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The Future of Green Building Innovation in South Africa

In the compelling Rainmaker Marketing series of property education podcasts, Georgina Smit, the Head of Technical and Executive Director at the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA), shares her insights into green building practices, the GBCSA’s mission, the importance of certification, milestones in green building, and the future trajectory of sustainable practices in the built environment.

The Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA) stands as a beacon for sustainability, championing environmentally conscious practices across South Africa and beyond. Through collaborative efforts with a diverse membership community, GBCSA has fostered a culture of sustainability in design, construction, and operation within commercial, residential, and public sectors. My role encompasses overseeing certification processes, developing training programmes, and spearheading research initiatives, all aimed at equipping industry professionals and decision makers with the tools to combat climate change.

The critical nature of certification

Certification has emerged as a cornerstone in the journey towards sustainable building practices. It is much more than just a badge. It holds tangible proof of a building’s genuine commitment to green principles. Certifications like Green Star and EDGE provide frameworks for stakeholders to validate their sustainability claims and combat greenwashing, ensuring that projects embody environmental responsibility throughout their lifecycle.

2023 marked a historic moment for GBCSA and the broader green building movement in South Africa, achieving the 1000th certification, which is testament to the significant shift towards sustainable practices within the local sector. However, there is still a long way to go, and an ongoing need for improvement and advancement, urging stakeholders to strive for excellence in sustainable design and construction.

Green Star ratings and EDGE Certification explained

The Green Star rating system, is awarded for a variety of building types and development scales, from small scale interiors to expansive urban precincts, and from existing structures to brand new greenfield projects. It has served as a pivotal tool in evaluating a building’s sustainability performance, with higher ratings signifying industry leadership in green building practices. There are various levels – from 4-Star, indicating industry best practice; to 5-Star which is considered South African excellence; to 6-Star, which signifies world leadership in green building. While the increase in buildings achieving higher ratings is encouraging, only a small percentage (5%) of the portfolio currently achieve a 6 Star Green Star rating, so there is undoubtedly room for growth and advancement.

IFC’s EDGE certification, rewards resource efficiency as it  focuses on significant improvements in energy, water, and embodied carbon savings. There have been exciting developments within the residential sector, where several projects achieved preliminary EDGE status in 2023. This is particularly impactful as the residential sector accounts for a substantial portion (approximately 20 – 30%) of energy consumption in South Africa. Homeowners have benefitted immensely, including utility savings and improved living conditions through strategic architectural design, which can lead to cost reductions and a positive environmental impact.

Demystifying the cost of green building

A prevalent misconception is the presumed high cost of adopting green building practices. Initially, green buildings were thought to be significantly more expensive, but recent studies show that the premium has decreased from 5% to an average of 3.5%. When examining the more cost-effective end of the spectrum, we observe green buildings achieving certification with a premium of less than half a percent. This shows the feasibility of sustainable construction practices at minimal additional cost, showcasing the efficiency and affordability of green building initiatives – paving the way for widespread adoption.

International trends influencing local practices

Global trends, such as the Net Zero movement and the C40 Net Zero Carbon Buildings Declaration, have underscored a collective commitment to reducing carbon emissions and combating climate change. South Africa’s pledge to achieve net zero carbon status in buildings is a critical step towards meeting the Paris Agreement’s climate change targets and preventing global warming from surpassing the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold, signalling a transformative shift towards sustainability.

Under the C40 Net Zero Carbon Buildings Declaration, major metropolitan areas in South Africa have pledged to embrace the Net Zero goal. They’ve committed to ensuring that by 2030, all new constructions will meet the net zero carbon criteria, aligning with both local and global objectives. The ambition extends further, with a vision that by 2050, all buildings will operate with net zero carbon emissions. This initiative is a testament to the global commitment to transform our built environment and significantly reduce its impact on climate change.

There has been increasing significance regarding the prevalence of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria in Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and the listed sector. The ESG conversation is emphasising the need for businesses to assess and prepare for the impacts of climate change on their operations and property portfolios. The built environment is well positioned in this regard because of the foundational role of green buildings, dating back to the 1970s, in embodying principles of sustainable design that respond to changing environmental conditions.

It is important  to design buildings that are resilient and adaptable to local climatic changes, ensuring business continuity in the face of future climate challenges.

Investing in sustainable developments

The integration of ESG criteria into investment strategies has led to the development of sustainable financing options by banks and financial institutions. These options often provide benefits or incentives to investors who choose to support green projects, such as lower interest rates or favourable loan terms. This shift underscores a growing recognition of the importance of sustainable practices in real estate and construction, encouraging the allocation of capital towards projects that are not only profitable but also environmentally responsible and socially beneficial.

Who are the global leaders in sustainability?

Innovation in sustainability is highly contextual, with countries like the United States, Australia, and those in Scandinavia at the forefront of green building practices. There is a global focus towards sustainable building which is a collective effort, with South Africa and other African nations also playing significant roles in using sustainable building practices to address social impacts and to build resilient communities.

A forthcoming initiative

GBCSA is in the process of a major update to  the Green Star tool specifically designed for new buildings. This innovative tool is set to serve as a comprehensive guide for architects and professionals in the built environment who are keen on embracing sustainable design and construction practices. A significant aspect of this tool is its focus on the selection and sourcing of materials, ensuring that the environmental impact is minimised right from the procurement stage.

As we look towards the future of sustainable building practices in South Africa, I believe GBCSA remains at the forefront of innovation and collaboration. With exciting projects like the Greenovate competition and our involvement in initiatives like the “Better Places for People” forum, we continue to inspire and drive change in the industry. Through these endeavours, we not only showcase the creativity and potential of the next generation but also reaffirm our commitment to making green building practices inclusive and accessible to all.

By challenging misconceptions and highlighting real-world examples of affordable and sustainable housing, we strive to ensure that no building is left behind in our collective journey towards a more sustainable and equitable future. Together, we can chart a course towards a built environment that not only meets the needs of today but also preserves the planet for generations to come.

Within the Rainmaker Marketing podcast series, various topics are covered by experts in different fields on trends and insights that impact development and the property sector in general. In this instance, Georgina’s insights into the state of sustainable building practices within South Africa explores what is possible to achieve within our very own building and development sectors.

 Click hereto listen to the full Rainmaker Marketing podcast episode and visit to read more about GBCSA’s innovations and best practices.