[First published on www.ecobuildonline.co.za]
Architects and designers use the term “people-centred” design rather loosely. It has become a rather superficially applied term that gives the impression of a type of design that considers people first, or at least cares about their well-being. But what does it really mean and how can we apply it meaningfully in design so that it’s more than just a word, but a reality?
With the rise in an emphasis on “sustainable” architecture, there is a lot of focus on green building technologies and creating sophisticated systems that save energy and water. Green buildings create better environments for the building’s users which is a drastic shift from the modernist buildings of the 50's and 60's that were built to be functional only, and little was known about how inhabitants might be affected by lack of natural light and poor ventilation. It was about cost and financial return first and people last.
This fundamental shift has affected the way that we design the interiors of our buildings; spatially, functionally, and materially, as well as changing the way we create the envelope around the interior spaces (to incorporate more openings for natural light and ventilation for example). Green buildings are but a small part of our built environment. We have the ability to influence social connections between people by designing spaces that consider people first – to make reference to that which is outside ourselves (and outside our object building).
Andre Spies of Twothink Architecture, says that people-centred design should emphasise the “spaces in-between buildings rather than the buildings themselves”. He refers to examples of vernacular architecture where traditional mud buildings, by their physical layouts around a centralised space, created safe spaces for the community to gather and herd cattle. In Cape Town, the steps and alleyways of District Six consider how pedestrians move and pause between buildings. These spaces become connective fibres that create patterns and weave delicate connections between people and places. These are community spaces where “life” happens. Spies calls this “democratic space”, where cultural difference is respected, where equality happens, and where safety is created by a feeling of belonging.
Indian architect, Rahul Mehrotra, presented a body of his work at the Architecture ZA conference in Cape Town in 2012, and received a standing ovation from an audience that related to the need to cross the social divides in our own country. Mehrotra’s work demonstrates that there are ways of encouraging different communities to interact with each other by arranging spaces in different and unexpected ways. He calls these "collective thresholds”.
A beautiful example is a house designed for a young filmmaker which includes an outside portico that is used by the middle class inhabitants on weekends and by the locals in the village during the week as a public space. Because the locals feel that they have been recognised, there is a mutual respect between the two parities, although they are of such opposite classes.
Another example is a block of public toilets in an informal settlement which was conceptualised as a “community centre” where children can come to study at night. The caretaker has the “penthouse” on top and is able to watch over the block to make it a place of safety. Mehrotra said that architecture consists of a lot of privileged authorship and prefers an approach where the stamp of an architect is not obvious. Even his larger, more commercial buildings are more like “places” than objects – containers for people in which they can express themselves. Here, people come first.
Designer, Stephen Lamb of Touching the Earth Lightly redefines “people-centred design” as “human-hearted” design. His passion is creating design that seeks to address social issues of dignity and safety (food and shelter) first and foremost. He expresses the need for architects and designers to move away from a self-referential approach and to “listen and respond to the simple, everyday needs of people in tangible, logical, and meaningful ways”.
Lamb’s “Green Shack”, which he worked on in association with artist Andrew Lord, illustrates how simple (yet innovative) design can be used as a tool to deal with physical and social problems. Some of the main concerns it deals with are fire, flooding and food security. The green vertical veggie gardens which grow on its north and west walls are its namesake. Lamb emphasises that the Green Shack is a representation of a set of ideas that are meant to instigate a “conversation’”. Design should be an iterative process that changes to incorporate a society’s needs. He also challenges the notion of what is “beautiful”. Is it a perfect geometric form, or the latest item of fashion, or is it something that responds to people’s real needs?
For me, as an architect, “people-centred” design is about broadening our perception of what architecture actually is and what role architects should play in society. “People-centred” design is about allowing people to “own” their buildings, whether it be new community centres or their own homes. These should be places where people feel that they belong and are recognised. It’s about allowing each person to hold their own concept of “home” within themselves whatever that may be and whatever form that may take.
Design is powerful because we have the ability to create connection in tangible ways. We can affect change in the now by applying our knowledge of space. It’s not necessarily an easy task, and Spies says that “we will probably never master this slightly ‘utopian’ idea of people-centred architecture entirely”, but through an iterative process that challenges and questions conventions, we can make a start.
I was privileged to attend the “switching on” of the rooftop solar power system at Blue Jay Farm, Stellenbosch, owned by the Timberlea Farming Trust. We have an interesting situation in the agricultural industry in South Africa at the moment. With projected electricity hikes at 8% per year (and possibly more in future) farmers are seriously starting to thinking about the financial case of continuing to run power hungry and inefficient cooling rooms for fruit. European retailers at the end export supply chain are also starting to put pressure on suppliers at farm level to become more sustainable. In addition, the last few years have seen a dramatic decrease in the prices of Solar PV panels. Farmers are now “seeing the light” and thinking seriously about renewable energy options. Solar power is an obvious choice as we have an abundance of sunlight in South Africa. It’s also a fairly simple technology compared to some other types of renewable energy sources (wind, bio digesters, hydro, etc).
Blue Jay is one of the several farms installing rooftop solar systems and it’s exciting to see this kind of “sustainable thinking” starting to take off. The solar panel system (by SolarWorld), which is situated on the north facing roofs of their sheds, will supplement 30% of the farm’s electricity consumption with 127Kwp of electricity. This will save them in the region of R153 000 per year.
What impressed me about Timberlea is their holistic approach to sustainability. There are other much larger farms implementing much larger systems around the Western Cape but for Timberlea it’s not just a business case. Yes, it makes financial sense which is ultimately a powerful driver, but they have other environmental and social systems in place which set an example for excellent practice.
I had a tour around the packing house with Operations Manager, Sandra Jeffery, and was given the opportunity to watch the ladies sorting the different fruits – not as simple as it seems. Two important truths I learnt: firstly “pink lady” apples are priced according to the concentration of red pigmentation, however they all taste the same (I hope I haven’t given away a trade secret); secondly, only women are employed to sort fruit as they are better multi-taskers and better able to discern the good quality fruit than men (yes men, t’is true!). Not surprisingly the best of the Grade 1 fruit goes to UK retailers such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose as well as Woolworths in SA. The one’s we see on our supermarket shelves are much less sparkly though hopefully they still taste as good. In the past, any fruits that were deemed “unsellable” were discarded but these days they are pulped into the freshest fruit juice that is also preservative free (and completely yummy). I watched the pulping machine as it squeezed out as much liquid as possible, leaving a trail of mushed up bits of apple peel and pips (I have to say it but it looked a little like something else). This uh... mushy stuff is then used to make compost for the fields.
As a social project they have provided employment for a gaggle of geese who scour the fields for pests and tasty morsels. No need for harmful pesticides. They generate a lot of “waste” paper from the backings of the packet labels but discovered that their team of hungry worms is particularly happy to eat up this paper and turn it into soil enriching nutrients.
In terms of “human” social sustainability they pay their workers well and have incentive and commission schemes in place which increase productivity. They also provide an extra mural programme for their children (particularly in maths and languages) in a media centre at the back of the farm. There is even a chess club.
The mayor of Stellenbosch made an inspiring (off the cuff) speech before the switch was flipped on the solar system and the power began to roll. He explained that the Stellenbosch Municipality has a vision for the area to be one the “greenest” municipalities in the country. “It’s all about partnerships,” he said. “Let us work together. Government tend to be part of the problem because we are highly regulated. But we have an open mind and are moving away from that kind of thinking in order to be part of the solution”. Before the factory workers sang Nkosi Sikelele to end the celebration (which indeed it was), he commended Timberlea for being one of the pioneers in helping the municipality to realise this dream. This is the start of putting our priorities (nature and sustainability) in the right order; of “putting our geese in a row”.
I'm always keen to jump on anything that rides on the sustainability bandwagon. So I found myself at the Accelerate Cape Town/KPMG Sustainability Forum last wednesday (June 19). The catch phrase that seemed to come up over and over was "future proofing" and that I believe is what sustainability is really about. It's about responding to problems we have now in such a way that we are not being reactive but forward thinking and proactive. Gone are the days when the world used to think climate change, and running out of critical energy supplies and water, would be far beyond our generational reach. We're hardly talking about decades here, in the next few years (in fact now) we are reaching critical shortages. It's just that people are denying it, or worse yet they are ignorant - and that there is no excuse for.
Design changes and innovations seem like the easy part when we are actually trying to budge people's stubborn "business as usual" mindsets.However, the commercial building industry is becoming increasingly and remarkably forward thinking with regards to reaching towards and going beyond energy efficiency goals. Sarah Rushmere of the Green Buildings Council SA revealed statistics that show clear exponential growth in the number of buildings that are going for Green Star accreditation - the number of accredited buildings in South Africa to climb to 100 by 2014. She also explained that energy efficient buildings out perform conventional buildings by about 4-7%. It's quite trendy nowadays to be able to don the Green Star badge, but it's a trend that is producing a set of successfully robust energy efficient buildings.
No. 1 Silo - Allan Gray Building at the V&A Waterfront (Case Study) (images from www.siloblog.co.za)
Michael Smith of Allan Gray (tennant) and Mark Noble of V&A Waterfront (landlord) presented the energy efficient aspects of their new building called No.1 Silo. They are going for a Six Star GBC rating. They spent a lot of time attending courses and forums to learn about best practices in the field. They also visited Australia to see 15 of the top buildings there, speaking to designers, developers and facilities managers to find out what worked and what didn't. An "eye opener", says Smith, was that there were a lot of complex and quite gimmicky strategies that didn't actually work. They playfully termed this "green bling". So they decided that it was essential that the strategies they used would be tried and tested. "Simple is better than complicated", added Smith. Sustainability is also quite specific to the site and requirements of each building therefore concepts should not just be copied. |Most importantly, the building should minimise the negative impact on the environment, whilst enhancing the positive. They also looked at the social side of sustainability. All of these goals would remain in sight whilst keeping in mind maximum return on investment.
Noble explains how this building has been a catalyst to kickstart the new "Silo District" at the V&A Waterfront (the area around the clock tower). They emphasised how the approach to the creation of the building was through partnership, in terms of developing a dynamic landlord/tenant relationship. This symbiotic approach extended through to the design team and professional consultants. Smith emphasises that its important to challenge conventional wisdom and push the boundaries. In all aspects they stuck to the vision of creating something simple, robust and reliable. "Don't be afraid to ask the stupid questions", concludes Noble. It is in asking these questions that one is able to come up with intelligent solutions. Instead of a "green" building, they call it a RED building which stands for Resource Efficient Design. We'll look forward to seeing the completed building this year.
Hotel Verde - Africa's "greenest" hotel?
(images from hotelverde.com)
Andre Harms of Ecolution Consulting, is heading up the sustainability initiatives at the currently under construction, Hotel Verde, situated in the precinct of the Cape Town International Airport. It's been dubbed "Africa's greenest hotel", which will be evidenced upon its completion this year.
The design makes use of basic passive principles such as giving most of the rooms north and east facing outlooks in order to maximise light and warmth. These facades face onto a luscious retention pond and green area beyond, where jogging trails have been incorporated for the guests. Solar panels on the north facing facade generate power as well as providing shading for windows. The entrance foyer and lobby have a green roof which not only increases thermal insulation but also encourages plant life and biodiversity. The greening also comes inside the building to the foyer and restaurant spaces where plants will be grown on vertical "green" walls.
Once the concrete slabs of the building have been laid, they will conceal plastic cobiax balls which are used as "void-forming spheres" to reduce the amount of concrete required in the slabs. They are strategically placed so as to not affect the structural integrity of the building. Over 51 000 cobiax balls have been used in the project, which saves about 600 cubic metres of concrete! Another innovative system implemented (a first in Africa) is a geothermal looping system below the basement that is coupled with heat pumps. This provides hot water for the building.
Other sustainable strategies that have been implemented are rainwater capture and use for irrigation purposes, a grey water plant that supplies water for flushing of toilets, high performance double glazed windows and a lift that makes use of gravity in order to reduce its power consumption by 30%. 3 large wind turbines in front of the porte cochere on the west side which will generate power although Harms is quite candid in explaining that the payback period is long, so they are more of a gesture to nature powered energy than a financial investment. Green bling? Perhaps. Guests are given incentives to turn off their air conditioners and reuse their towels. They can also spend an hour in the gym to generate enough power to make half a cup of tea!
Projected energy savings for the building are approximately 50% (according to a conservative industry benchmark) but they will likely be more as proper testing can take place when the building is complete. There are no GBC Green Star standards for hotels yet so they are applying for an international LEED gold rating. The date of completion will be in August. How long will it remain the greenest hotel? Hopefully it will be the catalyst for a greener future in the hospitality industry.
Continuing the conversation
The morning wound up with a short presentation from Sarah Ward from City of Cape Town who spoke about the city's work on a Resource Efficient Development policy for new commercial buildings. There is often a strong alliance between politics and development which makes policy change difficult. There is also a delicate balance between pushing energy efficiency whilst managing the revenue the city receives from electricity sales - this is money that goes into essential infrastructure and important city initiatives. It's something that can't change overnight. Many initiatives such as the Smart Building handbooks, which focus mainly on retrofitting and behaviour change, the Energy Efficiency Forum, and the Awards programme are positive advances.
Sally-Anne Kasner presented EcoStandard who are developing standards against which products that claim to be "green" can be tested. Ryan Alexander, from Aurecon, spoke about their 5 Star green building in Century City. He stressed that one of the most important factors in a building's success, is the management of the building post construction. He also emphasised that everything works within context. For example, the building uses rainwater for flushing of toilets which works well in the rainy season but is an issue in the dry summer when water is scarce. A building does cannot exist in isolation. There is a greater climatic, social and economic context that is unique and needs to be addressed as such. It's not just "copy and paste".
On that note, Tony Wright from KPMG, reinforced the theme of "future proofing" and the importance of long term investment, which is what sustainable thinking should always consider. We should be challenging convention whilst also applying pragmatism. Although business is competitive there is opportunity to learn from and emulate others, which creates a meaningful ripple effect.
It's exciting to be part of the sustainability movement as it gathers momentum and indeed accelerates us towards a better (and greener) Cape Town.
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My thoughts as I go about visiting interesting places, attending exhibitions and conferences, and the architectural world we live in.