Back in 2011 regulations were put in place that officially launched South Africa into the world of green buildings. Of course there had been those who had pioneered a path years before but it’s since then that South Africa has chosen to walk in step with the much of the world on the green buildings front. In fact between the 16th-18 of October this year will see Cape Town play host to the “Green Leaders for the World GBC Congress” at the 6th annual Green Building Convention.
Internationally much of the hype has died down and a vast body of people in the industry are knuckling down and getting on with the business of building better quality buildings. Many of those previously sceptical players in the building industry have realised that Green construction isn’t all that different from the conventional kind. Both need to be vigilantly organized and both need skilled labour to be brought to the table. The difference is that conventional construction doesn’t take the welfare of the environment into account nearly as much as green construction does. A building with certain green guidelines will even see construction of mechanisms whose sole purpose is to greatly reduce the overall impact the building has on the environment. Conventional construction often doesn’t have any such additional mechanisms.
Current technology facilitates buildings getting a significant allotment of their energy from clean/renewable sources. Green guidelines have the wherewithal to demand that a building receive a given portion of its energy from solar or wind power sources. The infrastructure for such energy delivery would have to be put in place during the early stages of construction.
Inevitably the issue of construction costs of green buildings surface regularly, but these have come down significantly, making green buildings more affordable. Dr. Prem C. Jain, Chairman – Indian Green Building Council says that in India the construction costs of a green building which is about 3-5 per cent higher for Platinum rated green building than a conventional building, the incremental cost gets paid back within 3-4 years with substantial reduction in operational costs.
The conventionally held view is that the initial or capital cost of energy efficient and green buildings is higher than that of other buildings. However, it is well established in studies done in the US, UK, Australia and India that when considering the total costs over the life of a building, including capital and operational costs, energy efficient and green buildings are typically more economical than conventional buildings. Specifically, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted that the energy consumption in both new and existing buildings can be cut by an estimated 30 to 50 per cent without significantly increasing investment costs with proven and commercially available technologies. The IPCC further notes that this potential for greenhouse gas emission reductions from buildings is common to developed and developing countries.
Some construction that follows international green guidelines merely involves using the most efficient equipment possible. Take central air conditioning for example; previously used units weren’t nearly as efficient as many of the units currently available. Certainly, a building could still be fitted with a less than efficient unit. Green guidelines, though, would most likely stipulate that the building be equipped with an efficient Energy Star compliant unit. Measures would have to be taken to ensure no leakage of heat from the building. A unit working overtime to keep a building at a desired temperature would defeat the whole purpose of getting an efficient unit in the first place. The best way to make sure heat doesn’t easily escape from, or enter into the system, is to make sure the building is sealed and the ducts don’t leak, which is best accounted for during construction- which is the whole point.
Coming back to South African standards: in 2011 government in South Africa put forward the National Building Regulations, SANS 10400 which includes requirements for energy usage in buildings. Now mandated, SANS 10400 is mandatory on all new buildings and major renovations requiring building plan approval.
Energy regulations such as SANS 10400 are important components in energy efficiency of buildings, and energy use equal to or less than that of SANS 10400 is also a minimum requirement for a Green Star SA rating. Extra points are then awarded in the rating system for exceeding the minimum requirements of SANS 10400X. However, Green Star SA goes beyond the requirements of only energy efficiency, addressing other environmental and human health impacts of buildings.
Furthermore, in its current form, SANS 10400X can only be applied in the design of new buildings and major renovations, and does not specify requirements for the operation or “in-use” phase of buildings – whereas Green Star SA rating tools are being developed for the operation or “in-use” phase of buildings. (Source: CIDB)
According to the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA), an independent body, the country has seen a massive increase in the Green Star SA rating of buildings. Based on the Green Building Council of Australia’s Green Star rating system, it is the official green certification measure for buildings in South Africa, authorised by GBCSA. The first few examples of Green Star rated building in South Africa were; the Nedbank phase-two head office in Sandton; Xenprop’s Ridgeside project in Umhlanga, The Villa Mall, in Pretoria and more recently Standard Bank’s Rosebank Office. Many more have followed.
A building development can receive either a 4-star rating signalling that it has employed “best practice”; a 5-star rating which recognises “South African Excellence”, or the coveted 6-star rating indicating that the project is a world leader.
Green guidelines are about trying to save energy and resources, with the ultimate goal of saving the environment. Towards that end, every little bit helps. The sample guidelines above are some of many new initiatives in the construction industry, many more come on to the table as this process rolls out. Time will tell how many were constructive and what failed to make an impact in drive for sustainability and the reduction of the carbon footprint.
So I asked my 85 year old dad: “what do you think of when I say ‘Green’ dad”. There was a brief crackle on the phone and then came: “mould.” The generation gap on matters Green is clear.
I have to admit that as a 43 year I too didn’t think of the practice of making modern day sacrifices in order to conserve the rapidly depleting fossil fuels, when the word Green came up. Rather I would think of someone new on the job, who parks in the bosses bay on the first day, a ‘Green-horn’ if you will, it’s best not to mix those two words up.
Or perhaps “Green Fingers”. I used to have “Green Fingers” when I was more involved in our garden or is that having a Green Thumb? It means the difference between getting anything to grow and creating a micro-desert.
But the search for a Green definition remains elusive: The movement to green has been nearly a thirty year process beginning in the 1970’s with the solar-energy craze. Early in the 1990’s for example, the green building movement began to take hold. Expanding our thinking and consideration for the larger picture of the total environmental impact, thus driving demands for materials, commercial and home designs offering reduced long term costs, healthier living, greater efficiency and sustainability.
But for me Green is for gunge: Gangrene from war stories, brave soldier who fought in the trenches and got the Dreaded Lurgy. Then there’s the sludge down on Zoo Lake before the big clean-up of whenever-it-was. Then there’s beautiful, wonderful mucous. Oh yes, oh quivering parent – there were those nappies that….never mind. Green gunge is every little boys early fascination until puberty hits then green becomes just another colour.
One mini Green definition I heard somewhere, went something like is this: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” A little whimsical with a touch of daisy and shoo-wah, but pleasantly unimposing. I rather like it.
Depending on where you are applying the term Green, ‘sustainable design’ may be a good substitute. True sustainability embraces a commitment to see the world as interconnected, to understand the impact our actions have on others and our environment, and to nurture the offspring of all species that will inherit the planet. To become truly sustainable, it is vital to equally address social sustainability, economic sustainability, and environmental sustainability like three legs holding up a stool. Okay, a little preachy.
The truth is, the Green movement is now orthodoxy, mainstream, convention if you like. It’s no longer the fringe realm of hippies and New Ages or people with pony-tails in general. For example, Green construction is huge in South Africa now and Green Stars are a coveted reward. It reminds me of my children when they were of the age when a gold star on the forehead for good behaviour was the most coveted award in preschool. Now we have pinstriped executives scurrying around fulfilling the requirements of the Green Buildings Council so as to acquire more Green Stars for their buildings.
As if Green building isn’t enough we have green nappies, green fuels and green political parties. But a new interesting one I discovered is “green-hypocrisy”. Green campaigners argue that cheap short-haul flights have fuelled a massive hike in carbon emissions over the past few years. Celebrities in particular are criticised for struggling to reconcile their well-meaning efforts to develop green credentials and the demands of the modern world. Sienna Miller and Chris Martin preach the importance of being ‘green’. They recycle obsessively, insist on green nappies and compost every scrap of organic vegetable peeling and they’re not slow to tell you about it. Yet they jet set the world over producing a carbon foot-print bigger than the rest of us.
It’s tough at the top. Looks like you can’t get away with anything these days. Did I say Carbon Footprint, let me tell you what my 85 year old dad said when I asked him what he thought of when I said Carbon Footprint….
One may argue that ‘going green’ is not a sacrifice but rather an investment. Currently, green expenses are concealed. In the pursuit of all matters Green do we consider the concealed expenses? Let’s look at some common and not so common sense examples.
Home is Where the Heart is: the Micro Level
Seeking out the concealed expenses of going green requires common sense and no shortage of balance. A for instance: if you change from disposable nappies to towelling nappies you may preserve some trees; then again, you must now acquire a solution to cleanse those nappies without inflicting harm on the environment somewhere else. Similarly you will need to consider the environmental impact of producing the towelling nappy.
It’s all about research and how much effort you are prepared to put into this process. Then you need to stay the course, unlike those guys who menacingly change lanes on the highway and end up reaching the same destination as everyone else milliseconds sooner. Not finishing what you started may just increase your expenses. So pick a lane and stick with it.
A few practical examples.
Concealed expenses exist in so-called ‘green’ plastics; we do not see the waste in the manufacture of the product, or the disposal of it. Glass is still a far better choice, no matter how ‘green’ the newer, lightweight plastic bottle is said to be.
Preparing a compost unit for kitchen scraps and other household waste seems like a good move. But there are hidden expenses if you don’t research building it correctly. Creatures are attracted by the tiniest scent of decaying food. Rats, dassies and stray cats can move into your garden and home before you know it. It’s worth investing in an animal-proof compost bin, it will save on the concealed expenses of damages and presence of the abovementioned vermin.
Purchase the best and sturdiest recycle bins for your Mondi bags, (or whatever they have in your area.) If these heavy plastic bins are damaged the impact is severe on the environment since heavy duty plastic is a land fill’s permanent resident. Metal cans are best since they will break down. The concealed expense is the heavy plastic to the environment.
Planting trees seems unlikely to have concealed expenses, but when you consider the long term damage potential to water pipes, septic tanks and sewerage pipes, not to mention building foundations in just a few years of a poorly positioned tree, one can see why some common sense research is required. It may be the difference between gutters filled with fruit or lovely shade on a summer’s day.
There are concealed expenses to growing your own crops too. It’s important to factor into the equation the watering of crops, cost of tools and whether you’re prepared to do the labour yourself. Of course physical exercise is a plus on this scale. The rewards of healthier, fresher and more convenient food goes without saying, but it’s not free.
Finally products: Many consumers are prepared to pay a higher purchase price for green products. As many of these products have been marketed for relatively short periods of time, demand and supply for them is still limited and prices are higher due to a lack of significant economies of scale that are there for truly mass products.
Additionally the technologies entrenched in these items are new, keeping manufacturing costs high until companies figure out more efficient and cheaper ways of building these novel products. So the concealed expense is present but it seems it’s also understood by the consumer. Similarly, upkeep and repair costs will be higher than for conventional products, for the same reasons that product purchase prices are.
At the Macro Level
Most areas in South Africa average more than 2 500 hours of sunshine per year, and average solar-radiation levels range between 4.5 and 6.5kWh/m2 in one day. Solar power is a viable option for the future of power at the macro level, an ultimate green dream. But there are concealed expenses.
While it may seem like a wonderful notion to never have to pay for electricity again in favour of free, natural energy forms such as wind and solar power, the actual process of switching to this green living lifestyle can be exorbitantly expensive. While over time, these energy saving installations would pay for themselves and save you money in the long run, many people cannot afford these installations. Solar panels for example are incredibly expensive to the point where only the wealthy can afford them.
One redeeming situation is the Eskom Solar Geyser initiative whereby home owners are encouraged to replace their geysers with solar powered units subsidised by Eskom. The window opportunity closes in 2014 though.
Other rumblings are coming from Cosatu since many local firms producing solar power components have closed down due to cheap foreign imports. The resulting job losses are a not so concealed expense of going green.
On the wind power front, the Cape seems to be leading the way: applications for at least 88 wind farms have been received by the Eastern and Western Cape authorities and some of these wind farms are expected to have as many as 600 turbines located on them. Each wind farm application has to be accompanied by an environmental impact assessment. Each turbine is between 80 metres and 120 metres tall, the height of a 20-or 30-storey building.
While there has not been much public response to the wind farms, some communities have already lodged objections against the planned wind farms and one project, in Brittania Bay, has been delayed because of opposition from residents of the town. Elsewhere in the world objections are raised due to the harm caused to the environment, sound pollution and tarnishing of the natural scenery. Hence there is a concealed expense to consider there too.
So there are many ways to go green in the world but a word to the wise is to do it right, do the research and use common sense and weigh up what you’re prepared to spend/sacrifice when you’ve calculated the concealed expenses.
On the one hand we can save money by taking shorter showers instead of long baths to reduce water consumption, turn off appliances, cell phones and computers when not in use and to conserve battery power (subsequently reducing the need to charge them as often.) On the other hand there is a price to pay for “going green” whether it’s capitalising poor communities to acquire solar powered geysers or compromising the beauty of nature with wind farms.
The Environment has one fundamental code that nothing is squandered, and all is a nutrient for something else in the cycle of life. It’s also true that, there’s no free lunch.