Complexities of building greener cities in Africa

by Tania Wannenburg

Green building practices are becoming the norm in South Africa, but not without some challenges.


It does not take a rocket scientist to realise that worldwide, the way cities are designed and operated are not sustainable. The issues lie not only in new cities being built, but also in the densification of cities, says Simon Berry, commercial director at WSP Consulting Engineers.

Area-wise, Johannesburg for example is one of the biggest cities in the world, but still has a low population density. It is estimated though that the population will double in the next 30 years, which will introduce a number of infrastructure and transport challenges that will have to be addressed by urban scale planning.

This massive urbanisation trend is especially prevalent in Africa, with half of the continent’s people expected to be living in cities by 2030.

Drilling down, Berry notes that over 40% of carbon emissions in cities are accountable to buildings, whether it is in the construction or the operation thereof, so changing the way buildings are designed, constructed and refurbished presents an opportunity to be more resource-efficient and sustainable.

Green practices becoming business as usual
“Initially, the industry was very uncertain of what it actually involved to make a building sustainable in terms of Green Star SA ratings, but now it is becoming business as usual for architects and engineers,” he says.

“Where in the past the initial proposed building designs would have had to be amended in order to qualify for a Green Star rating, now engineers are using the four-star requirements as entry level when designing buildings. The five- and six-star ratings are still a premium, but even the big developers, almost without fail, are also going for four-star ratings as a matter of cause.”

It has been proven in countries such as Australia and the United States that developers can get higher rental income and less churns from their green buildings, and the actual capital value of the building, if they ever were to sell it again, is higher. This is becoming evident locally as the number of and demand for green buildings increase.

“In fact, the driver for developers to build green buildings is not because they feel good about saving the environment, but rather to make more money,” Berry states.

Constraints of inadequate infrastructure
For new developments in South Africa, the lack of basic infrastructure poses one of the biggest challenges in terms of sustainability, and it is even worse in other African countries. “Whether it is roads, railway lines, electricity or water – what is normally a governmental responsibility is where it often fails,” Berry notes.

“Governments’ purses are only so big and apart from problems with corruption, it is not always an easy decision whether to prioritise infrastructure, which is a long-term play in terms of creating a framework for economic development, or to focus on immediate short-term projects to address backlogs such as housing, welfare and basic services in rural areas.”

So when new commercial buildings are constructed, isolated instances of infrastructure are put in place, for example large diesel generators are installed to supply energy, which is not sustainable in terms of both energy use and cost. When infrastructure is provided at a district level as opposed to on a building-to-building basis, it is much easier to create a sustainable balance.

“We are seeing a number of developments where the function of providing infrastructure is becoming privatised, for example in Steyn City, a big walled estate with some 30 000 houses, a city centre, a hospital, schools and more,” Berry explains. “The Atterbury Group is also involved in a couple of big developments such as Waterfall Estate, where they take responsibility for the roads, sewers, storm-water attenuation and other infrastructure. We see this trend manifesting in patches across Africa.”

Ultimately, the key to sustainable cities is to establish a balance between the environmental, economic and social factors. Saving energy and water must be economically sustainable and equally, these efforts must benefit people in the communities.

“What we are starting to see now is that the environmental and economic sustainability side of green buildings is working, so the final step is just to get the social side right, particularly in South Africa, were it is still an issue,” Berry concludes.

WSP Group
Tel: 011 361 1300
Website: www.wspgroup.com

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