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A new era of crucial focus on achieving increased sustainability

The world's population reaching seven billion marks a very serious signpost for corporates and individuals alike.

In this article, Jeff Robinson highlights a few of the emerging trends he believes have the ability to espouse greener ways of going about our everyday lives, including those related to buildings, transport and taking personal responsibility for our own emissions.

We simply cannot continue as we are. It is critical that we are determined to 'walk the talk' as we enter a new era of crucial focus on achieving increased sustainability.

An increasing focus on building performance

In many countries, it is mandatory to disclose levels of building performance. In Australia, for instance, buildings over 2 000 m2 are forced to disclose. This has produced a positive form of pressure which has had a knock-on effect on owners of smaller buildings. On average, 15 per cent of the buildings in the Australian CBD's are now GreenStar rated, and this figure is increasing as tenant demand for better-performing buildings increases.

Although disclosure is voluntary in South Africa, we're seeing the same kind of pressure and increasing instances of building owners and tenants focused on ensuring their buildings are as sustainable as possible. Added to this, increasing pressure as a result of legislation, such as SANS 204, has meant that building owners simply can't afford to ignore performance in their designs.”

Greener operation of buildings

Green buildings are a promise. The first promise is a design promise which sees the design team ensure that the very best environmentally sustainable design features are included in a building 'on paper'. That promise is fulfilled when a contractor builds the building according to this design promise and achieves an 'as built' rating. Even more critical, however, is that the building is operated as a green building so that it is able to achieve what it promised it can during the design phase.

Although these are only beginning to take hold in South Africa, we're seeing increasing instances of green leases being signed to enforce this. These leases lay out certain contractual lease obligations between a landlord and a tenant of a building that require the adoption of environmentally friendly practices.

Aurecon's Cape Town offices were recently named the first building in South Africa to be awarded a 5 Star Green Star SA – Office Design v1 rating by the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA). We have signed a 'green lease' with our landlord for this building, and this will see us endeavour to uphold the highest building performance standards at these premises, including the efficient use of resources such as water and energy.

Similarly, our Tshwane offices recently achieved a 4 star Green Star SA rating. They have been designed to accommodate future expansion and employ the latest modern technology, including a building monitoring system which allows us to track our energy usage and 'tweak' the building for optimum efficiency.

The additional cost of going 'green' on these facilities has a payback period of less than five years, where after significant savings will be realised. What's more, they will become lasting assets in terms of their ability to reduce the wastage of precious resources.

Sustainability as an integrator

If current trends are anything to go by, the best is yet to come. Sustainability is increasingly becoming an overarching trend. We aren't asking:

  • How can I make this building more sustainable?
  • How can I ensure its waste is disposed of more responsibly?
  • How can I ensure the power it consumed is produced in an environmentally friendly manner?
  • How can I make it more attractive for those who use the building to use alternate methods of transport?

This type of thinking sees us evaluate much more than the design of the built environment, and will foster collaboration between multiple disciplines to ensure sustainable thinking is applied from cradle to grave.

In this regard, we're seeing a sustainability dialog emerge, and the dialog includes those who were previously thought of as having little to do with sustainability. This is particularly evident in the engineering space where we're seeing 'silo thinking', or thinking confined to just individual disciplines, disappear. Engineers are asking: 'How can I work beyond my discipline, with other disciplines, to help deliver a sustainable end product?' In this way, sustainability has become an integrator which ensures that the results are greater than the sum of the parts.

Beyond buildings

Importantly, we have started to think beyond buildings and have started to address sustainability in a wider context. In my mind, ten years from now will see us rating the performance of an entire precinct. We're starting to ask: 'What about the space in-between?', and thinking of novel ways to ensure that space is protected, preserved and utilised in a way that doesn't harm the planet.

This includes better planning of this space. Interestingly, this might include more dense areas of construction, but where space for shade in the summertime and shelter in the wintertime is included. Trees might also be included, so as to avoid a 'heat island effect', but with thought given to how the precinct could capture water to water these trees. This sort of integrated precinct-scale thinking has the ability to alter our landscape positively.

Five minute living

Beyond the boardroom, ordinary people are increasingly asking all the right questions when it comes to where they get their food, and how far their gym, shops and schools are.

'Five minute living' is an ideal setup in which everything a person requires can be obtained within five minutes walking distance, including their groceries. This eliminates the carbon miles incurred for food to 'travel', eliminates the need for transport and, importantly, creates an awareness of each individual's carbon footprint.

Public transport is king

In the war for a more sustainable lifestyle, public transport really is king. As a senior manager at Aurecon, I took a decision to model what sustainability looks like in practice and got rid of my car. To get to my office in Melbourne, I use the railway, cross to a tram and then walk three minutes to get to work daily.

In some cities in Australia, you pay as little as AUS a year for access to public bicycles which you can drop off at various points around the city after use.

Although this isn't as simple in the developing world, what we can learn from this is the importance of creating options for individuals who want alternatives.

Living out sustainability in our everyday lives

It's not enough to work in a green building. Individuals need to start taking responsibility for their own lifestyles. We need to ensure we tread the planet as lightly as possible.

Simply put: if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem, and that just isn't good enough anymore.

In many cases, it's easy to transfer some of the high-end sustainability solutions to our private homes. Recycling, for instance, is as easy as buying bins for paper, plastic and tins. Likewise, all it takes to harvest and use rainwater for watering the garden is a JoJo tank.

About the Author

Jeff Robinson is Aurecon’s Principal Engineer and Sustainable Buildings Group Leader. He focuses on inspiring architects to maximise the environmental performance of buildings. Working throughout Australia and New Zealand, Jeff is a passionate advocate for the design and renovation of Environmentally Sustainable Buildings.

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