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Building it back better

GreenEconomy.Media interviewed stakeholders across the built environment public and private sectors, questioning what a post-Covid-19 world might look like, and asking, how can we build it back better?

WORDS: Mary Anne Constable

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has temporarily crowded out the global climate agenda from the news, while also incidentally contributing to a decrease in global pollution, our need to create a low carbon economy continues in full force. The built environment and property sectors have a huge role to play in driving this agenda foreword.

There is an opportunity afforded by the present crisis, to catalyse the transition to a resilient sustainable future, and to build things back better than before. We asked several stakeholders how Covid-19 might inform some of the decisionmaking along the value chain of design, construction and operation of buildings and infrastructure in South Africa.


Georgina Smit, Head of Sector Development and Market Transformation, GBCSA,

The reference to ‘building it back better’ developed in response to natural disaster relief efforts, such as fires or hurricanes. Within the context of Covid-19, which is a more longstanding health and financial disaster, I believe it means how we will shape our fiscal stimulus policies, long-term infrastructure planning and detailed design thinking to plan for a future in which sustainability is prioritised and incentivised. It’s about using the opportunity to rebuild our systems, cities and communities in a way that learns from our mistakes in the past and corrects them with in-built resilience and good design. In essence, what this means to me as a representative of the GBCSA, is that we believe that green buildings play a vital role in our future’s green recovery.

Post Covid-19, I think we are going to see an increased focus on healthy buildings – in terms of providing improved air quality, appropriate surface design and selection (to mitigate against viral and bacterial contamination and spread) and enhanced workspace efficiency. Decisionmaking will be informed by selecting options that improve a building’s ability to continue operating in the time of health crises.

The government should consider policies and stimulus packages that promote sustainability options that deliver on green economy dual benefits such as job creation and improved quality of living standards.

We need to have a local understanding and pool of talent to drive green economy solutions in South Africa. Enablers for this include incentives for going green to developers and project owners.


Lesley Sibanda, C40 Technical Officer, Energy Efficiency in New Buildings (SA Buildings Programme), Sustainable Energy Africa,

Post Covid-19, more emphasis will be given to occupant health and comfort and strategies aimed at improving health through improved ventilation, access to natural light, less toxic material use, indoor plants, open green spaces for exercise and relaxation. The concept of adaptive reuse of buildings is likely to become more prominent as buildings are repurposed for new functions. Also, reduced commuting needs, as more people work from home, will result in transformed mobility patterns, and reimagining digital infrastructure across the cities.

The urban planning and sustainable design of a city’s agenda in the post-Covid-19 world will need to focus on building resilience to pandemics such as disease, climate change, natural hazards and unrest.

 Urban planning will need to make cities more inclusive, resilient, safe and sustainable. Mixed-use precinct development will likely be on the rise with a renewed focus on promoting local lifestyles as well as healthier and safer spaces for all.

The government needs to develop economic stimulus packages that have climate action and resilience to future shocks as the core principles. These recovery stimulus packages to build the economy must prioritise the transition to a low-carbon future while simultaneously reducing exposure to future crises and reducing health threats to the most vulnerable people in our society.

Stimulus packages must facilitate investments in low-carbon urban infrastructure, and local renewable energy production to avoid a rebound of greenhouse gas emissions.

These stimulus packages include supportive structures and mechanisms for local government to actively engage in decentralised renewable energy production, stimulate local economic development and localisation of products through financial incentives and building strong partnerships between the spheres of government, business, unions, civil society, communities and academics.



Dr. Kgosientso Ramokgopa, Head of Investment and Infrastructure Office, South African Presidency,

The significance of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy of South Africa cannot be overstated. It represents a significant decline not just to the South African economy but to the world economy. It is also unique in that it is both a supply-side and demand-side shock.

South Africa entered this challenging period in a weakened position with limited fiscal headspace due to the technical recession at the end of 2019 and the downgrade of our sovereign debt by Moody’s to sub-investment grade. As such a supply-side stimulus is required by government to get supply chains moving while encouraging localisation and job creation.

Given South Africa’s limited fiscal headspace, the funding of the post-Covid recovery needs to crowd-in sources of funding from outside of government. This has led to engagements with the multilateral development banks, the development finance institutions, commercial banks and infrastructure facing business organisations. They have indicated the need for an updated country infrastructure pipeline and have committed resources to the evaluation of said pipeline. This process will culminate in the Sustainable Infrastructure Development Symposium of South Africa (SIDSSA) on 23 June 2020. The ‘Sustainable’ in SIDSSA refers to the need for the project pipeline to align with South Africa’s commitments in terms of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Alignment of the SIDSSA to the SDGs and the National Development Plan allows for South Africa to access a greater pool of liquidity and at preferential rates for the funding of the project pipeline.


Rudolf Pienaar, Chief Development and Investment Officer, Growthpoint,

The socio-economic impacts of Covid-19 have given rise to the opportunity, and the necessity, to take stock and adjust the course towards a better future. For a commercial property development to be sustainable, it has to be relevant post-Covid-19 and for a long time into the future. Developers need to be able to adapt to constant change.

The role that workspaces play in protecting people’s health and safety has rapidly become a critical factor for the commercial property industry. Fortunately, many considerations for the health and wellness of building occupants are aligned closely with the considerations for green building and the WELL certification.

‘Building it back better’ allows us to imagine what we would like the future to be, and to play an active part in creating the quality and sustainable spaces that will be the building blocks of this better future. For Growthpoint, our drive continues to provide quality, green, healthy spaces that work best for our clients, our communities and our world.

The recent move towards densifying office space is likely to be reversed for apparent reasons. Also, the lockdown has highlighted our deep human need for collaboration and connection, with so many people saying they miss tapping into the energy that they feel in their workspaces. While this trend was already observable before Covid-19 arrived, the workplaces of the future will be designed and developed with more collaborative spaces to embrace interaction and facilitate formal and informal meeting. This is as true for office space as it is for retail space, where people also seek to meet their social needs.

With many workers and employers having experienced some of the benefits of working from home and invested significantly in making this possible, working is likely to become a more agile activity in the future. Workspaces will become more flexible platforms that include everything from remote working solutions to spaces that accommodate more traditional home activities, such as interactions with family and pets. Relevant, sustainable buildings will need flexibility built-in. To some extent, the office is now competing with the home. We expect that this will also be incorporated in workspace design.

Being able to live, work, shop, exercise and more in our communities became a necessity during various Covid-19 lockdown levels. Those residing in mixed-use environments were able to appreciate the benefit of their environment to the fullest and were better able to comply with the regulations. To this point, when commercial, retail and residential activity co-exists, it offers enormous health, wellness and lifestyle benefits, not to mention lower transport costs and carbon emissions. Mixed-use environments can embrace different economic groupings in thoughtful and inclusive ways. Access to open space has been highlighted, and ‘green lungs’ and other public areas are a sacrosanct component of mixed-use development.


Yovka Raytcheva-Schaap, Associate, ESD Consulting and Project Management, Aurecon,

Working in the South African built environment, I have observed important shifts driven by Covid-19 in designing spaces within the buildings; provision of fresh air, increased monitoring of internal conditions, maintenance and cleaning activities, and different procedures for entering the buildings and using facilities. All measures are taken to ensure the health and wellbeing of occupants and visitors of buildings and communities at large.

In terms of infrastructure, many leading global cities are changing the way public transport works by making a concerted effort to increase alternative mobility, i.e. non-motorised transport, including cycling lanes and bicycles, e-scooters, and pedestrianising the inner cities.

In returning to a ‘normal’ post-Covid19 world, our efforts towards a more sustainable future must be renewed and intensified – as we are rebuilding parts of the economy that have been negatively affected or introducing new industries. It is our responsibility to shape a more sustainable future.   

It is the government’s responsibility to lead the shift towards a decarbonised economy and inclusive communities, and as such, the first step would be to remove the impediments to produce energy from sources other than fossil fuel.

South African’s geographic location is such that a much higher proportion of the national energy mix could be attributed to renewable sources, however, the legal and the regulatory framework as well as the government procurement policies need to change to enable this shift.

The government should incentivise local capacity and production in the sustainable environment to create a leading industry that facilitates the decarbonising of the economy while creating jobs and uplifting the communities.


Dhesigen Naidoo, CEO, Water Research Commission,

According to psychologist Rucksana Christian, the first responses to this pandemic have been very classical flight, fight or freeze responses. And this has been illustrated in the reactions to the pandemic – first the global and local lockdowns, which were reasonably successful in the initial phase of viral containment, have already exacted severe economic and social costs. An economic stagnation followed that has pushed the water sector toward a financial crisis with the conventional wisdom predicting a 4.5% decrease in African GDP. This has put an unwieldy strain on resources for aspirations such as universal access to clean water and safe sanitation as envisaged by SDG 6.

But there is always opportunity in crisis. The global ‘Great Pause’ caused by Covid-19, has shown many benefits, perhaps in ways that we did not expect. The halting of industrial processes, smaller numbers of vehicles on the road and a diminishing of human activity have given the earth a chance to breathe. We have been given a brief glimpse of a lower carbon world. Secondly, in our quest to keep the wheels of the world’s socio-economy functional, Covid-19 has been the big disruptor and the real catalyst for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We have had a taste of the virtual way-of-work and made the gig economy a reality.

As we begin to return to ‘normal’ post-Covid-19, we would be wise to engage these recent learnings and express some ambition. This could be the turning point the African water sector has been hoping for; an opportunity to redirect and prioritise funding to water and sanitation projects as a major safeguard against the spread of infection and wellbeing – further attainment of water security deals. According to the Global Risk Register of the World Economic Forum, water has been in the top five risks to the global economy over the past nine consecutive years.

Finally, we can advance more rapidly to a greener lower carbon future on the back of groundbreaking scientific and engineering developments like low-energy wastewater treatment and no-sewered-sanitation. With the right choices, in the direction of better water infrastructure and new sanitation, the recovery and stimulus packages being considered by governments worldwide could usher in a greener, more inclusive, healthier world.


Jason F. McLennan, Architect and Founder of the Living Building Challenge,

When it comes to Covid-19, it is our policies that need to change more so than architecture. Yet, the mission related to creating living buildings and communities and reducing environmental impact hasn’t changed at all. This year is turning into a ‘pause’ year and we still have to get back to the same mission with renewed vigour.

About 2020 being forecast as the year of twenty-twenty ‘perfect’ vision, I’ve been saying that life imitates art sometimes. This is turning out to be an incredible year of reflection where it has become obvious to so many, how society needs to change – and now social justice issues in addition to the issues of health and inequities tied to resources are evident. Hopefully with all of this introspection – plus here in the United States, it’s a pretty important election year – it is a ‘shaking up’ moment: “Do we truly see clearly, or not?”. It’s as if the glasses that were fogged have been taken off and we have to rub our eyes and see the world as it truly is – one that needs to change radically if humanity is to persist.

Post Covid-19, there will be a transition period, but I do think things will tend to go back to more ‘normal’ in terms of architectural spaces required. Physical distances are not what we need in the long term once we have a vaccine. People need to be with people again!

And through this time we can’t forget that the environmental crisis is much larger than the pandemic we are facing now. We have hit pause on dealing with climate, and emissions are temporarily down, but we must act with urgency to continue reducing climate impacts even when things go back to normal.

This is the fundamental design assignment for us – to change design relative to environmental impact, bringing people together again in truly regenerative spaces.


Juan-Pablo Gutierrez, Practice Area Lead (Centurion), AECOM,

‘Building back better’ is an opportunity to re-think the world we live in. The current crisis highlights the weaknesses of our systems and calls for a more democratic, technocratic society where the decisions are made by experts and not by politicians.

Post Covid-19, mitigation strategies will affect decisionmaking across the full construction business chain, thus making construction more expensive. Some of the square metre ratios for office design may have to adjust to the situation but that would be balanced out by the higher percentage of employees working remotely. The ‘agile office’ will prevail in the coming years.

Sustainable design will play an ever more important role in the future. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the unpreparedness of our systems and this includes the impact on our ecosystem. Legislation in developing countries will have to catch up, and designers will have to assume responsibility and upskill in terms of sustainable design to advise clients. 

This article was published in the Green Economy Journal and +Impact Magazine. Read your copies here.

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