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South Africa’s green building ethos in a post-pandemic world

Lisa Reynolds, CEO of the Green Building Council of South Africa.
Lisa Reynolds, CEO of the Green Building Council of South Africa.

The adoption of green building practices have steadily increased in South Africa with reduced operating costs and the gradual acceptance from the property industry having validated the additional upfront capital costs before taking into account the indirect benefits of improved wellness of building occupants, sustainability and corporate social responsibility.

Covid-19 has applied additional pressure on the need to focus on healthier buildings and sustainability, however, not enough is being done by international standards to potentially meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out for 2030.

In the South African context Lisa Reynolds, CEO of the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) says that during the pandemic, green building certifications have continued but, we have a long road ahead of us.

The GBCSA’s integrated annual report for 2019 highlights 87 project certifications took place in 2019 compared to 78 certifications in 2018. While the organisation is aiming to maintain the green building certification levels witnessed this year, Lisa says their continued support for their members and stakeholders is to ensure that the certifying and registering of projects continues.

The GBCSA is one of approximately 75 members of the World Green Building Council. Founded in 2007, the organisation developed the first South African Green Star SA Office v1 tool for new offices by adopting, adapting, and contextualizing the Green Star rating system originally developed by its Australian counterpart.

The first local Green Star rated building was awarded to the Nedbank Phase II building in Sandton in October 2009. Since then, the GBCSA has introduced a suite of rating tools developed specifically for commercial buildings in the South African and African environments.

The EDGE tool is a green building certification system for residential projects. An innovation of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), it enables the local real estate market to develop more affordable green buildings. This tool was introduced to Africa in 2017 through the certification of  Old Mutual’s Fourleaf Estate in Port Elizabeth.

The GBCSA was involved with the EDGE certification of the Belhar Gardens project in Cape Town in 2018, one of the first in South Africa. Developed by Madulammoho Housing Association it provides 630 units to low-income residents. The residents of these apartments save more than one month’s rent per year because of their water and electricity savings as energy and water costs continue to increase.

  • Belhar Gardens in Cape Town.

The intention is to educate consumers about the benefits of buying or renting an EDGE certified building and by accepting a marginally higher purchase or rental price, they will recover these amounts in reduced utility costs. This in turn will encourage developers of residential buildings to pursue the EDGE certification.

The reluctance by some to invest in green buildings, commercial or residential,  may be attributed to scepticism and the perception of higher costs involved with developing green buildings. However, the University of Pretoria conducted independent research which has indicated otherwise.

The first edition of the university’s ‘Green Building in South Africa – A Guide to Costs and Trends’ looked at data from green buildings between 2009 and 2014. These findings highlighted the average cost premium for a green building was just 5.2%. In the revised edition, the data gathered between 2015 and 2018 shows the average cost premium for certified green buildings had dropped to 3.5%.

Despite this, there is a lingering debate among developers on the upfront capital costs required to build green versus the payback which they may not benefit from.

This debate is maturing” says Lisa. “In the commercial sector, we are seeing that the question of benefits is no longer contested. Although tenants may benefit from lower utility bills and increased productivity, developers receive certain benefits too.”

The most recent MSCI Green Property Index reports that for 2019, certified green office buildings experienced excellent capital growth because of better net income growth and a lower discount rate.

This means that valuers view green certified office properties as a lower risk investment. Lower vacancy rates for certified green buildings – when compared with non-green buildings – is something that developers receive tangible benefits from,” says Lisa.

Green is not only about saving the planet. It is also about business sense and energy security.”

We will get through the pandemic” she says, determined to lead a green recovery. “We just need to prove that green buildings measurably improve things like health and wellness of occupants, which were previously felt to be intangibles. All the better challenge ahead of us. We are working from a good base and we can still gain a lot of traction in this space.

Leading by example on local soil

Cape Town’s iconic V&A Waterfront is fully committed to sustainability and their team strives to achieve the highest green ratings possible.

For every rand we spend, for every resource that is consumed, it is done as efficiently and as wisely as possible. We understand the impact that development has, both on the environment and on society, and we try to build buildings that focus on the people who engage with these buildings as well as minimising resources consumed during the construction and the life of the building” comments Mark Noble, Development Director of the V&A Waterfront.

Mark often draws parallels between buildings and the human body: “One of the human body’s key organs is the skin. We spend a lot of time, money, and effort on the façade of a building. For a building to have a high-performing skin, it allows all the other components of the building to work so much more efficiently. Achieving natural light, preventing solar heat gain, preventing glare etc., unlocks all sorts of opportunities inside a building.”

  • The Ridge, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town.

One such building is the V&A Waterfront’s the Ridge, a custom designed 8 500 square meter green building for consulting giant Deloitte.

Featuring a few firsts for South Africa’s green building and sustainability efforts, the ‘mixed-mode’ building will use a combination of natural ventilation, displacement ventilation and thermally activated slabs reducing the requirements for air conditioning or heating for a significant portion of the year.

The standout elements for me with Deloitte’s building is the bespoke façade. The façade is constructed from laminated timber (CLT) which is combined with glass windows set into aluminium frames. This represents the first large scale commercial building to be built using this renewable construction material in South Africa. We are very excited about the prospects of this technology and we are investigating the potential of the entire structure of future buildings being constructed from CLT” says Mark.

The Request for Proposal issued by Deloitte was forward thinking in its requirements for sustainability: “This very much aligned with the V&A Waterfront’s philosophy for the future of office buildings and we are delighted to work with a tenant who shares these values.”

As green building interventions form part of the V&A Waterfront’s policy, the Ridge has been submitted for two green ratings.

The handover of The Ridge to Deloitte has been scheduled for late October 2020 with the building being fully operational by late November 2020.

The interior new glazing at The Ridge.

Addressing the fundamentals first

Architect and researcher, Dr Jeremy Gibberd has worked on innovative projects which explore how built environments can be designed and operated to be more inclusive and sustainable.

He believes that it is important to address the basic principles and to rethink how urban development and buildings can work together to implement these changes. Unsystematic partial sustainable measures will not produce the required effect.

By working in silos and not addressing the environmental, social and economic issues collectively, we are not taking advantage of the potential of synergistic, integrated and high-impact solutions” he says.

In his recent study on Circular Built Environments in Africa for the One Planet Sustainable Buildings and Construction Programme, he highlights that by embedding these principles across all functions, we can establish regenerative and accessible designs which consider the economic, environmental, and social outcomes and often, governments do not value the significant contributions made by the informal economy to reduce waste, to recycle and to improve food security and livelihoods.

While there has been progress on a building and city level, not enough work has been done at a neighbourhood level.

To address this, Dr Gibberd developed the Built Environment Sustainability Tool (BEST) which through assessment and planning, enables neighbourhoods to improve sustainability. In a recent study titled ‘Synergistic Interventions for Sustainability Improvement’, it highlights how this tool can be applied to explore and to develop high-impact collective sustainability solutions for a suburban South Africa.

On a building level, we need to adapt for an uncertain future. Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’ coupled with national load shedding is a reminder that we cannot take resources such as water and energy for granted.

Dr Gibberd’s research on rainwater harvesting proves that it is possible to adapt existing houses to be water neutral but, this could prove difficult for high-density housing unless water can be ‘borrowed’ from non-residential neighbours. By referring to a study on the Onsite Service Enterprises Model, he points out that there are advantages to mixed-use developments where new business models, technology and sustainable design could provide convenient and comfortable accommodation at reduced capital and operating costs for occupants. This can be provided and managed through renewable energy, hot water, greywater, personal services, and green mobility.

The Sustainable Building Assessment Tool (SBAT) confirms the potential of this approach by proving that this approach not only achieves significant improvements in environmental performance, but it provides valuable social and economic benefits compared to conventional housing methods. This model is currently being explored in several large housing scheme developments in Gauteng.

We have to set standards for new developments so that we are not stuck with poor developments that will never be sustainable. We need to develop a strong program to start radically changing existing neighbourhoods and buildings to achieve this level of performance.”

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By Gemma-Louise Perrins