By Sue Blaine

Exploiting the benefits that “green” architecture brings‚ South Africa’s larger companies‚ and the government‚ are opting more and more for environmentally friendly buildings.

“It’s very empowering for architecture‚ because now we look at it in a different way. The ongoing maintenance‚ the entire life of a building is as important as the object itself. It’s the same as cars. We used to buy on look and feel‚ now we ask about fuel consumption and the maintenance plan‚” says architect Eric Noir‚ who founded sustainability consultancy WSP Green by Design and is director of the International Union of Architects’ responsible architecture in Africa programme.

Green buildings may cost about 10% more to construct‚ but as utility prices rise‚ payback time shortens. Although Standard Bank points out that the cost premium on its new offices in Rosebank‚ Johannesburg‚ was more like 3%. Settling on a figure is difficult because doing so depends on the baseline used.

Whatever the premium‚ Standard Bank group sustainability manager Karin Ireton says going green with the Rosebank building made sense — “you are anyway building for the long term and the pressure to be more efficient and cost effective isn’t going to go away”.

The building‚ opened last year‚ received a five-star rating from the Green Building Council of South Africa‚ which uses complex criteria to award “green stars” to architecture that reduces a building’s environmental effect.

Buildings star-rated by the council make up the “top 25%” of South Africa’s green buildings‚ says Mr Noir. Two years ago new building regulations were introduced in South Africa‚ but star-rated buildings often go beyond the call of duty.

While computer technology has most radically changed architecture — modelling allows architects to determine whether particular designs will stand the test of time — environmental considerations are also getting a look-in.

“Buildings look distinctly different. You can not only design in curvaceous ways‚ you can build them as well. We’re only into the second decade of computers in architecture‚ it’s like a kid that has found a new toy.… In the past we designed purely on aesthetic considerations. Future buildings will have to look how they work‚” says Hugh Fraser‚ spokesman for Paragon Architects‚ as he explains how Alexander Forbes’s four-star Sandton headquarters “scoops” the sun into the building on the sides where it is indirect‚ and mitigates its glare where it is direct.

Johannesburg’s central business district has moved to Sandton‚ which Green Building Council programme manager Jo Anderson‚ an architect‚ says is perhaps South Africa’s most in-your-face example of the hustle to green.

“It’s very slick‚ not some hippie dream‚” she says.

Since Nedbank opened South Africa’s first green star-rated building in October 2009‚ South Africa has seen 50 star-rated buildings rising — nearly a million square metres of environmentally friendly real estate. There are 150 projects in the pipeline.

Nedbank’s fifth green building is being planned. Its property services head‚ Charl de Kock‚ says the bank is keen to maintain its carbon-neutral status — important to Nedbank because it has positioned itself as South Africa’s “green and caring” bank. It has achieved carbon-neutral status — where greenhouse gas emissions are zero — through “offsets”‚ reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases made to compensate for emissions elsewhere. But this is expensive‚ adding to the business case for green buildings — the more your carbon footprint is reduced the less you pay for offsets‚ says Mr de Kock.

In energy-starved South Africa‚ reducing grid reliance gets top marks for companies on the green scorecard. For MTN SA‚ Absa and Standard Bank this has meant a journey into “tri-generation”‚ a system in which the concurrent production of electrical and heat energy‚ as well as cooling‚ from natural gas is almost a no-brainer.

“We weighed up the options. We knew we could get a gas feed… We are not off the grid‚ but we have a belt-and-braces attitude to electricity supply‚ because if we go down it has very serious consequences for us‚ our clients and the economy‚” says Ms Ireton.

Green design is transforming other markets too — Nedbank’s Phase 2 building in Sandton is what prompted Plascon to develop the low volatile organic compound paint that helped the headquarters gain their four-star rating‚ and is now available to the public.

There has also been radical development in the glass industry‚ glass being the easiest way to moderate heat in a building‚ says Mr Fraser.

“We’re working on Sasol’s new (Sandton) headquarters … the glass panels are going to be lovely‚” he says of the building‚ due to open in the second half of 2016. It will be clad with panels of glass that make it look as if it is painted.

At Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront the six-star No>thin<1 Silo building‚ which is to house the Museum of Contemporary African Art‚ will take things a step further — the glass facade is to incorporate two different kinds of solar photovoltaic energy generation‚ while still allowing light into the building.

Getting natural light and fresh air into buildings encourage the use of large atriums in these enormous edifices — Sasol’s new offices are intended to house between 3‚000 and 4‚000 employees and there are about 5‚000 in the Rosebank Standard Bank.

Sasol’s building is designed for 10 litres per second per person of fresh air‚ double that required by regulations.

“Light is the one thing you hear staff talk about. They keep saying it is so amazing to work in a building that feels so light and airy‚” says Ms Ireton.

“And the fresh air…. We have moved away from those old buildings we used to work in that keep the world out there.

“I think it’s a psychological change that promotes a different way of working.”

Research the world over shows employees‚ especially younger‚ educated ones‚ looking for more in a job than a desk and a title. These people want to work for companies that go the extra mile‚ both for them and for the environment.

“One word comes up a lot — lifestyle‚” says Mr Fraser.

“It has to do with the understanding that happy workers are good workers. And women. Women’s role in the market is maturing and if they can return to work after a few months and bring the baby with them‚ they are happier‚ so big corporations are bringing in creches‚ but also better food choices‚ gyms and even shopping and ancillary services like dry cleaning.”