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Home  »  Sunday Times Green   »   Reaching For The (Green) Stars

Reaching For The (Green) Stars

The move towards sustainability is increasingly evident in South Africa’s built sector, reports Tamara Oberholster.
Image: ©iStock Image: ©iStock

The move towards sustainability in the built environment is being driven partly by elevated global consciousness around climate change, partly by the country’s serious energy woes, and in no small part by opportunism.

“There is a growing awareness that green sells,” says Mike Aldous, associate: Green Building and Sustainability at Mott MacDonald PDNA, a global management, engineering and development consultancy. “This has led to two outcomes. One is a genuine commitment to actually relooking processes to make them more sustainable. The other is outright ‘greenwashing’ that seeks to take advantage of the hype, without any real benefit.”

Greenwashing aside, Aldous believes green building has generally been well received by the market, although he notes it has also been forced, to some extent, by market expectation (driven by tenants’ anticipation in reporting on sustainability in annual reports). He cites a comment recently made by a developer as testimony to this: “Doing an A-grade development in Sandton without a Green Star rating would be commercial suicide in the long run.”

Green Star SA

The Green Star SA rating system is a tool developed by the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA) to provide an objective measurement for green buildings in South Africa, and to recognise and reward environmental leadership in the property industry. Through Green Star SA, projects are assessed on a range of criteria, ensuring that the subsequent rating of four, five or six stars is objective and accurate.

The GBCSA also recently released the Existing Building Performance Tool, which assesses the environmental performance of existing buildings in operation. “This is a huge step to allow the market to rate existing portfolios and improve these over time off a uniform benchmark,” says Aldous, pointing out that 98% of South Africa’s building stock comprises existing buildings.

The tool covers the same environmental categories addressed in the Green Star SA new building tools (Design/As Built), but the focus is on the efficient operations and management of the building in order to maintain optimum performance.

According to the GBCSA, the innovation is not a design tool and thus has only an as-built rating. This rating is valid for a three-year period, to ensure the building is continually well operated and maintained. Items such as energy and water monitoring, management policies and plans are required in order to achieve the rating. The tool also addresses the relationship between landlord and tenants, setting up a win-win situation with the green lease toolkit.

The new GBCSA Interiors rating tool was designed specifically with tenants in mind, and assesses the environmental attributes of interior fit-outs. It allows tenants to have their unique environmental design initiatives fairly and independently benchmarked, rewarding high-performance tenant spaces that are healthy, productive places to work, are less costly to operate and maintain, and have a reduced environmental footprint. It caters for a broad range of tenancies, including office, retail and hospitality fit-outs, among others.

Progress and challenges

Beyond the development of the new GBCSA tools, Aldous says there is a continuing improvement in the availability of green products, and growing efficiencies in the performance of new technologies, such as photovoltaic panels (solar panels).

“The market has definitely moved forward over the past few years, with more new development and a requirement across commercial, government and residential for green, supported by a much larger availability of products in the marketplace,” he says. “People also have a far greater awareness of the options available. Although much of it is focused on the energy and water side, there is a slow uptake of the overall holistic approach to the improved benefits of a green indoor environment with reduced toxicity, improved daylight and air flow.”

While South Africa remains a long way off from developed nations, Aldous notes that these nations have a 20-year head-start, far more expensive utilities, much lower inequality, and more rigorous government and legislative support. Therefore, he believes the local market has done very well, particularly on the commercial side. “Looking at the number of Green Star-rated commercial buildings compared to Australia [Green Star SA is based on the Green Star Australia system], the South African market has done exceptionally well since the introduction of Green Star in 2007,” he says.

A key issue standing in the way of the country’s quest to become greener is the constrained economic climate (making green a luxury purchase for a large portion of the population). Aldous says other challenges include the amount of misinformation and greenwashing that has led to the tarnishing of green benefits through unscrupulous exploitation of the market, particularly in the residential space, where failing to deliver on green benefits is common due to the lack of professional engineering oversight that often exists in the commercial space.

Regulation, enforcement and accountability remain challenges, and Aldous points out that many projects fail in being green not at design or construction phase, but when it comes to the ongoing building management.

“Even when a building is designed to be green, if the building is not run the way it was designed to be, the benefit is largely lost,” says Aldous. He sees growth potential in the green building management industry, and believes the key to improvement is focusing on user behaviour and tenant education.

South Africa is making progress towards sustainability in the built environment. “Looking at the publications, case studies and dinner-party discussion, there is an ever-growing awareness,” says Aldous. “With some of the new developments, such as Waterfall and Steyn City, it’s not about keeping up with the Joneses, but rather ‘out-greening’ them. In the commercial property space, continuing upward pressure on utility costs, supply constraints and tenant requirements have also driven the market to be greener.”

With intelligent design and owner commitment, there are new green buildings serving as case studies and setting the industry benchmark.

Building greener homes

A green building is energy-efficient, resource-efficient and environmentally responsible. Many home-owners believe that choosing to build a green home will be a costly exercise.

While new green products and technologies may be expensive, there are numerous green building practices that are not actually cost-dependent. For example, smart passive design, such as how you orient your building on the site, and how your facade is treated, will improve your home’s energy efficiency.

It’s also important to consider the life cycle of active design measures (for example, installing a solar geyser), to understand the operational cost savings and payback period upfront.

Michelle Nel and her family have proven that green building can be achieved on a budget. Ten years ago, they built a green cottage on their property in Kensington, Johannesburg, and took the opportunity to retrofit their own home with a solar geyser at the same time.

Nel had been working with the GreenHouse Project (GHP), which runs the GreenHouse People’s Environment Centre (GHPEC) in Joubert Park, Johannesburg. The GHP supports the development of community-based organisations, projects and emerging enterprises in the green economy.

Through her work with the GHP and her own interest in conservation and the environment, Nel became convinced that the new cottage needed to be as green as possible. “People think that to build green you need to have a huge budget,” she says. “Choosing to build green has allowed me to live out my principles, but it’s also actually allowed me to save money.”

Attention was paid to the design and construction of the cottage, to ensure the use of natural light and energy efficiency. Nel chose to use clay face-brick, which not only has a better R-value (a measure of thermal resistance) than cement brick, but also does not need to be plastered or painted. Where paint was required inside, Nel chose a green brand called BreatheCoat. The face-brick walls also ensured that the cottage blended in with Nel’s existing house, a sturdy red-brick 1940s building. Like the old building, the new one was constructed with cavity walls for improved insulation.

The only major new purchases were the bricks and the timber for the loft bedroom flooring and stairs – all other features and fixtures were reclaimed or purchased second-hand.

The floors are simple concrete with a red oxide finish – no need for tiles or carpeting, thus ensuring durability and low maintenance. Because of their thermal mass and ability to retain heat, concrete floors are also ideal for passive solar home designs.

The cottage has a rainwater collection tank, used to irrigate the garden, and a solar geyser. The ceiling is insulated with Isotherm, manufactured from recycled PET bottles.

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