Unlike many young people who hope to pursue careers in life based on their passions and inspiration from those they admire, 27-year-old Gisele Umulisa did not choose a path in civil engineering out of desire, but rather out of necessity due to her home situation. Growing up in Nyamirambo, she envied her neighbours who seemed to be living in ‘posh’ self-contained houses. Umulisa remembers vividly when she was 12 years old and her mother was involved in an accident that left her with spinal fractures. The doctors advised her to use an indoor toilet. “Since our toilet and bathroom were outside and my father couldn’t afford to renovate the house as he was catering for my mother’s hospital bills and all other home requirements, and school fees and more, there was no other option but for my mother to stay at my aunt’s house until she recovered,” she says. This left Umulisa wondering why the cost of the construction process was high. Questions lingered in her mind, which eventually fuelled the idea to pursue a course in civil engineering, to make construction more affordable using eco-friendly materials. Having excelled in the O-level exams, she scooped government sponsorship in a combination of Physics Chemistry, and Mathematics (PCM), an opportunity she turned down which left her father puzzled as he wanted her to do medicine at the university. “It took time for my father to accept my decision to study construction for A-level as he wondered why a girl would gain interest in manual work as compared to treating people in hospitals. “I was able to pursue a construction course at Saint Joseph Integrated Technical College (SJITC) Nyamirambo from senior four to six and later joined the Institute of Applied Sciences (Ines Ruhengeri) to study a course in civil engineering,” she says. Umulisa hadn’t really given the idea of when she would start a construction company much thought, until 2020, when she visited a friend who was having some construction going on. While there, she met a man who needed renovation for his kitchen; he asked her if she had expertise in construction and interior design. Since Umulisa only had theory knowledge, taking this on scared her, but she did it anyway, assisted by friends where necessary. This gave her a nudge to register her company and she started operating immediately—her main objective being to use materials that are environmentally friendly, but also reduce imports of construction materials. The civil engineer and founder of the Kicukiro-based firm, Selah Construction Interiors, which focuses on eco-friendly solutions, currently has four permanent staff and over 15 part-time workers. “I look forward to making an impact in the construction industry by increasing the demand for eco-friendly solutions and providing Rwandans with sustainable and environmentally friendly options for real estate,” she says. Umulisa notes that eco-friendly designs emphasise the use of non-toxic and low-emission materials, improving indoor air quality. This focus on health and well-being can enhance the comfort and satisfaction of occupants, leading to increased productivity and overall wellness in designed spaces. For her, eco-friendly materials are cost-effective, for instance, efficient lighting, insulation, and appliances can significantly reduce energy consumption and utility bills for building owners. “Additionally, sustainable materials, such as bamboo flooring or recycled materials, can be affordable alternatives in the long run,” she says. Umulisa adds that the aim of eco-friendly designs is to create products, systems, and environments that minimise negative impacts on the environment and promote sustainability. ALSO READ: Can affordable housing be green, sustainable, and deliverable? “This is because it involves considering the entire lifecycle of a product, from raw material extraction to disposal, and implementing design strategies that reduce resource consumption, waste generation, and pollution,” she says. Umulisa explains that the primary goal of eco-friendly designs is to alleviate the environmental impacts of human activities. This includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions, conserving natural resources such as water and energy, minimising waste generation, and preserving biodiversity. She adds that by integrating sustainable practices into design processes, eco-friendly design aims to create a more harmonious and balanced relationship between human activities and the natural environment. “I urge Rwandans to opt for environmentally friendly materials such as recycled or upcycled materials, sustainably harvested wood, natural fibres, non-toxic paints, and finishes, and shun materials with high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can contribute to indoor air pollution,” she advises. She recommends implementing energy-efficient lighting solutions, such as LED or CFL bulbs, and utilise natural lighting whenever possible, but also urges to consider incorporating smart home technology and energy-efficient appliances to reduce energy consumption. Umulisa also recommends using furniture and accessories made from sustainable materials, such as reclaimed wood, bamboo, or cork. For water conservation, she urges considering water-saving fixtures, such as low-flow toilets, faucets, and showerheads, and fix systems for rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling (a treatment of wastewater from appliances like showers, baths, and sinks, to be re-used and fed back into a property for non-potable purposes such as flushing toilets), if possible. ALSO READ: Green economy: A few tips to the construction sector “It is also essential to adjust space utilisation to minimise waste and create functional layouts.” The common challenge that Umulisa encounters is convincing clients to embrace eco-friendly products and practices. However, she has started overcoming resistance to change, addressing misconceptions, and educating consumers about the benefits of sustainable designs. Recycled or reclaimed materials, such as reclaimed wood, is often more affordable than brand-new materials, but also, using locally available materials reduces transportation costs. “Although using energy-efficient measures such as insulation, LED lighting, high-performance windows, and energy-efficient appliances could have upfront costs, they result in long-term energy savings, and lower operational expenses over time,” the businesswoman points out. Her goal is to minimise waste and reduce carbon. She believes that eco-friendly interior design and construction is not just a trend, but a necessity. The civil engineer looks forward to creating a showroom and educating young people on producing eco-friendly construction materials and using them.