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Biophilia: Nature immersion and the city

By Jason F McLennan

In part one of a series about biophilia and its relationship to the built environment, Canadian architect and founder of the Living Building Challenge, Jason F McLennan, shares some insights around the central concept and specifically how it to relates to city planning and urban environments.

Canadian architect and founder of Living Building Challenge
Jason F McLennan

E O Wilson described biophilia in his 1984 book by that name as “the innate tendency to focus on life and life-like processes.” 

I first wrote about the importance of biophilia in 2004 in my first book, The Philosophy of Sustainable Design. I included biophilia as a guiding principle in version 2.0 of the Living Building Challenge (LBC) that came out in 2009; making LBC the first green building programme in the world to focus on the subject. Since then, I have watched the field of biophilic design evolve, gaining shape, definition, and serious consideration on projects all over the globe. 

However, as easily happens, a checklist mentality around biophilic design has emerged within the design industry, while simultaneously nearly anything and everything is being described as ‘biophilic’ in order to satisfy this newfound interest. As has happened in other areas of green building, the essence and scientific basis of biophilia is being lost in point tallying – right now, a design need only include superficial applications and check the right boxes to call itself biophilic.

It is my hope that clearly naming what is essential to biophilia, will engender a more nuanced understanding and ultimately, a more successful application of biophilic patterns and attributes to design.

Frameworks and checklists will always benefit designers, but it’s time to dig in deeper to what we mean when we talk about biophilia and biophilic design. We need to focus on design strategies that actually have positive impacts and do more than merely justify a design through yet another trendy lens. 

Science is only recently corroborating the long-standing, instinctual wisdom we’ve carried as humans for millennia – that we thrive in close connection to nature. I believe nature immersion is the single most important element of biophilia; if we only allow ourselves adequate time in nature, we can reap bountiful biophilia-associated wellness benefits.

Inside out

Estimates place 70 percent of the world’s populations in urban environments by 2050. With this migration, our connection to nature has dwindled and our feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression have filled the vacancy. Harvard School of Public Health Professor John Spangler puts a number to Americans’ disconnection from nature, and it’s shocking: we now spend 95 percent of our time indoors.

At the same time, a growing body of evidence suggests that if we reconnect to nature, we will become whole again.

Therefore, a key principle to establish under the framework of nature immersion is that any design that can get people outside, for as long as possible – using porches, covered walkways, courtyards, balconies, etc. – will always greatly outdistance anything that can be done inside a building. These types of design features prolong our exposure to nature, drawing down that 95 percent. The task isn’t the architect’s alone, but also the landscape architect’s, the urban planner’s, and that of each individual that occupies a building.

Immersive experience

Given so much of us live in, or are moving to, urban environments, we must, at a city planning scale, do the work of the biophilic designer to draw people outside through design. What do our cities look like? City parks provide immense opportunities for immersive experiences to urban dwellers and we should urgently create more, even on a small, pocket park scale. How many parks do we have now and how equitably are they dispersed? One recent, powerful study showed significant decreases in self-reported feelings of depression in test groups tasked with restoring vacant lots in economically-depressed urban areas.

Green Point Park, Cape Town

This study illuminates the social justice aspect inherent in any discussion about urban planning and access to nature: “neighbourhood physical conditions, including vacant or dilapidated spaces, trash, and lack of quality infrastructures such as sidewalks and parks, are associated with depression and are factors that may explain the persistent prevalence of mental illness in resource-limited communities.”

As the populations of our cities grow, it is important that the number of public places for city-dwellers to be in nature, keep pace. It is my belief that everyone should have walking distance access to a beautiful public park.

Native ecology

Also, as the world’s population continues to move into towns and mid-size cities grow into large cities; cities should strategically plan for and conserve sizable tracts of land as highly accessible urban wildlands. Stanley Park in Vancouver, Forest Park in Portland, and Central Park in New York City provide crucial, substantive outlets for high-quality nature immersion for their urban areas and highlight what’s possible when the conditions for wildness are fostered rather than subdued by design within city limits. These conserved parks connect people with place in a powerful way, often providing them with an experience of what their place once looked like while simultaneously creating opportunities for the native ecology of that place to thrive. Living in close proximity to this kind of life has amazing potential to foster the stewardship mentality crucial to the conservation of our wild places.

Creating connections

What further opportunities can we identify to foster nature connections in cities? Do trails winding through untamed places connect us to the modern and convenient amenities that spurred our move, as a species, to cities? If not, can they? What is the state of our urban canopy and how can we revitalise it, and reap the associated biophilic benefits, alongside all the others, that make trees so essential to city landscapes? What is our relationship to water in our cities? Can we utilise design to daylight streams and stormwater, creating visual and auditory onnections with our life-source at every opportunity? Are our cities walkable and bikeable, with amenities spaced for pedestrian and biker access? 

I believe one of the reasons Americans flocked to the suburbs in the post-World War II era was for these kinds of natural connections that had been choked out of industrialised cities. As our urban populations rise, it is critical that we invite nature back into city centres, creating nature-pedestrian connections that get us walking and interacting with our surrounding natural and human communities, immersing us more often and more completely within biophilic settings.

Growsmart Western Cape champions for 2023 are announced 

…and the winners are: 

  • Literacy – Delft South Primary School, Cape Town
  • Mathematics – St Agnes Primary School, Cape Town
  • Story writing – Helderkruin Primary School, Cape Town 

The top five Growsmart 2023 learners in literacy and maths, along with the top three learners in creative writing, were announced at a prestigious prize-giving ceremony at The Avenue Conference and Event Centre, next to the Two Oceans Aquarium at V&A Waterfront on Saturday, 9 September 2023.

The Growsmart Educational Programme is a corporate social initiative by Growthpoint Properties in collaboration with the Western Cape Education Department.

Growsmart’s vision is to empower young learners facing challenging circumstances by providing opportunities for quality education that positively impacts their future. This educational programme is both a project-based and face-to-face competition. It is interschool and inter-grade with three categories: literacy, story writing (creative writing) and mathematics.

For the first time in three years, the maths and literacy competitions returned to their exciting original format of in-person, quick-fire, buzzer quiz rounds that are loved by learners, teachers and adjudicators alike.

The Mathematics and Literacy competitions’ final rounds were each fiercely contested by 15 of the top-performing grade 4, 5 and 6 learners in the Western Cape, and 10 learners competed in the Story Writing finals.

The competition began with learners from 101 schools from across all eight education districts in the Western Cape.

Finalists had to progress through the first three rounds of the competition, which began in May 2023, to earn their place in the fourth and final stage. 

They prepared for the various competitions, with the support of mentor teachers, by studying and utilising the free Growsmart resources available on its website. These resources include electronic newspapers, interactive activity workbooks, and online preparation tutorials for both learners and teachers.

The 15 finalists in the Literacy Competition were selected from a pool of 303 participants. They were tested on their ability to spell, define and use words in sentences, as well as their knowledge of verbs, nouns, idioms, and adjectives. The winners are:

1st Place                Delft South Primary School

2nd Place              St Marys Primary School

3rd Place               Heideveld Primary School

Delft South Primary School – accomplishment has also earned them an iPad Lab worth R350,000, fostering future learning and promoting positive educational outcomes.

In the Mathematics Competition, 15 finalists out of the 103 participants tackled questions ranging from BODMAS to problem-solving and mental maths. The winners are:

1st Place                St Agnes Primary School

2nd Place              Stand Moslem Primary School

3rd Place               Dennemere Primary School

The Story Writing Competition is a project-based, mentor-led event in which learners submit their own original written stories. Nealry 220 storybooks were submitted. The winners are:

1st Place                Helderkruin Primary School, Romi Grendeling.

2nd Place              Belmor Primary School, Esperanca Mungongo

3rd Place               Spineview Primary School, Okae Mokoena.

Most Creative       Helderkruin Primary School, Skyler Olyn.

“Congratulations to everyone who took part in this year’s interactive programme, which has been more focused, relevant, engaging, and innovative than ever before. And, especially well done to the winning students, mentors and schools. By combining the best of online and in-person experiences, we continue to impact young minds and foster meaningful change,” says Jewel Harris, founder of Growsmart and General Manager of Growthpoint Properties Cape Town. 

Growthpoint Properties Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, Shawn Theunissen, adds, “The winning learners and mentors represent the leaders of tomorrow and today. We’re incredibly proud of them all, both children and teachers. Investing in positive social impact across the entire education value chain not only transforms lives today but also shapes future generations. Growsmart remains one of the most effective methods for enhancing educational outcomes at the primary school level, contributing to a more inclusive society in the long run.”

The programme is rewarding for all involved by being a valuable additional resource for educators and providing a fun way to enhance learning for children to learn. However, there are also great prizes up for grabs and the Growsmart competition winners were awarded significant prizes to support their future education. First, second and third-place winners in each contest received educational materials to the value of R20,000, R10,000 and R5,000, respectively. The ‘Most Creative’ story written also received R5,000. In addition, mentors in all categories were awarded gift vouchers from a Growthpoint Shopping Centre worth R10,000, R5,000 and R3,000.

All finalists were given the opportunity to apply for a bursary through the Growsmart Bursary Programme, with Growsmart assisting the learner and the family every step of the way through the application process. Since its inception, Growsmart and its partners have sponsored and supported 27 alumni in achieving their educational goals in high school and tertiary institutions.

The Growsmart competition, launched in 2010 in the Western Cape, aims to enhance primary school learners’ performance in literacy and mathematics. Due to its success, the programme has expanded to the Eastern Cape and Limpopo.

Congratulations to all the Western Cape winners.

Minor Hotels Zambia unite in Victoria Falls clean-up project to enhance tourism and conservation

Ahead of World Clean Up Day on Saturday, 16 September, the two Minor Hotels located in Zambia, namely The Royal Livingstone Hotel and Avani Victoria Falls Resort, have embarked on a clean-up project at the Victoria Falls, a transformative initiative aimed at preserving and enhancing one of the world’s most iconic natural wonders. The project, spearheaded by Minor Hotels, is set to become an annual endeavour with the primary goal of not only improving the overall experience for tourists but also contributing to the conservation of Victoria Falls on the Zambian side.

Victoria Falls, known as “The Smoke that Thunders”, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a must-visit destination for travellers worldwide. Recognising the need to protect and preserve this natural wonder, Minor Hotels Zambia has taken proactive steps to ensure its sustainability for future generations.

Laurie Burr, Complex General Manager for The Royal Livingstone Hotel by Anantara and Avani Victoria Falls Resort expressed his enthusiasm for the project, stating, “We are thrilled to be at the forefront of this endeavour to enhance the beauty and preservation of the Victoria Falls during Tourism Month. As a leading hospitality group, we understand the importance of responsible tourism, and the Victoria Falls Clean-Up project aligns perfectly with our commitment to sustainable practices. This initiative not only improves the experience for our guests but also contributes to the broader goal of environmental conservation and community engagement.”

The Victoria Falls Clean-Up project is a comprehensive seven-day undertaking, focusing on several key areas:

  • Enhancing Aesthetics: The project will involve painting fences, power washing walls, and refurbishing facilities to improve the overall appearance of the site, making it more appealing to tourists.
  • Infrastructure Improvements: Minor Hotels Zambia is committed to repairing facilities in key areas such as the ticketing office and the police station. Investments in machinery will enhance safety and convenience for visitors.
  • Environmental Conservation: A vital aspect of the project involves replanting and regrowing plants, which will help restore the natural ecosystem surrounding Victoria Falls, benefiting local wildlife.
  • Community Engagement: Minor Hotels Zambia is actively involving its team members and the local community in the project, creating a sense of ownership and inspiring others to take similar initiatives.
  • Positive Tourism Impact: The improvements brought about by the Victoria Falls Clean-Up project are expected to attract more tourists, ultimately boosting the local economy.
  • Sustainable Tourism: These efforts are in line with Minor Hotels’ commitment to responsible and sustainable tourism practices, contributing to the long-term preservation of Victoria Falls.

Laurie Burr concluded: “In these post-pandemic times, it’s crucial for hotel operators and owners to recognise their responsibility in contributing to sustainability programs. By actively participating in initiatives that prioritise conservation and responsible tourism, we not only enhance the beauty of our natural wonders but also help rebuild and fortify the tourism industry. Together, we can ensure that future generations continue to marvel at the majesty of Victoria Falls, and that our industry thrives in harmony with the environment.”

Minor Hotels Zambia invites everyone to visit the region to witness the transformation of the Victoria Falls and encourages visitors and the global community to take part in responsible tourism practices that protect and preserve our planet’s natural treasures.

UNESCO commends Africa’s progress towards Sustainable Development Goals, urges accelerated efforts to meet 2023 targets 

Ahead of the UNESCO 9th Africa Engineering Week and 7th Africa Engineering Conference taking place at the CSIR Convention Centre, in Pretoria, from the 25th – 28th September,  Rovani Sigamoney, UNESCO Education Programme Specialist and a chemical engineer, outlined the progress made by the continent on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) with its one billion people, has seventy percent of young people (under 30 years) and a wealth of natural resources and minerals, making it possible for countries to collaborate to eradicate poverty, develop economically and sustainably, explains Sigamoney.

“However, according to the World Bank, economic growth has slowed on the continent since 2021, exacerbated by global events like the COVID 19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, amongst others. Growth is expected to slowly increase again in 2024 but countries need to scale-up green energy investments, infrastructure development, transform agricultural productivity and prepare for a low-carbon future.”

In 2020, African governments were just over half way (53.8%) of achieving the SDG goals and targets. However, the COVID pandemic pushed 23.6 million Africans into extreme poverty and slowed down all the targets. While Africa faces many challenges, the three most important, according to Sigamoney, are:

  • Education – there are still 288 million school-age children out of school. There is a need to increase proficiency in mathematics and reading as this is about 54% and 70% below the global average for grades 2 and 3.
  • Energy – In 2022, 43% of the continent lacked access to electricity. Tapping into green energy sources can improve energy access.
  • Food security – Africa needs to build resilient economic systems to reduce the reliance on food imports by transforming and modernizing agricultural productivity

In terms of education, Sigamoney explains, engineering teaching and practice needs to be updated with modern technologies and advancement in AI. “We need to get more young people, especially young girls, into the pipeline, teach them how exciting and interesting mathematics, physics and the hard sciences are.”

With regard to energy – we need to invest in teaching and research into renewable energy systems for the continent to address and overcome our electricity and energy problems. And for food security – we can modernize agricultural systems by building technology suited to Africa to increase crop production sustainably and affordably while still preserving the planet and not destroying our nature.”

As each SDG is linked to the other, there is a need for every single one of the 17 SDGs in order to achieve the continent’s goals. This is also in line with Agenda 2063 by the African Union, which complements the targets of the SDGs. “However, if we, as engineers, look at Education (SDG 4), Clean water and sanitation (SDG 6) and Affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), we also directly and indirectly impact all the other SDGs. What we do locally makes a difference globally and thus improving Africa’s sustainably, helps the world.”

However, explains Sigamoney, despite the challenges, progress made is encouraging:

  • SDG 3: Good health and well-being: Maternal mortality rates decreased significantly in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). The countries which greatly reduced their maternal mortality rate compared to 2017 are: Tanzania (55%), Eswatini (45%), Mauritania (39%), Ethiopia (33%) and Eritrea (33%).
  • SDG 4: Primary school enrolment: In SSA, primary school enrolment increased from 60% in 2000 to 78% in 2018.
  • SDGs 13 and 14: Seychelles is the highest ranked in Africa, having put in place the legal and policy frameworks required to address environmental concerns.

“Engineers are needed and involved in every one of the 17 SDGs and we need to push towards solutions that encompass sustainability. Africa desperately needs more engineers, and it is events like the 9th UNESCO Africa Engineering Week, which aims to to stimulate and excite our youth to pursue careers in engineering. We need young women engineers as well, as women make up 50% of our population and only 10 -20 % of the engineering workforce in Africa,  and the most sustainable solutions are found when different minds come together to solve global problems locally,” concludes Sigamoney.

A focus on creating deal flow at the Manufacturing Indaba

The 10th edition of the Manufacturing Indaba will have a major emphasis on doing business and growing manufacturing businesses

The Manufacturing Indaba is gearing up to showcase a wealth of investment, trade and partnership opportunities with a spotlight on deal flow that promises to reshape the African manufacturing landscape. The annual event, known for its dedication to advancing manufacturing excellence, will take place from 24 – 26 October 2023 at the Sandton Convention Centre in Sandton, Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Manufacturers, investors, industry leaders, and stakeholders from across the Continent will convene at this prestigious event to explore and harness the potential of the manufacturing sector. This year’s edition emphasises “Deal Flow in Manufacturing” as a central focus, aiming to facilitate meaningful partnerships, investments, trade opportunities and collaborations that drive innovation and growth.

Key Highlights of the Manufacturing Indaba 2023 Deal Flow Focus:

  • Investor Meetups: The event will host exclusive sessions where investors can connect with promising manufacturing enterprises looking to expand, innovate, or secure funding.
  • B2B Connect: A dedicated platform will enable participants to pre-schedule meetings with potential partners, ensuring valuable face-to-face interactions.
  • Industry Insights: Renowned manufacturing experts and thought leaders will share insights on emerging manufacturing trends, investment strategies, and market opportunities.
  • Exhibition Zone: The exhibition area will feature a curated selection of cutting-edge manufacturing technologies, solutions, and investment-ready projects.
  • Networking Opportunities: Engage in high-level networking with industry peers, government officials, and representatives from international trade missions.

“The Manufacturing Indaba is a catalyst to facilitate deal flow and this creates a significant opportunity for manufacturing companies to learn, meet new potential clients, engage with one another to find out how to deal with manufacturing challenges and ultimately grow their manufacturing business.  In addition, the event further supports the development of Intra-Africa trade with many African countries being represented and the conference will feature a Keynote Address delivered by Mrs Ron Osman Omar,  Head of Industry, Innovation and Minerals, at the African Union Commission.  The potential impact of the event will be felt for many more months as manufacturing companies further unpack the leads and contacts derived from the event, which creates ongoing engagement and business potential.”  Says Liz Hart, Managing Director of the Manufacturing Indaba.

Join us at the Leading Manufacturing Indaba 2023 and Unlock the Future of Manufacturing!

Whether you are an investor seeking promising ventures, a manufacturer looking to expand your horizons, or an industry professional seeking valuable insights, the Manufacturing Indaba 2023 promises a fertile ground for deal flow and collaboration.

Emira’s strategic selling of The Bolton residential units makes good progress

Emira Property Fund (JSE: EMI) is over the halfway mark in selling the 282 apartments in its ground-breaking office-to-residential conversion, The Bolton in Rosebank, Johannesburg, as it continues its ongoing programme of strategic capital rotation.

Emira’s investment strategy for The Bolton has created excellent value for its stakeholders. The REIT invested R125m in the conversion of the former office building worth some R80m at the time. It has earned an average of R17m of income every year from the property since the redevelopment began to be tenanted in late 2018. Now, on exit on a sectional title basis, the total sales price for the 282 units is expected to be close to R327m.

“At Emira, asset recycling is always an option we consider when making investments. Emira has completed a full cycle with The Bolton, transforming offices into residential units and fully leasing them, and now reaching the stage where we felt the best use of this capital was to sell off on an individual sectional title basis and reallocate the proceeds to other strategic investments,” explains Emira Property Fund CEO, Geoff Jennett.

Unit sales are progressing well. Emira’s appointed specialist partner IGrow began selling in October 2022 and around 149 units had transferred by the end of August 2023. Another 69 units are under agreement. At this pace, Emira could be completely sold out of The Bolton in the next 12 to 18 months.

Sales are supported by the strong rental market in Rosebank for these apartments – on an individual, sectionalised basis – allowing Emira to realise its economic ambitions by selling the units individually and using the capital in other ways. One of these ways it is using the proceeds is to acquire the minority interest in Transcend Residential Property Fund that Emira doesn’t already own, as signalled in its recent Scheme of Arrangement announcement. Emira is also parking the proceeds in its revolving debt facilities, ready for future endeavours that it finds attractive.

Emira recently gained control of Transcend, which means residential assets now comprise around 15% of its total assets, which is on the higher end of its preferred allocation of 10% to 15%. Unit sales at The Bolton, which focused on a separate market to the Transcend portfolio, provide an ideal opportunity to lighten Emira’s exposure to this sector.

Emira’s diversified portfolio is balanced to deliver stability and sustainability through different cycles with a mix of assets across sectors and geographies, and through direct property holdings and indirect property investments with specialist third-party co-investors. Approximately 18% of Emira’s asset base is made up of equity investments in grocery-anchored open-air convenience shopping centres in the USA.

Based on the success of its value-adding investment in The Bolton, Emira would consider similar projects in the future, where both the returns and risk levels are appropriate. This joint venture with a residential specialist, the Feenstra Group, has fulfilled expectations.

“We are in favour of initiatives like this, which was a pilot project for us, and have gained in many ways from this experience, which we will put to good use in the future. This is a good example of Emira identifying and working the opportunity, from the office-to-residential conversion to sectionalising and selling, so that capital can be redeployed to create value strategically again and again,” concludes Jennett.

A circular approach to ESG in mining

By Verushka Singh, Principal Associate: Climate Change, WSP in Africa

Mining is one of Africa’s largest industries and contributors to GDP. It has long been under scrutiny from an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) point of view, and this scrutiny has only increased as societies move to a low carbon future and demand that companies change the way they do business. Though the extent to which mining companies are addressing ESG concerns – and actively working to improve their credentials – varies significantly across the industry, there are mining companies that are making significant strides in improving their sustainability practices.

Verushka Singh_WSP in Africa

Taking a circular approach is key to supporting the mining sector as it transitions from developing good plans and strategies, to implementing these strategies and making meaningful headway in ESG pursuits. There are three principles that underpin circularity, and these same principles also play a key role in improving ESG performance in the mining sector.

First, renewable inputs such as the use of renewable energy solutions in mining operations is key. Second, the lifespan and usage of the mining operation must be maximised to extract the highest possible value, which must include responsible retirement of assets during mine closure. And lastly, by-products and waste in a circular economy must be recovered and reused as far as possible. The most common application of this last principle in mining involves reprocessing tailings materials to extract left over minerals. The responsible management of water resources is critical here, too.

WSP has designed an ESG scorecard, which captures and quantifies ESG metrics directly linked to a mining company’s projects. The scorecard has been incorporated on several projects on which the company has consulted, unlocking opportunities for other ESG-related improvements to allow for the assessment of its deliverables.

The scorecard uses a combination of generally accepted ESG metrics, largely drawn from internationally recognised ESG and sustainability frameworks, including the Taskforce on Climate Related Financial Disclosures, the CDP and the Sustainability Standards Accounting Board. WSP also considers the mandatory reporting obligations of publicly traded companies and mining-specific frameworks such as those of the International Council on Mining and Metals and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

The knowledge gained through these assessments enables the company to produce better solutions and improved designs while helping clients to reduce environmental impacts, increase social value and align with their governance structures.

Climate change, water stewardship and renewable energy services are obvious direct contributors. In addition, geotechnical engineering contributes significantly to improved ground conditions and reduction in enterprise risk (Governance), both of which can have a huge impact on worker and community safety (Social).

Each of our mining services contribute to our clients ESG KPIs. As an example, our Tailings Storage Facility (TSF) design and construction services reduce enterprise risk (Governance), reduce carbon emissions and conserve water resources (Environment), while protecting human health and local communities (Social).

And, in keeping with the principles of a circular economy, we work with mining clients to focus their closure planning, and concurrent contaminated land rehabilitation planning, beyond ensuring they have the financial means to implement the conditions of environmental authorisations, and towards limiting or reducing adverse effects on the receiving environment. For mining clients to retire their assets responsibly, closures must be thoroughly planned in advance and sufficient financial provision made for the retirement of industrial assets.

An appropriate integration of ESG into a mining company’s practices fosters positive relationships with stakeholders and reduces environmental impact, while an ESG-focused approach can help identify and address potential risks early, including regulatory changes, community opposition or potential reputational damage.

As investors increasingly favour companies with robust ESG practices, embracing a circular approach to ESG and showcasing transparency can attract responsible investors who prioritise sustainable and socially responsible investments. This in turn can result in the mining company’s having access to more capital and, potentially, at a lower cost.

We believe that the global mining industry has an important role to play in the transition to a green economy, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Africa. We are working with mining companies that must contribute to the international demand for critical minerals, while also taking action to meet their ESG commitments.

WSP in Africa is hiring! To find out more about available opportunities, check out the Careers page on our website or look out for updates on our LinkedIn page, @WSPinAfrica.

Taking a Future Ready approach to sustainable building and design

As the World Green Building Council commemorates World Green Building Week (WGBW23), Alison Groves, Regional Director, WSP in Africa, shares insights on #BuildingTheTransition in the local market through a Future Ready approach.

Alison Groves_WSP_Africa

The construction sector must not be overlooked in the drive towards achieving Net Zero. While sectors such as industrial manufacturing, mining and fossil fuel power generation tend to grab more headlines, the construction of buildings and infrastructure accounts for approximately 7 Gt CO2e, or 20% of global carbon emissions, where 4 Gt CO2e is associated with the materials used for construction. When the operational phase of buildings and infrastructure is included, the share of global emissions increases to around 70%, including energy production and use, traffic and so on.

The impacts of climate change – beyond hotter, drier climate conditions and more extreme weather events – are already having an impact on society in ways that we don’t intuitively realise. Increases in disease and civil insecurity result as resources become scarcer, food security is threatened, and natural disasters become not only more frequent but also more destructive. At the core of all the trends driving the adoption of net zero targets and policies is people. Human beings’ ability to live, work and play in changing climate conditions really is the most important focus – without people there is no change.

Taking a Future Ready approach to sustainable building design and construction is about addressing some key questions: How do we build to mitigate against the impacts of climate change, including societal impacts? Can we ensure a just transition to the green economy that addresses unemployment rates, access to resources and other social ills, rather than exacerbating inequality?

Social insecurity is a critical consideration in South Africa. With unemployment rates widening the inequality gap, we must seek out opportunities to enable economic participation in the green economy. This requires a circular approach to how we design and construct buildings, rather than the more traditional cradle-to-grave approach. A circular approach is about considering how we use resources such as water and energy, and how we manage waste and recycling. But it also speaks to the skills we need to develop amongst people to enable them to participate in the shift towards achieving net zero.

As it stands, there is a lot of legislation that developers and contractors need to adhere to, and these regulations intersect on matters pertaining to the natural environment – including but not limited to water and energy efficiency, natural environment and land contamination considerations, clean air and endangered species and protected land in special circumstances. But these codes – as important as they are – define minimum practice, not best practice.

Legislation, and certifications like Green Star and LEED, provide a legal minimum requirement and something to benchmark against respectively. But often the minimums are not good enough to make enough impact. Buildings must be designed for their occupants, not just to meet a legislated minimum requirement. For example, there is legislation that prescribes how much fresh air needs to be circulating in a building, but this stipulation is far lower than what we know to be optimal fresh air for human performance and health.

However, positive strides are being made. Out of the local power crisis, and since the legislated caps on private solar power generation capacity were lifted, renewable power generation capacity in South Africa has doubled in a year. It demonstrates how every crisis can also be viewed as an opportunity to make strides; to innovate and to see things differently.

For property developers to navigate the complexities of sustainable building, a clear vision or target is important. This allows us to quantify goals and work towards them, and making sure that benchmarking in design can take shape. The use of low embodied carbon in construction materials is a good example. At the moment we know very little about exactly what embodied carbons are in building materials, so we can’t say what a realistic reduction target looks like. But if there’s no target for reducing it in the building and project plan, there’s also no need to establish the current baseline and, therefore, no way to reduce it. We must start somewhere, even if it is only with a target that helps to define what we don’t know yet.

It’s also about not staying in your lane. Applying your knowledge or voicing ideas outside of your designated area of expertise is how innovation and change happens. There are principles inherent in Future Ready design and construction that can be applied in all aspects of building design.

First, design for adaptability and disassembly. Design buildings and infrastructure to be flexible and adaptable to changing needs, and easily disassembled at the end of their first life. Then, use materials that have a low environmental impact, and ensure that their origin and composition are transparent. It’s important to prioritise the efficient use of resources and create closed-loop systems where waste is eliminated and materials continuously reused across a full asset lifecycle, as well as to localise supply and skills in the value chain.

We must also shift away from short-term thinking – for example, building to meet minimum legislated requirements to save costs, without consideration for the long-term positive impact a best-practice design could produce. As an industry we must take a long-term view, considering the past, present and future uses of buildings, their spaces, materials and technologies.

Where we can, we must regenerate nature, and draw inspiration from natural systems in which nothing is wasted, implement nature-based solutions and protect water resources. We must use materials that can eventually return nutrients to the biosphere.

And finally, we must ensure a just transition to the green economy by upskilling and educating people, while collaborating with communities and building industry stakeholders, including architects, engineers, developers and policymakers.

WSP’s Future Ready approach is a business offering and embodies active thinking about climate resilience, the circular economy and enabling human beings to thrive. Beyond environmental concerns, taking a Future Ready approach to building design and construction is really about business sustainability and resilience to the trends that we are seeing emerge through climate change.

WSP in Africa is hiring! To find out more about available opportunities, check out the Careers page on our website or look out for updates on our LinkedIn page, @WSPinAfrica.

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