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Speaker Spotlight: Dr Nkatha Gichuyia

Meet the researchers behind the Cambridge Festival: Gates Cambridge alum, Dr Nkatha Gichuyia

Dr Nkatha Gichuyia is an environmental design consultant and lecturer at the University of Nairobi as well as a former Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge. She will be a panellist in a discussion on how climate change will affect our health on 2nd April 1-2pm and will discuss how architecture and building design can lessen the health impact of global warming.


What was your PhD about?

My PhD research, for which I received a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, addressed indoor overheating risk management in buildings located in urban landscapes in the hot tropical climates of developing countries. I developed and tested a model that addresses how architects can adapt buildings for fast-changing climate conditions in warmer countries such as Kenya. The model’s framework gives guidance about how to  strategically respond to indoor overheating and ensure that buildings can stand the test of time in changing environmental conditions across a 100-year service life.

You are active across academia, architectural practice and policy work - why do you think that is important when it comes to tackling the impact of climate change?

I am a Lecturer of Architecture at the University of Nairobi and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University College Dublin; I  run an architectural practice; as a researcher I have been engaged in projects ranging from buildings and climate change to colonial architecture in a post-colonial world and informal settlements in Kenya; and I  am a member of the Meru Economic and Social Council, a regional governmental think tank, and Chairperson of its infrastructure and services programme.

My experience from working in spaces that span the science-policy-practice divide has meant I am better able to understand and respond to climate change management… i.e. the challenge of how to make relevant scientifically understood principles accessible to the range of people involved in decision-making about architecture, including design teams, property developers, building users, building managers, market innovators and national, regional and local policymaker in an often highly heterogeneous African landscape.

What issues do architects need to bear in mind when designing buildings for fast-changing climate conditions, particularly in warmer countries such as Kenya?

Developing countries like Kenya are experiencing rapid economic growth, with most undergoing a construction boom. Alongside designing buildings that respond to other global challenges fuelled by population increases amid ever-dwindling resources, architects and design teams have to respond to a range of issues. They include the pressure to reduce the carbon footprint, design buildings in ways that mitigate their climate change impact and ensure that they conserve energy; the need to design buildings that can adjust not only to the ever-changing climatic conditions but that can also adjust to climate change effects such as escalating flood risk and overheating risk; and the requirement to design spaces that are both habitable and meet the aspirations of a fast developing and ever-changing, globalising society, without compromising on attempts to cut emissions and conserve energy during the urbanisation process.

Are policymakers on board yet?

When it comes solely to climate change management, there is definitely more work to be done. But with regard to efforts to make climate change management solutions a top priority in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly when it comes to addressing youth unemployment and poverty which Covid has exacerbated, then yes they are.   I have recently made policy proposals on how the government can address youth unemployment and economic growth in ways that embed climate change management.

What does your youth work involve?

I engage in youth work as a part-time public servant of the Government of Kenya in the National Youth Service, a Kenyan government parastatal organisation charged with training, developing skills and employing youth who do not go into higher education. I was appointed Chairperson of the Operations, Training and Programmes Committee of the NYS’ council. The council is in charge of policy development, control, oversight and supervision of all NYS’s undertakings. I also advise the Government on housing, urban development and informal settlement management. My most recent engagement has involved coordinating the Kenyan Government’s Covid-19 response and recovery in Kenya’s informal settlements. My team has offered technical support, for instance, for a programme designed to help daily wage workers affected by the pandemic through projects that improve urban infrastructure and service delivery.