By Richard Palmer, WSP Green By Design

26 October 2011 – The Green Building Council South Africa convention starts today in Cape Town (pictured).  Time for a look into the possibilities and the challenges.

A commonly heard muttering across the continent is “TIA” – This Is Africa ­– summing up the chaos, the mystery, the hope and the potential of the dark continent. In construction circles, this can refer to informal timber scaffolding, unreliable infrastructure or the laid back project meetings. Historically always stated in a negative sense, it has the potential to be a motto for a continent with the opportunity to re-imagine sustainable urban spaces.

Two of the themes which dominate African cities are the rise of commercial real estate investment and the massive rate of urbanization, estimated to triple over the next four years according to the UNHabitat 2010 State of the African City report. This convergence of huge urbanisation and investment combined with the pressures of climate change and the increasing global clout of developing nations (with South Africa the newest addition to the BRIC group of countries) puts Africa in a position to lead a new paradigm of urban thinking.

Further to the technical innovation and design opportunities, African cities are faced with the social justice challenges of poverty alleviation, health, food security and education. These put a different spin on “sustainability” in an urban context, requiring buildings, neighbourhoods and cities to address basic social services as well as the resource efficiency which has founded the modern green building movement.

In short African cities have an opportunity to get urban sustainability right at a whole new level, with less already invested in the status quo than most developed world urban centres.

However, for all this opportunity, the design and construction community remains conservative and relatively unaware of green buildings or broader sustainability initiatives. The thirst for development of any kind has pushed thoughts of longer term impacts into the background and many African cities are indeed the “wild west” of the construction world.

So, African cities… worlds of opportunity to get urban sustainability right, but without a framework to do so. And into this space arrived the Australian Green Star rating tool; adopted and amended by the Green Building Council of South Africa, it has been applied in Ghana and potentially Kenya.  Current discussions indicate that it may become the tool of choice for green building certifications in Africa.

Green Star –  a first world tool, well suited to addressing discrete environmental impacts and building occupant health but not designed to go broader or deeper in a developing city context. How will Green Star fare on this continent of Nelson Mandela and Charles Taylor; Wangari Maathai and Muamar Gadaffi; Desmond Tutu and Robert Mugabe – the best and the worst that humanity has to offer?

Thus far, Green Star has fared well in the corporate real estate world in South Africa. It has been broadly adopted to benchmark bank headquarters and high profile commercial developments nationally.

Retail, Multi-Unit Residential and Public Buildings tools have been added to the original Office offering, and have been welcomed by the market. An operational tool is being discussed and there is talk of moving into the arena of social responsibility. Tenants are starting to recognise the benefits and a Green Lease Toolkit is  under development.

The learning curve for local professionals has been steep, with documentation requirements far tougher than perhaps originally expected, but all buildings targeting certification have achieved it so far.

The GBCSA has hosted three hugely successful conferences, with a fourth underway this week. Four star ratings have dominated, with just one five star rating, although a project targeting six stars is under assessment, so innovation is also starting to take root. All told, by the standards of our current systems, it has been a resounding success.

However the question of addressing broader sustainability is yet to be answered. The tool is already quite unwieldy and the thought of adding more detail is unthinkable at this stage… How then to move beyond mere mitigation of impacts and towards restorative buildings which redefine urban sustainability?

Perhaps it is time for Green Buildings 2.0, and perhaps Africa is the place to make it happen. The next generation of Green Building tools have an opportunity to move away from the tick-box approach to environmental impact and look to a broader systems-thinking methodology which has the potential to be a new framework for sustainable cities. And in so doing, open up the potential to address social justice and governance as well as resource efficiency. A rating system that rewards buildings for mitigating environmental impacts as well as contributing clean energy, social services and public amenity.

The relatively blank canvas of Africa’s cities provides an ideal environment to test new thinking in urban sustainability, and I can only hope that green building councils around the world will be open to this opportunity and courageously embrace it. Africa’s cities need a new generation of green buildings; buildings that respond to a vision for sustainable development that is underpinned by equitable resource use, as well as governance and peace.

Richard Palmer

Lead sustainability consultant, WSP Green By Design, a business unit of WSP Consulting Engineers SA (Pty) Ltd