The Future of Architecture and Sustainability in South Africa
By Marc Sherratt
We are all well-aware that Covid-19 lockdowns have caused widespread destruction in an already struggling South African construction industry over the past two years. As a result, much of our vision for the future of the industry has come from looking to positive influences outside of the country, as it tries to reimagine and reinvent itself.
Yet, even under the shadow of the pandemic, there remained a palpable, tangible excitement about architectural design in Africa. This was highlighted this year by Diébédo Francis Kéré becoming the first African architect to win the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize 2022, considered the Nobel prize for architects. A bit closer to home, we can be proud that Sumayya Vally of Counterspace Studio became the first South African and the youngest architect to design the temporary Serpentine Pavilion in London in 2021 — considered by many as a stepping stone to the Pritzker.
These awards signal that a certain level of quality has been reached by African architects and, more importantly, that their work is starting to be taken seriously by the developed world.
Another instance where this is evident is with the appointment of Lesley Lokko to be the curator of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition, which will be held in Venice, Italy, from May to November. With her at the helm, there will be an intensified focus on the developing world, including Africa. Upon her appointment as the Biennale Architettura 2023 curator, Professor Lokko, who was born in Ghana and studied in London, said:
‘A new world order is emerging, with new centres of knowledge production and control. New audiences are also emerging, hungry for different narratives, different tools and different languages of space, form, and place. After two of the most difficult and divisive years in living memory, architects have a unique opportunity to show the world what we do best: put forward ambitious and creative ideas that help us imagine a more equitable and optimistic future in common. Speaking to you from the world’s youngest continent, I would like to thank President Cicutto and the entire team of La Biennale di Venezia for this bold, brave choice.’
These achievements encourage African designers to stay honest and true to their design convictions. Important conservations of what post-colonialist, African design looks and feels like are shaping much of the output of both African tertiary institutions as well as the leading architects on the continent. The general trend I see is a developing pride and confidence amongst African architects in using locally based materials, spatial approaches, and building skillsets.
In South Africa, this subjective enthusiasm will be funneled through some notable technical developments, specifically the finalisation of the Green Building Council of South Africa’s (GBCSA) new version of their popular Green Star rating tool. This tool, which has become the best practice standard for green buildings in Africa over the last decade, has been rewritten from the ground up to include a significant focus on embodied carbon, good urban design, human health, and ecological regeneration.
Embodied carbon, which covers the carbon emissions related to the extraction, manufacture, construction, and transportation of building materials and equipment, will have a significant influence on the South African construction industry. Over the last decade, the Green Star rating tool has wholly transformed technical specifications, low VOC paints for example, due to its creation of a demand for more sustainable products. Having been involved in the writing of the new version of this tool, I see the most dramatic change happening in the materials and landscaping industry.
Most of the focus on carbon emission reduction has been on reducing emissions in the operations of a building. The gazetted Energy Performance Certificates now required for certain large-scale building types will continue to drive this trend. However, the focus shift to embodied carbon will pressure architects and structural engineers to now join the sustainability movement, which has largely left innovation to mechanical and electrical engineers. This is why certified green buildings seem to look very similar to conventional buildings, since much of their innovation has been hidden in efficiency, monitoring, and technology. Architects and structural engineers will need to upskill themselves in new materials such as hempcrete, biomass-insulated concrete, and cross-laminated timber — materials that become carbon sinks instead of carbon emitters.
The tool also recognises the starting point of ecological regeneration being the landscaping around a building. For too long landscaping has been a marginalised element of green buildings. The tool places the focus of landscape design on biodiversity increase rather than on aesthetics. Working with partners such as the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the tool guides designers in sourcing plants that are locally indigenous to the project area. By using this approach, urban areas that have certified green buildings will become havens for indigenous wildlife.
In summary, the year looks promising indeed. South Africa remains a world leader in the application of sustainability in buildings. Noting the increased interest in African design, the industry has a leadership role to play on the continent. This is an opportunity to showcase innovation—a role we should not squander. If public infrastructural investment can be scaled as promised, the industry could see itself revitalised with a new sense of vigour to solve our country’s daunting social and environmental challenges. I for one remain positive that an architecture of hope remains possible.
Professional Architect and Director
Marc Sherratt Sustainability Architects