Sustaining the Future: Interpreting “sustainable design” in the South African context.

December 23, 2013 • Glimpses, Print, South Africa • Views: 1580

By Sophie Grais

A garage door — when closed, the canvas of intricate graffiti — opens into the light, airy studio of Cameron Barnes, an independent furniture designer based in Cape Town’s up-and-coming Woodstock neighborhood. The usual suspects line the walls: power tools, test pieces, woods of various hues and tones. Here, though, something stands out: Barnes selects only local alien species of timber for his work — nothing indigenous, nothing imported. His reasoning is part of his core business principle: sustainable construction.

The term “sustainability,” especially in the United States, can bring immediate connotations and a laundry list of buzzwords: solar panels, LEED certification, organic food. Often dismissed as implausible, expensive, impractical, it seems in some ways a surprising trend in South Africa. Nevertheless, the country’s movement toward sustainability in energy, architecture, and other areas has recently gained considerable momentum. In 2007, South Africa joined the World Green Building Council, an organization of 92 member countries that advocates for sustainable architecture in corporate building. In 2014, Cape Town will be the World Design Capital (WDC), home to a year’s worth of events related to architecture and design. The theme “Today For Tomorrow: Sustainable Solutions for People and Planet” will be the backdrop for many of the WDC events and projects. Not only planet, but also people — indeed, a more holistic view of sustainability would acknowledge its vast social implications. Green building could bring significant changes to both the physical and socioeconomic South African landscape.

Solar panels cover a market near the Victoria and Albert Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa (Grais/TYG).

Solar panels cover a market near the Victoria and Albert Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa (Grais/TYG).

Despite the common American perception, sustainability need not imply fancy materials or high-cost measures, Barnes explained in his studio on a quiet afternoon. He highlighted the different lenses through which sustainability can be seen: most notably, its social dimensions and its relationship to issues of socioeconomic inequality. “It’s easy to understand, in some sense, why all the high-tech stuff gets more coverage. It’s a lot flashier, it’s a lot more different… The face that sustainability should take, in broader terms, is always choosing what’s site-appropriate, or what’s appropriate for that immediate area,” he said. These considerations would include availability and abundance of the materials in question — local materials that meet these criteria are often much cheaper to use than expensive, fancy imports. But sustainability also carries great social influence: in areas of high unemployment, the selection of labor-intensive construction materials could provide more people with work and the opportunity to learn valuable skills. “Rather than just giving someone a house, you could be teaching them how to build a house or providing a material palette that works in that immediate area,” Barnes continued.

With South Africa’s immense need for affordable housing, these social dimensions of sustainability prove especially valuable. In 1994, its fledgling post-apartheid democracy established the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) to address the great disparities in wealth and services across the country, including the availability of affordable housing. A 2009 report published by the South African government stated that at the time, 12.8 percent of South Africans lived in RDP homes or other housing subsidized by the state.

Any discussion of implementing sustainable architecture on a national scale, then, must acknowledge what psychologist and Harvard professor of engineering sciences Beth Altringer calls “the equality question.” Altringer received her Master’s degree in architecture at the University of Cape Town and worked on a housing upgrading project in a South African township with ARG Design, a South African company. “The South African government had promised everyone a house. We [had] that budget, which is tiny, and the goal [was] moving people to safer, cleaner, more dignified housing.” She emphasized the need to consider the site-specific needs of residents and the larger social questions inherent in sustainable construction. “Before people were using the term human-centered design, that’s basically what we were doing, going into the community and really understanding what their needs were instead of making the assumption of what their needs might be,” she said.

In Cape Town’s townships, many homes use solar-powered water heaters (Grais/TYG).

In Cape Town’s townships, many homes use solar-powered water heaters (Grais/TYG).

Projects like Altringer’s generally happen independent of the South African government; for the most part, the RDP and other government programs have their own familiar methods of building. Barnes explained that these habits would be hard to change, that “they have the ways of building in place, they’re rolling things out, and so the motivation to change at this point isn’t great enough.” The complicated politics of South Africa’s young democracy leaves much for consideration, including possible hope for the future. “There’s still a lot to figure out and a lot of it comes down to financing and politics. There is a lot more wealth in South Africa and if that wealth can be allocated at least in part to making steady progress on this, then that I think is the degree to which that will change,” Altringer said. The movement toward sustainability, then, is just one lens through which to see the potential for progress in South Africa: greater equality and distribution of wealth and resources, the changes still to come.

Sophie Grais ’14 is an English major in Silliman College. She can be reached at

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