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Sustainable concrete

Oct 02 2016 06:00
Garreth van Niekerk

Major South African organisations are opting for “green” buildings that often cost significantly more than the standard head office, but what’s in it for them?

Is it just greenwashing to create a “future-friendly” corporate image?

For some, this is true, but there’s more to it than just a branding exercise if the short list of this year’s AfriSam Award for Sustainable Architecture and Innovation is anything to go by.

At the end of this month, the winners will be announced for the biennial award – one of the most prestigious on the continent – and this year, corporate giants such as BMW and major governmental bodies, including the department of environmental affairs, have made it on to the list.

Architect Richard Stretton, one of this year’s judges and a former winner of the award, says there is a level of branding involved in the process of looking “green”, but argues that if done correctly, a sustainable approach to building can pay off in the long run.

“Obviously, what happens with big organisations, like the department of environmental affairs, for instance, is that they need to be seen as being on the cutting edge and align their values to their investments and, right now, sustainable design is the way of the future,” Stretton says.

“But how ‘honestly’ architects and designers translate that brief into the final outcome is what we are considering.”

Two of the award’s most ambitious short-listed projects were completed by a team of architects at Boogertman & Partners – BMW’s upgraded circular head office in Midrand and the department of environmental affairs building in Pretoria.

The department’s R650 million 27 400m2 building was the first institutional building in South Africa to get a six-star green rating from the Green Building Council of SA (GBCSA) – an independent, globally affiliated NGO that measures best practice standards for commercial and residential green buildings.

It makes impressive use of local sourcing, with everything except specialised equipment, glass, terracotta cladding and the tiles coming from South Africa.

It prioritises public and clean transport options by creating “priority parking” for disabled persons, car-sharing clubs, electric charging vehicles (with charging points provided) and motorcycles, and provides covered cycle parking for staff and visitors, and showers and lockers for cyclists.

An important part of the GBCSA rating also considers the use of rainwater and grey water harvesting.

The building collects more than 1 000m3 of rainwater and grey water in basement storage tanks for toilet flushing and irrigation.

By reducing the use of air conditioning, lighting and heating equipment, the building also uses a quarter of the energy that a similar building of this scale uses, making it one of the most energy-efficient buildings of this scale in the world.

At least 20% of the building’s energy needs is generated from the 2 200m2 of solar panels mounted on the roof.

But what sets it apart is that the building still looks green, even though is doesn’t use pastiche green visual elements such as mud walls or recycled bottle tops.

Lood Welgemoed of Boogertman says: “There was a requirement from the department of environmental affairs to make the ‘greenness’ demonstrable, but we took a more subtle approach by, for instance, using a vertical planted wall at the entrance and making internal features of the rain water collectors.

“Too often, you find that in the early stages of the green building movement, the buildings looked like mad science experiments at the expense of good, solid architectural principles such as proportion, scale, texture and colour; light and dark.”

Mbulaheni Maseda, the director of facilities management at the department, says the experience of working in the new building versus the previous office is incomparable.

“It’s miles apart from the old building, where we used to have what we call ‘sick building syndrome’. In this new water-powered, air-filtered building, people feel healthier and happy to come to work.

“In terms of maintenance, this is the least we have ever spent as a department. In terms of staff morale, people come through without any complaints for the first time since I have been at the department. We shouldn’t just build for the sake of building, it’s about much more than that,” he says.

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