Are Green Buildings Truly Sustainable?

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With the built environment accounting for over 40% of global carbon emissions, sustainable buildings seem like an obvious place to start as COP17 continues to address climate change. But is the trend for ‘green’ buildings resulting in truly sustainable alternatives? Mayra Hartmann of Future Cape Town investigates.

A few weeks ago the GBCSA hosted its annual conference. The topics were plentiful and there was a certain buzz in the air. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the afternoon sessions, but nonetheless I was able enjoy the whiff of green air. There was an eclectic mix of developers, designers, planners and even psychologists discussing an array of topics, however a few major developments and ideas were presented. As someone that follows the industry, the ideas were not brand new, but the fact that they were discussed in such close proximity was cause for lively discussions.

The discussions and presentations concentrated on three aspects of building;

  1. the building itself
  2. the effect of green design on office inhabitants and;
  3. its integration with its surroundings.

The design feature that seemed to be particularly popular was the use of large central atriums to promote natural light and airflow within the building, something South Africa’s two highest rated green star buildings both make use of. Atriums are also effective at reviving old spaces. Chris Jofeh from Arup described the companies “cut and carve” approach when retrofitting old offices and that atriums were an ideal of way opening up and lighting an otherwise dull space. And dull spaces don’t make for a good working environment.

This is the same point that was driven home by Vivian Loftness, an architectural researcher at Carnegie Mellon. She stressed that spaces designed with nature in mind, resulted in more productive, healthier and happier employees. That is by moving into more sustainable buildings companies do not only protect the environment but their own staff, which in turn helps the bottom line. Overall, proximity to nature is good for us. This idea came up numerous times. Making the case for the integration of man-made structures and the environment.

Every single person at the conference spoke of integration (at least that’s what came across). Integration across all spheres. From integrating buildings with nature, to integrating communities and design. Prevalent ideas were biomimicry and regionalism. The thinking is that in each corner of the world nature has already designed the ideal habitats for that area, and that designers should adapt these approaches, making them accessible for our purposes; specially, using local materials. For example, when developing the Wangari Mathaai Insitute in Kenya, consideration was given to incorporating the local watershed into the overall water and storm water design of the site. Furthermore, there were numerous mentions of community scale design, creating smaller, overseeable pockets within a grand design scheme. During an innovative “fishbowl” session the importance of community involvement and ownership of new developments.

Lastly, GBCSA gave a presentation on the future of their rating tools. They announced the launch of a number of new tools, particularly for residential developments. The tool was not discussed in detail, but I hope that the module for residential units has carefully considered different economic types of housing (from the rolling hills in Constantia to the dusty plains of the Cape Flats).

Although there were inspiring moments, the conference was not groundbreaking. It did however showcase a solid effort in combating climate change. But of course, I have a concern. It worries me that “box-ticking” mentality is unsustainable in itself. For office spaces, the solutions focus on “hard skills” and to some degree expensive technology, requiring large amounts of capital.

Also the aim seems to have shifted. Rather than protecting the environment, the aim now is to achieve a certain rating. Perhaps now they are one and the same. But in order to truly engage in sustainable design requires holistic approaches big picture thinking, particularly in a developing environment. Countries in development are in a unique position to set the tone for sustainable development. It is much easier to build green than to retrofit. And rather than adopting solutions developed by others we should make our own. It is argued that means justify ends, and that for better or worse South Africa is churning out greener buildings, but does green equate sustainability?

17 Sustainable Ideas for COP17 is a collaboration between This Big City and Future Cape Town running alongside the United Nations Climate Change Conference from November 28th to December 9th.