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In this Pied Piper Project instalment, a LeadSA and Daily News initiative, Justin Nurse talks to Richard Palmer, a thought leader in green building and urban sustainability and a lead design consultant at WSP Green by Design.
I was born in Grahamstown. My parents were ecologists and I spent my childhood on mudflats, rivers, marshlands and national parks. As a result, I’ve always wanted to do environmentally sustainable stuff.
After graduating from UCT with a degree in mechanical engineering, I somehow ended up in Australia, with a job as a sustainable design consultant in a firm that turned out to be the market leader in green buildings.
For the next four years I was on a roller-coaster of green buildings and urban sustainability. Since returning home in 2009, my focus has been on contributing what I have learnt mostly to the Green Building Council of South Africa.
Green Building Movement
The underlying premise of green buildings in most of the world is addressing areas where we’ve become lazy and greedy with building design – pretty much since the age of air-conditioning, which allowed us to move air and heat into buildings that were of vastly different shapes to anything that had come before. By putting energy-intensive heating and cooling equipment into buildings, recycling air, and not putting in much natural light, we ended up with unhealthy environments that people were spending lots of time in – the “sick building syndrome” – and with buildings that were intensive resource users (energy and water), and big waste producers. They also shape the face of our cities.
So the green building movement said “we can do this better”. There was an acknowledgment of a responsibility to use our resources more efficiently and in so doing, reduce our carbon emissions – although the cynic in me says that it has been a largely commercial focus to take advantage of the focus on “green”.
Vodafone decided to site their global innovation hub in South Africa, and the design team was given the freedom to push the boundaries.
It’s a carbon-positive building, cleans all its own water, has solar absorption chillers, and other interesting tech stuff that you don’t normally get the budget to play with.
Another exciting project involved Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, who founded the Green Belt Movement – a rural outreach programme that assists rural women to plant trees in Kenya’s forests. Sadly she passed away last year.
Our brief was to design a building that institutionalised her work, by creating an experiential learning hub that was very hands-on.
While buildings are important, cities are a lot more so. The rethinking around how we put cities together is the next frontier. Water, sewage and power infrastructure, where people live and how they move – that’s my passion.
Natural systems are complex, and where they meet with social systems is at cities. Green buildings haven’t yet dived into that space; we’re still looking at the hard and fast metrics of energy, water, waste – creating high-performance buildings. They may be incredibly efficient, create awesome spaces, and look amazing – but I’m not yet convinced that they’re sufficiently positive environmental initiatives.
But now, out of the States, we’re seeing the birth of a new movement – the Living Building Challenge – which is less commercial and more focused on creating buildings that have a positive restorative environmental impact.
How do you take the benefits of the city – the “hit rate” of how often you bump into interesting people, and the innovation that comes from that (let’s call it “capturing human capital”) – and put it in a space that is consistent with ecological systems that have closed-loop cycles for energy, water, waste and food? How do we introduce urban agriculture into our urban waste management systems so that the two meet, and don’t remain linear systems?
If you can create green spaces in your city where you can grow food, your ecosystem services then become important. If you can match that with your wetlands and your wastewater systems, you are starting to get to a socio-ecological city where your human and ecological services are all being fulfilled by the same building blocks. That’s my dream. Leading cities in this regard are Copenhagen and Stockholm in Europe, and Portland in the US. Of the new cities, Singapore is leading the way with its very tech-heavy approach to future cities.
In Africa, our challenge is the emerging informal sector, where everything is driven by demand.
As urban engineers we have a lot to offer, but we aren’t really in that space. When it comes to rolling out basic services in an informal settlement, the bottom line remains putting in a water pipe in the cheapest possible way, instead of considering what will be the most resilient in the long run. And therein lies the challenge of sustainability.
South Africa’s challenges
The crime about how we are putting our cities together is that we seldom look at the viability of alternatives that don’t fit our infrastructure mould. We have thousands of traffic engineers, but very few transport ones. So we can size our roads optimally, but we can’t properly examine the bigger issue of “how to move people”.
Are you a leader?
My journey has only just started. I don’t pretend to assume the levels of proficiency of thought of some of the global leaders in sustainable design. And leadership isn’t claimed; it emerges. Leadership is about making brave decisions that go beyond the immediate expected whim of the moment. Some people manage processes; leaders look at how things could be done better – and then go for it.
* To find out more about the work that Richard does, visit: www.wspgroup.co.za.
* Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh it off.