By Karin Rives
Karin Rives is a staff writer covering environmental issues for the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs.
Six months after the Safeer Center opened in the West Bank, several of the 3,000 children who regularly attend after-school activities at the center gave the two-story facility rave reviews.
“This is the first time that I’ve seen an environmentally friendly building. In fact, it’s also a child-friendly building!” said 14-year-old Sondus Hajeer, who enjoys the center’s modern style and bright colors.
STUDYING A GREEN STRUCTURE
Jameel Aqra, like Hajeer a resident of the Askar refugee camp in the West Bank, began volunteering for the Safeer Center as a 10-year-old when the facility was housed in a rented building in Nablus. He has studied the new building’s efficient insulation layers, which are visible through a cut-out in the wall. He also has taken an interest in the center’s rainwater collection system and window shadings that reduce air conditioning costs.
“The idea of a green building was new for me and a first for our camp. I really like the new building,” Aqra said. He was so inspired by the concept that he decided to study engineering with a specialty in environmentally friendly buildings.
The Safeer Center, owned and operated by the nonprofit Palestinian Child Care Society, moved into the new building in December 2010. It is a better and healthier facility for the many children that attend the center’s educational programs.
The construction of the center was funded by the U.S. government through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Over the next five years, USAID plans to support the construction of several more green buildings, which will serve as models in the resource-challenged West Bank and Gaza Strip.
These buildings will be constructed as part of an ambitious U.S. government–funded $100 million program to improve living conditions and spur environmentally and socially sustainable infrastructure projects throughout the Palestinian Territories. Through this program, USAID is also sponsoring a green engineering fellows initiative for recent university graduates, conducting workshops for local Palestinian government officials and industry representatives, and supporting public outreach on energy conservation and other environmental issues.
First on the to-do list is a new community center in the northern West Bank, followed by a green school that aims to become the first LEED-certified building in the area and one of the first in the Arab world. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design. It is a coveted, internationally recognized green-building certification standard, which provides third-party verification that a building was designed and built using methods intended to improve energy savings, water efficiency, carbon dioxide emissions reduction, indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR US?
Just like people anywhere else in the world, Palestinians initially had some misconceptions about green buildings, said Kari Jorgensen Diener, a green building specialist at CHF International, USAID’s partner in its community infrastructure development program.
“The big challenge has been concern about cost and getting people past that,” she said. “People tell us, ‘We have a limited budget and we don’t want to do something too fancy, or to get technology we can’t maintain.’ So working with them, we try to emphasize that a green building doesn’t necessary mean expensive technology. It can be something as simple as which direction a building faces or sun shading.”
Once local leaders realize that green design features will, in fact, save their communities money in the long run, resistance begins to fade, she said. In fact, the Safeer Center’s electricity costs were cut in half and water usage reduced by two-thirds during its first six months of operation. This has freed money for computers, additional programs, new staff and other pressing needs.
Such benefits, along with a recognition that green buildings, made from mostly local materials, lead to more local jobs and healthier communities, are generating enthusiasm for environmentally sustainable construction in the region, Diener said. So is the idea of going back to some of the smart building designs that were perfected in the Middle East generations ago, such as courtyards that offer natural ventilation during hot summer days.
Energy costs in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank tend to be twice as high as in surrounding countries because virtually all electricity and fuel is imported. This has made people in the region eager to save when they can.
“People quickly realize that green buildings translate into a lot of benefits for them,” Diener said.