The multiple benefits of sustainable design and construction are driving the green building transformation


Picture the scene… Businesspeople working in state-of-the art offices, cooled by high-tech yet low-carbon emitting air conditioning, spending their lunch break on the panoramic roof garden next to an organic vegetable patch and a photovoltaic installation that collects solar power.

It may be an idyllic scenario but it does illustrate the strong business case for green building. The continual operation of buildings is said to account for approximately 40% of the global end-use energy consumption. In other words, buildings contribute heavily to climate change. The ecological benefits of green design and construction are significant and have been steering the green-building revolution in Europe. However, in SA the motivation appears to be a different one.

A 2014 UCT study on the drivers behind green building in SA’s construction industry found that the ‘increase in green building has little to do with ecological factors and more to do with economic factors – namely operational costs and stakeholder demands. As long as the cost of energy continues to increase and there are recognised industry rating systems in place, the need for green buildings is likely to remain’.

While building according to environmentally friendly principles amounts to slightly more, the cost is recouped quickly. ‘The average green office building saves 34% in electricity consumption compared to a standard building,’ says Manfred Braune, chief technical officer of the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA).

‘It’s such an opportune time – investment in off-grid or cogeneration is really starting to take hold as such projects increase their commercial value in the face of the electricity crisis.

‘The GBCSA itself is a tenant in a building that supplies 60% of its energy needs through photovoltaic panels on the building’s roof. The owners had expected a four-year payback – about 25% return on investment. But with a steeply rising electricity tariff, the payback period will probably reduce substantially.’

The council has welcomed the government’s proposed tax relief to promote energy efficiency.

According to GBCSA chairman Seana Nkhahle: ‘The proposal to more than double the current energy efficiency savings incentive, from 45c/kWh to 95c/kWh, is an excellent move.

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‘The international investment community demands sustainability and green practices’


‘We are sure this will help spur both industry and other sectors to embrace more energy savings innovations and benefit from the incentive.

‘The proposal to extend this incentive to cogeneration projects, as well as the National Treasury’s plan to give consideration to enhancing the accelerated depreciation for solar photovoltaic renewable energy, are also moves in the right direction. However, we keenly await more details on these proposed tax incentives.’

Green building is now a crucial factor in new property developments, ultimately promising better investment returns and higher property valuations. International investors are a major driving force behind this trend, says Alison Groves, sustainability consultant and principal associate at WSP-Parsons Brinckerhoff, a leading engineering consulting firm.

‘The international investment community demands sustainability and green practices, so South African property developers can best demonstrate their commitment by building green.’

This explains the exponential growth in certified green buildings. In May this year, the GBCSA announced its 100th Green Star SA certification for the commercial property sector. ‘From a single Green Star SA certification only five years ago to 50 certifications last year and 100 certifications now, the green building movement in South Africa is certainly gaining momentum,’ says Braune.

The first quarter of 2015 alone saw 25 certifications, with many more applications on the waiting list.

The GBCSA developed the Green Star SA rating tools as a benchmark to make buildings (including office, retail, multi-unit residential, public and school structures) more sustainable.

Independent assessors evaluate submissions and allocate points for management; indoor environment quality; energy; transport; water; materials; land use and ecology; emission; and innovation. A 4-star certification reflects ‘best practice’ and a 5-star rating represents ‘SA excellence’. A 6-star certification is the highest and awarded for ‘world leadership’. Of the first 100 Green Star certifications, nine managed to secure a 6-star rating.

In her role as a sustainability consultant, Groves helps corporate clients achieve the best-possible Green Star rating for their properties. Her profession is relatively new in SA.

‘We oversee all crucial elements of a building project related to the sustainability of the building,’ she says. ‘From the schematic design stage right through the construction phase, to the comprehen-sive reporting and handover, we ensure that the building reflects the client’s commitment to environmental sustainability.

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Another important aspect of green building is access to energy efficient transport

‘Ideally we join a building project early in the process, at the concept design stage where we can identify opportunities to minimise the cost right from the start – for instance, through passive building designs. Later in the process it will be more of a “tack-on” solution. We work closely with the architects who obviously have their own ideas. But if we’re brought in early, they are more willing to listen and tweak their design for improved sustainability.’

Groves has been involved in several high-profile projects, most recently the 5-star buildings for Standard Bank in Rosebank, Johannesburg (featuring a high-tech facade with solar-tracking blinds), and Group Five on the Jukskei river in Midrand (designed to ensure 80% of the usable areas in the office have an outside view).

‘It’s important that energy savings are achieved without inconveniencing building users or relying on individuals to take responsibility for energy saving,’ says Groves. ‘Occupancy sensors are one example of how automation can realise significant energy savings in a building. Energy meters are extensively used to monitor energy use and identify unusual or excessive consumption.

‘Group Five also installed ammonia chillers, which operate at higher levels of efficiency to conventional chillers. Additionally, a thermal storage system has been provided to reduce peak energy demand on the national power grid.’

Another important aspect of green building is access to energy efficient transport – bicycle and pedestrian paths as well as public transport, instead of individual cars. The new Group Five headquarters are, for instance, served by the Gautrain bus, with more public transport on the cards as the development increases.

In Pretoria, Africa’s first entirely green precinct is being built around the concept of ‘green mobility’. It will encourage people to cycle freely on dedicated bike lanes, walk and play in the parks and use the Gautrain bus stops, city bus stations and a taxi terminal. The R9 billion project – Menlyn Maine – is expected to be finalised by 2020/21.

The precinct will be built around the R1.5 billion Central Square development, offering shopping and dining space, a business hotel, Virgin Active gym, 400 upmarket residential apartments, office space, scenic parklands and a Sun International casino with a 5-star hotel and indoor arena.

The first corporate tenants – Nedbank, Sage VIP Payroll, BMW and the virtual office provider Regus – have already moved into their new offices.

‘We look into the design holistically, to green all the spaces and make them people-friendly,’ says architect Henk Boogertman, who is also the MD of Menlyn Maine Developments. ‘For instance, the pavement has been designed with blind people and wheelchairs in mind.’

The WSP group is a key partner, having outlined the sustainability strategy for much of the development. Groves explains that the mixed-use nature of the retail and commercial precinct required a customised assessment tool to achieve a Green Star rating.

The sustainability consultant also works closely with the project teams to ensure the materials used on site are in line with green requirements. The GBCSA has a list of acknowledged green products and materials. According to Reyana Nacerodien, the council’s communications manager, it does not endorse products per se. It does, however, recognise select ‘third-party certification schemes’.

The workforce of the corporate tenants may be unaware that their office walls are painted with low-volatile organic paints and that the pipes are made from a chlorine-free, recyclable alternative to PVC. However, those who used to consider anything green as ‘fluffy’ now enjoy the benefits of an environmen-tally friendly building, including improved indoor air quality, more natural lighting and possibly a window with a view. And chances are they’re healthier, happier and less likely to take sick leave too.

By Silke Colquhoun
Illustration: Mr.Xerty ©