In a country like South Africa, where we face challenges with regards to resources such as water and energy, sustainable design is becoming more and more personal.
It is not just about achieving green ratings, creating a good corporate image or because the Paris agreement says we should; but even more about preserving and improving our urban habitat and our quality of living, which will be put under increasing stress in years to come due to climate change, resource depletion, waste and more.

“When we do good for the environment, are we saving the earth?” asks international sustainability practitioner, Piet van Zyl from Positive Impact Forever. “No, the earth will be here long after we have all perished and will repair itself, even at our cost. We should be doing good to save ourselves.”

What is sustainable development?
According to Van Zyl, sustainable development starts with considering tomorrow’s needs in today’s action. “This is where I am advocating making a positive impact. Not just doing good, but doing great – for ourselves, our community, our neighbourhood and our city.

“Urban design should follow a circular economy or blue economy model, where one designs with the end in mind.”

Nature’s way – zero waste
Van Zyl explains that in nature, the waste product of one process or organism always becomes energy, food or shelter for the next. “It is only humans who create waste that seems to have no use,” he says.

“Therefore, creating a positive impact design goes out from the standpoint of zero waste disposal. As every process has waste, we have to ensure that it becomes a resource within the design. Urban areas are and should be ecosystems. Every process in the urban area should enhance or support every other process and have a positive impact throughout the life of the completed project. Just as in nature.

“When you fight nature, you lose one way or another, no exceptions.”

Water is life
The first consideration is water and to design around natural flows. “One of the freebies that nature provides is gravity,” states Van Zyl. “With gravity you don’t need energy to move water around. Make use of it.

“Another principle that should be applied in an urban development, is that no storm water should be channelled off the property. Use it in water features, retention ponds, store it for irrigation or put it into absorption pits to recharge the groundwater.”

This would mean that the municipal system only has to deal with street storm water. There will be water for the irrigation of green belt areas and the groundwater will be recharged. With the water features and irrigation water, landscaping designers can design community areas with cycling, walking and running paths under big trees.

•    Project focus: Zero rainwater discharge
At a 28-storey hotel project in Solo, Java, Indonesia, a city that floods with every rainstorm, the storm-water designer was told that no rainwater is allowed off the property, which occupies a city block. The team then designed a storage tank for irrigation and 24 absorption pits under the perimeter road, connected with perforated concrete pipes. These were designed to be able to absorb all the rain of the biggest rainfall the area had in the previous five years.

Treat wastewater
The same principles can be applied to wastewater. “Currently, systems are typically designed to pump wastewater to a wastewater treatment plant. If well planned, it gets pumped somewhere for irrigation, but if not, it ends up in a river or stream,” notes Van Zyl.

He suggests that every building should treat its own wastewater and only discharge irrigation quality water to the urban system, where it goes into the storm-water retention system for irrigation of the green belt areas and trees lining the streets.

“A family of four people will generate about 2m³ of wastewater a day, which is equal to running a garden tap for almost two hours. Every household can treat and store wastewater for drip irrigation or discharge the treated water to the neighbourhood storage, but in both business and household cases, this discharge should be metered so that the city could levy a cost for handling the effluent. The charge for handling the effluent should be about four or five times the cost of the clean water though,” says Van Zyl.

Actual water usage
The challenge today is that building owners do not know how much water is used and water costs are dissociated from the energy cost for moving and cleaning it. “Therefore,” Van Zyl suggests, “if every household or business installs a smart meter and the city works compares each building’s consumption to the average in the area as part of the monthly bill, people would be more aware. Then the cost of water could be determined on a sliding scale – higher cost for higher usage.”

Energy = comfort
Applying the zero waste principle to electricity is a bit more complicated as all sunshine can be converted to electricity or heat, so there will always be waste. “But this is one area where architects and designers can and should play a much more proactive role in determining how much of the free solar energy we can use,” Van Zyl advocates.

“It can be a decentralised solution in the form of a fuel-cell electricity plant or photovoltaic field serving a neighbourhood or precinct, or a solar field that provides shade over public walkways or a community vegetable garden. For grid power, smart meters can be installed and the consumption analysed in the monthly bill so that the consumption makes sense to the average person and building owners.

“The thing with alternative energy is that we should not look for one solution. We should look how different solutions can be added together as this is how nature works.”

Moving people
According to Van Zyl, the urban design also has to cater for people movement and transport. “Ideally, bigger space should be allocated for walkways and bike lanes than for vehicles. Think about a neighbourhood electric vehicle system that moves people to the edge of the area, connecting to other public transport. These can be charged by the solar panels over the walkways. But in general, everything in the area should be accessible by foot or bike. This way a lot of energy is conserved and comfort is not jeopardised.”

The last area to design is support for the inhabitants. “As humans, we are naturally attracted to the earth and nature. Plus we all want to belong,” states Van Zyl. “When I researched community gardens, it struck me that these are places where people feel like they belong. Everyone working in the garden has the same purpose – to grow something and to share.”

•    Project focus: Community garden
In Montague Gardens, Cape Town, the Rogz factory realised that the pavement walkway areas around their factory were not utilised and decided to grow vegetables for use in their staff canteen. This soon became a thriving garden that now produces enough food for the canteen as well as for sale to staff at reduced prices (to help pay for seeds and compost).

Zero waste – it is possible
At the four Alila Hotel properties in Bali, Van Zyl initiated a zero waste programme in mid-2016, which will see zero waste going to the landfills by July this year, without the use of huge incinerators. “The idea is to change the mindset from waste to resource. The great lesson we are learning is that we do not need waste dumps,” he explains.

“In fact, every neighbourhood should have a resource recovery centre that is preferably manned by community members and which pays for the trash brought in. Around this centre, there can be a block making micro business using crushed glass, plastics to oil systems, a composting business, worm farms and many more. It should also be connected to a vegetable garden, seeing that 70 to 80% of the waste we generate is organic, and treated wastewater should be used for irrigation,” Van Zyl states.

“These kinds of areas promote participation, ownership and involvement that attract like-minded people. It is also a place where the community becomes part of the education system and where children can learn about taking care of the environment, being part of the community and making a contribution,” he says.

Are you in?
“Sustainable development is a personal quest. If you are not personally passionate about making a difference and committed to sustainability, creating a design that will achieve the goal is going to be tough,” Van Zyl stresses.

•    Are you are measuring your energy (electricity and fuels), water and waste consumption, and do you have personal goals to reduce it?
•    Do you grow your own vegetables?
•    Do we need the government to initiate it?
•    Do we require a law to be enforced?

“No. It’s personal. If you are not doing your personal bit to combat climate change, how will it be possible to make a global impact? It is time to go beyond zero ourselves, in our communities and eventually the whole urban area,” he says.

“So, when making design choices, think free, think waste, think nature, think wow.”

Full thanks and acknowledgement are given to Piet van Zyl and Positive Impact Forever for the information given to write this article.

Piet van Zyl
Tel: +62 811 381 0688