailing wind and another in the opposite direction, thus improving thermal comfort and reducing energy demand for air conditioning.
  3. Strategically added concrete (slabs, columns, beams) using cement containing mineral additions like pozzolans, fillers and blast furnace slags reduce clinker in the cement’s manufacturing, and therefore, the environmental impact. While costing slightly more than traditional Type 1 cement, pozzolanic cement can reduce CO2 emissions by 15 to 40 percent.
  4. Biodegradable concrete, which costs slightly more than traditional products, reduces construction waste while also improving conditions for workers who are often exposed to cement particles when opening bags.

It is perhaps not surprising that passive design strategies rise to the top rank as the solutions with the highest scores when evaluated. They take advantage of natural resources such as sunlight, wind and vegetation to improve thermal comfort and lighting while reducing a home’s carbon footprint. They can also be simple and cost-effective to implement.

Yet, we must recognize the challenge of changing household preferences from traditional materials or design/building processes toward sustainable and innovative solutions (including those identified in this study). But, thanks to previous research and field evidence, TCIS has learned that new housing solutions are more attractive if they are linked to financial services. In that way, TCIS is adapting improvement packages (roofs, walls, bathrooms, among others) to financial solutions to fit the offer (loans) to household payment capacity. These improvement packages should also link to an investment plan to guarantee that a family’s investment results in the consolidation of a real asset (a quality home) to help them obtain better financial terms in the future, when they use their house as collateral, for instance.

With that said, more needs to be done to take advantage of these opportunities and realize the benefits in terms of actual greenhouse gas reductions. Actors across the housing value chain will need to engage to scale these solutions. While many recommendations in the report are specific to the Peruvian context, others are more generally relevant, including:

  • For national governments: Evaluate whether a financial or tax benefit that incorporates the use of sustainable construction solutions could move the market;
  • For municipalities: Pursue alliances with grassroot organizations to strengthen planning and monitoring activities, and identify improvements to owner-driven construction processes;
  • For financial institutions: Encourage them to promote progressive improvement plans that enable families to make more informed decisions, instead of merely placing loans, by increasing awareness and knowledge of end-users about home improvement-related loans, especially ones that offer the sustainable construction solutions outlined in this study.
  • For companies: Continue promoting innovative, environmentally friendly solutions. With that said, they must also increase awareness of and demand for sustainable construction solutions among their end users (families). This can be done by demonstrating the tangible and concrete benefits of these solutions, compared to traditional practices.

These are just a few of the many ways that markets actors can embrace sustainable construction solutions. Going forward, TCIS will continue to promote these solutions as part of a holistic strategy to guarantee the quality of homes that are built, while also pushing for families to use a sound investment plan, which guides them on the right ways to progressively build their homes.

For more information on the TCIS Peru study on “Sustainable solutions in owner - driven construction” please contact the country director of TCIS Peru, Gema Stratico, And, to read the report in Spanish, please click here.