The construction of one of the world’s most futuristic buildings, in terms of kindness to the environment, happened as an afterthought to the R22.5 billion ($2.6 billion) deal that four years ago saw UK-based multinational cellular operator Vodafone gather a 65% controlling share in South Africa’s Vodacom.
Vodafone’s Innovation Centre, at its headquarters in Midrand, Johannesburg, opened at the beginning of this year. It is a seemingly unremarkable single-story, glass-and-wood structure designed to accommodate only around 12 researchers; but it has been awarded six stars by The Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA)— the only such rating achieved in this country and indeed all of Africa. The six stars denote it as a world leader.
The idea for the building took shape shortly after the mammoth cellular-phone share deal, when the two companies’ technical teams were to be integrated. According to Suraya Hamdulay, Vodacom’s executive head of corporate citizenship, the interdisciplinary task team planning the merger decided it would be nice for the innovators to do their research inside an innovative building.
The whole exercise fitted with Vodafone’s stated intention to, by 2020, reduce its carbon emissions by 50% against its 2006/7 baseline of 1.23 million tons, and to reduce emissions in its emerging markets by 20% in 2015 against a 2010/11 baseline.
It was decided to locate the facility in South Africa because—being both an emerging and a developed economy—it would help consolidate the group’s efforts across the board.
With its six-star rating, the Vodafone facility is at the spearhead of a growing trend in South Africa—as in most of the world’s developed countries and a few developing economies—towards environmentally friendly building practices. The global tendency took a decisive turn in 2002 with the launch of the World Green Building Council, a federation of national councils that was joined by South Africa’s in 2007.
The GBCSA says, on its website, that buildings are estimated to consume 40-50% of the world’s energy through their construction and operation. Green buildings can more than halve the energy use of conventional buildings, with similar reductions in potable water usage, runoff to sewer and solid waste. The council’s purpose is to promote green building, act as a resource center, develop and operate a green-building rating system and improve knowledge and skills through training and education.
The features that had it award the Vodafone Innovation Centre its highest rating are remarkable for their novelty and also for their simplicity. Designed with the help of WSP Environment & Energy South Africa, part of a leading international company, the innovation started with the very choice of a site and its preparation.
The building, reminding one somewhat of an unassuming wildlife lodge, is situated on what used to be a parking lot serving Vodacom’s adjacent headquarters. In the construction, as much use as possible was made of waste and discarded materials. Soil excavated for the foundations and second-hand tiles and reject stock bricks were used in the landscaping of the mainly indigenous garden and its pathways.
The whole purpose was to limit the use of concrete and cement to a minimum. Three layers of compacted soil separated by recycled plastic membranes form the foundations. Gabions resting on the layered foundations support the floor. Outside, air is cooled as it filters through the rock-filled wire-mesh baskets that form the gabions and serve to ventilate the building through vents along the sides.
The double-paned glass walls serve a variety of purposes. They reduce heat from outside and allow hot air trapped between them to escape through vents in the roof. By letting in natural light they limit the use of electric lighting. Bright light is dimmed by the building’s extended eaves and automatic blinds shut out direct sunlight. The see-through walls also create a sense of translucency, especially for those working inside who are able to look out into the garden.
Rain water from the roof goes into tanks from which it is used to flush the toilets and irrigate the garden. Inside the building is a small atrium serving as a wetland through which water from the sinks and basins get purified and re-used to flush the toilets.
The air-conditioning is done by an intricate system of solar tubes on the roof that pipe water into an absorption chiller and cooling coils from which it is passed through pipes in the floor and through cooling grids that are mounted in pot plants for the condensation to wet the plants. A spread of 292 photovoltaic panels, generating 230 kWh a day, drive fans that cool air by blowing it over the cold pipes.
No power-storage batteries are used. Through what is called virtual storage, excess electricity is diverted to Vodacom’s adjacent building to reduce its use of Eskom (the national electricity supplier) power by day. At night, the favor is returned in decidedly unequal measure by passing back such small amount of Eskom power as the Innovation Centre might need.
Even though it is mainly solar power that gets used, everything is designed to limit consumption. LED lighting is linked to motion sensors so that when nobody is in the building the lights will automatically switch off. The researchers work on laptops as they have been found to be the most power efficient.
“We are engineers, we have to have coffee. So we looked around for the most power-efficient coffee machine we could find,” says Etienne Gerber, the center’s program manager.
There’s a big new trend in building
The trend towards greener building is gathering pace in South Africa, as in a good many other countries, despite hard financial times. Since its establishment five years ago, the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) has already awarded 23 star ratings to buildings around the country. A further 34 buildings are in the pipeline for registration.
Rosanne Mitchell, the council’s marketing executive, says as consumers become more discerning and environmentally conscious, they will be the drivers of sustainable design and construction as well as greener building occupation. The building industry itself is changing. Green building practices used to be implemented by only a few companies. Now these are practically standard practice.
Vodafone’s Innovation Centre in Midrand is the only building to have been given six stars. Five more buildings have been awarded five stars for excellence, and seventeen have received four stars, which is for best practice.
The five five-star buildings are the Standard Bank in Rosebank, Absa Towers West in Johannesburg, the Aurecon Century City Campus in Cape Town, Millennia Park in Stellenbosch and the Sisonke District Offices in Ixopo, KwaZulu-Natal.
The GBCSA has over 1,000 member companies broadly representative of the private and some public sectors. Apart from developing its rating system, it has put more than 3,000 people through green building courses and accredited 400 green-building practitioners.
Mitchell says there are strong indications that more and more the construction industry and the corporate world will see green building as an inevitable part of business as usual. As with fire safety standards and disability access, sustainability will soon be taken for granted.
According to several recent surveys, it will become just the way we build.