Monday, October 31, 2011

Reflections on GBCSA 2011

Last week the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) hosted their 4th annual green building conference in Cape Town. I was fortunate to attend this year as both a delegate and a speaker, presenting a case study on the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies. I have been rather sceptical of green building councils in previous posts, but I have nothing but praise for this year's conference.

The speakers invited presented a much bolder vision of urban sustainability than in past years, and there appeared to be less kow-towing to large corporate interests than I have come to expect from these member based organisations - even the conference dinner was more understated (although no less fun) than usual.

Not to gush too much; there were some important lessons for our local GBC at this year's conference that they would do well to heed if they are to remain relevant and truly lead SA along a sustainable urban path. With reference to specific speakers that really grabbed my attention, I'll unpack some of these challenges in this post.

Up first was Canuck, Seattle resident and CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council Jason McLennan; the inspiration behind the Living Building Challenge (LBC) - Jason presented a vision for how buildings could be - entirely self-sufficient, benign, beautiful and centres of social justice. And all this with just 20 requirements for documentation. These requirements are exceptional, and require dedicated design, construction and operation to achieve, but are relatively easy to demonstrate once achieved.

Green Star, the green building rating tool administered by the GBCSA, is currently facing a huge challenge relating to how the submissions are put together. Right now the tool is documentation heavy and design light; with hundreds of documents for each of the ‘design’ and ‘as-built’ ratings and thousands of pages in each submission while not really pushing design teams to change the fundamentals of building design. The Living Building Challenge on the other hand is design heavy and documentation light - something that the GBCSA could learn a lot from.

Jason indicated a willingness to partner with the GBCSA in advancing the Living Building Challenge in South Africa, and I would like to see them use it as a model to re-imagine Green Star as well. In Australia there is huge concern over the path Green Star has taken with respect to documentation; there is no need for South Africa to walk that same road. Green Star v2 has an opportunity to be a simpler, more challenging and broader animal than Green Star v1 and not just a remixed version of the same.

At the other end of the two days, Paul Downton closed the conference with a vision of eco-cities founded on community. The importance of community, and its nature as an emergent property of well-designed cities (i.e. one cannot design good community, but rather provide spaces within which it can flourish) was a theme that recurred in many speakers' presentations and both fishbowl events I attended. Paul's talk of ‘urban fractals’ - the housing of all city functions within each neighbourhood – really resonated with me. It articulated the vision for decentralised cities that has informed most of my blogs, but far more succinctly.

Furthermore, his experience in Adelaide of founding and delivering sustainable community-scale projects was refreshing. The key message I took from his talk was the need to break from conventional financing for sustainable neighbourhoods - community requires multi-functional finance that has close ties with its people.

The future plans of the GBCSA include a focus on community and social justice. The challenge is to do this in a way which reflects how community works, not how it facilitates corporate interests. One of the core purposes of Green Star is its role in delivering recognition to commercial projects, typically financed through conventional mechanisms. Based on Paul's vision and experience of eco-cities this will not do the job for successful communities.

Vivian Loftness spoke eloquently about many aspects of sustainable design: the impact of indoor environmental quality on building occupants; energy benefits of passive design and true triple-bottom-line accounting. However the thing that stood out for me was the strong research backing to each of her claims. Each phenomenon had academic rigour backing it up; an indication of the critical role research plays in collaboration with sustainable design.

Thus far, South Africa’s academic community has been largely disconnected from the property industry and sustainable design community. The presence of Anton Cartwright (UCT) and Andrew Thatcher (Wits University) at this year’s conference indicates the start of a process to engage with universities, but the research backing for sustainable design remains thin.

The GBCSA have indicated that building better links with universities is a goal. The rigour behind Vivian’s presentation should be sufficient inspiration to accelerate this process. It has a crucial role to play in both providing convincing research about the value of sustainable design as well as educating the up-and-coming professionals, developers and financiers for our future cities.

Perhaps it is giving away my love of Australia, but David Waldren’s presentation to open the second day of the conference was one of my favourites. I’m sure his message of “six star and no less” from the perspective of Grocon was welcomed by the GBCSA, although at odds with the speed of Green Star uptake by local developers. Of particular inspiration was the face of aboriginal leader William Barak on Melbourne’s skyline. Where are South Africa’s leaders, where the developers willing to put a line in the sand for reconciliation and peace?

Many speakers noted the importance of ‘leap-frogging’ – Africa taking a global lead and learning from the mistakes of more established markets. Both David and Jason spoke movingly of the need for the built environment to go further, higher, faster than ever before and not stopping to consolidate, but always to be climbing to the next level.

For me, one of David’s key messages was for the development industry not to rest on its laurels. A stream of 4-star buildings will not be ‘future-proof’ and will therefore not be good enough. Aiming higher and further is the only thing that makes development sense for Grocon, and in a market changing as fast as ours, it should be a lesson for South Africa’s developers.

His was a call and a challenge to our development community: stand up; lead; go further; or get left behind.

These four international speakers gave us a brief gaze into a crystal ball – showing how things have progressed in developed markets and highlighting opportunities for us to learn and lead. They have provided inspiration and a sound warning for the complacent.

The local and African content at the conference was also excellent: Eric Noir blew us away with the innovation and tech (both active and passive) of the Vodafone Innovation Centre; Andrew Thatcher gave us an insight into post-occupancy evaluations; and leaders in our development community (Old Mutual and Growthpoint) opened themselves to public discussion of how they are dealing with new sustainability trends.

The GBCSA. Built environment professionals (like me) and our development industry have a mammoth task to begin to answer some of the questions posed by the speakers at this year’s conference. For what it’s worth, I would summarise these as:

1.    Re-imagine Green Star for V2.0 – take the work done by the Living Building Challenge and Green Star Communities in Australia and produce a leading tool to help build sustainable cities.
2.    Investigate more than “Rands and Sense” – invest in understanding other methods for quantifying value, for communities and ecological systems.
3.    Build strong relationships with our universities; both to build our research understanding and to improve curricula for our future built environment professionals and developers.
4.    Work with our developers to realise that four star isn’t far enough, and work to make Green Star “design heavy” and “documentation light” so that we see world leading buildings become our norm.

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