A new normal for built spaces: Sustainability takes centre stage at GBCSA Convention

The built environment contributes nearly 40% of annual global CO2 emissions. This year, the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA) annual convention in Cape Town focused on the urgency of transforming the built environment to divert us from a potential “climate hell” in the future. The event offered a wealth of information about sustainable construction, green certification, and the future of the industry. Profica’s Donia Kamstra, Regional Director in the Western Cape, and Sizo Ludidi, Assistant Project Manager share key insights emerging from the convention here.

Driving a shift to green baseline principles
Kamstra says that ecosystem collapse has been showcased for many years, each year with more compelling data and case studies. The response from all stakeholders is slow and cumbersome with participants still wondering how to motivate the implementation of sustainable principles into the projects and built environment. A fundamental shift in the ‘norm’ is taking place, where these criteria will no longer be luxurious extras, but rather baseline principles. The industry is recognising that sustainable performance and specifications are rapidly moving from ‘incentive-based’ to ‘the new norm’. On the flip side, the brown building ‘norm’ is sliding into a punitive-based environment.

“Property funds and asset managers are actively auditing real estate portfolios for investor ESG applicability. Where possible, buildings are being upgraded to achieve sustainable criteria, and the remaining are being offloaded,” says Kamstra. “It is foreseeable that soon ‘brown buildings’ will be an unacceptable status quo. They will accumulate fines, be non-fundable and will attract additional levies.”

Kamstra believes that ESG and consumer demands are having an impact. “80% of impact is created by 20% of the population. More noise is being made in the industry to identify the ‘serious offender areas’ and to act in a punitive, legitimised way.”

Developing the urban ‘spaces between’
A recurring theme is the challenges around ownership of the ‘spaces between’ that are at the forefront of improving the quality of common areas and spaces for all. As we become more virtual, we become more disconnected from human interaction on ‘street’ level. This isolation is affecting the well-being of society across age groups and demographics. Ongoing work is done by many to be mindful of the quality of urban spaces.

A specific challenge results when civilians want to collectively retrofit neglected and vacant spaces says Kamstra. “Ownership of these spaces is typically by large governmental and municipal departments, which are operationally cumbersome. This creates bottlenecks for civil society, hampering people’s ability to take responsibility and make improvements for all.”

Kamstra highlights a solution that would go some way to avoiding anarchy in unmanaged public spaces. “If the state entity’s deliverables shifted from providing a designed solution to developing an ‘enabling process’ with embedded principals, then civil society could mobilise in an aligned way. This will also enable the right solutions to emerge for each situation. One size does NOT fit all and we require a process that can respond accordingly and apply the many innovations appropriately.”

Transforming Tomorrow – a single green star rating tool
For Sizo Ludidi, One of the most significant announcements at the conference was the introduction of “Transforming Tomorrow,” a new green star rating tool by GBCSA. “Their plan is to do away with other rating tools and solely have one tool to cater for multi-facilities, streamlining the process for developers and builders,” Ludidi explained.

Comedian John Vlismas made an impactful statement at the conference, talking about how we are transitioning from having multiple spaces for various activities to having a single space with multiple uses. Ludidi agreed with this sentiment, saying the only way to be sustainable and contribute to a ‘greener’ environment is by building less.

User interaction with Green Buildings
Another key topic was the importance of user interaction with a green building. “Behavioural change is crucial in assessing the benefits of a green building,” Ludidi says. “If the end-user doesn’t fully use the building’s capabilities, they won’t realize its benefits and won’t become advocates for green buildings.”

New innovations
Water scarcity was highlighted as a critical concern, with Rand Water sharing initiatives like bucket filtration systems and RO water systems to desalinate seawater. Bambili Energy also introduced its Fuel Cell System, an invention designed to combat load-shedding issues by using hydrogen fuel cells to generate electricity.

The wise African city
Wise African cities will feature urban farming techniques, green infrastructure for waste management and water conservation with less landfill sites, operate on renewable energy, a robust public transportation system, and less landfill sites.

Sustainability has always been a critical part of Profica’s approach since inception 18 years ago, and forms part of the company’s founding principles. When asked about the social and environmental issues most relevant to Profica, Ludidi mentioned water scarcity initiatives, energy scarcity, behavioural change, and skills development for young people.  “We are involved in various construction projects which a level of green building certification like the Green Star rating, LEED or EDGE. So, we are always sharing experiences and lessons learnt on projects.”

The GBCSA Convention delivered a valuable perspective on the future of sustainable construction and the role companies like Profica can play in shaping a greener built environment.

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