Sustainability: South Africans need a more sympathetic approach to the planet and their living environment

The AfriSam-SAIA Sustainable Design Award is aimed at unearthing the best in South African architectural and design innovations that are specifically focused on addressing local and global sustainability challenges. This requires a deep understanding of what sustainability is and how to identify initiatives that truly reflect this.

Principal architect at Artek 4 Architects and AfriSam-SAIA Sustainable Design Award adjudicator, Somers Govender, says the broader concept of sustainability is all about surviving the test of time, where lifecycle and maintenance (or lack thereof) is of particular consideration. 

“It’s about understanding how things and materials age so that what is designed changes its appearance in a positive way towards building character. This must be considered throughout the design and implementation of processes. The basic objectives of sustainability are to minimize waste, reduce consumption of non-renewable resources and create more habitable environments.”

Describing the difference between green buildings and sustainability, Govender says sustainability is an overarching necessity. “Green buildings are just the tip of the iceberg. ‘Green’ most often refers to environmental health, while sustainability is about the whole system, involving economic, social and environmental benefits.”

The Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA) suggests that South Africa is leading the green building charge into Africa, Govender says while this may be the case for green buildings, “sustainability is far more holistic and refers more to an attitude of creating far-reaching healthy environments. The focus of only green buildings can be very attractive from a commercial standpoint, but it circumvents the true meaning of creating a better life for all.”

He says while many of the entries in the Sustainable Architecture category (specifically: Sustainable new building or the conservation and restoration of an existing one) for the AfriSam-SAIA Sustainable Design Award are true efforts at sustainable design, some are merely attempts at exercising green design. “Sustainability is far-reaching and requires concerted effort. In this respect, sensitivity and research are required and should extend beyond the building to the broader context.

“Duplication of one successful formula does not guarantee further success. The awards programme demands that entrants raise the bar with every attempt. This is critical to expanding the box that contains our expectations.”

Sustainable design extends to much more than building design, which is reflected in the additional three categories of the AfriSam-SAIA Sustainable Design Award: Practice-based action and research work in the field of sustainability and the built environment; Sustainable Product or Technology; and Social impact in the field of sustainability and the living environment.

Govender says 5th Generation Mobile Technology or 5G promises a new kind of network that connects everything, from people to machines, objects and devices. “Your car (or future drone) can take you anywhere with dynamic interaction to everything around it (driverless, of course). Roads, parking garages and public transport, amongst others, will all change in profoundly different ways. 

“Modern architecture and city designs need to become flexible to such change. An adaptable – even demountable – architecture, which veers away from traditional static architecture that only serves a moment in time, is required. This idea enables a more purposeful attitude to recycling and sustainability. 5G will also enable instant sharing of information and a more dynamic level of accuracy, thereby reducing human error.” 

He says machine learning – which includes data from external sources and collaboration with people and machines, in particular, 3D printing – allows for manufacturing new components and materials, enabling designers’ creativity to achieve previously inconceivable innovations. 

“The time is ripe for extraordinary solutions to new, extraordinary problems that have emerged as a result of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). Designers are starting to apply architecture in 3D-printed formats. Today, we are capable of extruding concrete that enables the construction of structures of varying degrees of complexity, from houses to bridges and offices.”

Govender extends the sustainability conversation to what humans eat. “The rampant treatment of animals as a commodity for consumption is not just inhumane, but severely upsets the balance of natural ecosystems. For example, chickens make up more than 70% of the bird population. This is an unnatural balance. These birds are consumed between the ages of six weeks to 18 months while their natural age is six or more years.

“In addition, human beings make up just 0.01% of all life, but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals. A move toward vegetarianism or veganism is a positive way forward towards a holistic way of life that enables a more humane environment.”

He says South Africans need to adopt a more sympathetic approach to the planet and their living environment. “The country has enough land mass to support renewable energy infrastructure. In addition, transformation is still just a buzzword and our government needs to affirm this stance with well-planned policies to enable social growth and sustainable lifestyles for all. Transformation should not be a stigma, but an empowering process.

“On a positive note, we are now in uncharted territory with modern materials. Materials that can create safe buildings, to last or transform or recycle, and be customised to our specific needs. Shapes and forms are only limited to our imaginations. While South Africa is not quite there yet, with economies of scale, we can transform faster than we think,” adds Govender.

Artek 4 Architects has embraced sustainability and implemented solar voltaic systems with new technologies to almost entirely power their office precinct in Durban. “It is currently not sustainable from a cost-efficiency point, but Eskom may change that equation soon. Our hope is that others will follow suit and – with economies of scale – machines will improve the technology and mass produce it so that it becomes affordable for all,” notes Govender.

The office precinct harvests rainwater for flushing toilets, washing and gardening. Water filtration systems are being reviewed for human consumption.

“The office precinct is made up of two historic buildings, which are left largely intact, with the philosophy of change only what you need to. We are driven by frugality and an office extension is built from a lightweight steel structure clad with Siberian larch timber, which is demountable and recyclable, but also highly durable with the ability to stand the test of time. Almost all of the new additions to our properties are made from recycled materials,” concludes Govender.

AfriSam-SAIA Sustainable Design Award ceremony will take place virtually on 10 June 2021 at 16:30. To register, visit www.sustainabledesign.co.za.



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