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Richard Stretton on the real-life implications of a ‘green’ architectural practice

Published at: 22 July 2015

4Tomorrow caught up with Afrisam-SAIA Award for Sustainable Architecture luminary Richard Stretton of Koop design in the lead-up to this year’s award.

Over the phone Richard Stretton, two-time winner of the Afrisam-SAIA Award for Sustainable Architecture, is very clearly frustrated - not with the fact that we called during the middle of his day, but because he isn’t where he thought he would be with the project he proposed by the time we call. We asked him to expand on the few thoughts we happened to catch on paper during the call.

Sustainability as privilege

Poor people live sustainable lives. They don’t have running water to waste, electricity to burn; and if they do they have small houses and limited resources. They recycle, produce less waste, consume less. It is not the poor who contribute to carbon emission.

The cost of making industry, the functioning of city and the preservation of nature is the responsibility of the wealthy nations and people who have profited from the plunder of resources for centuries. The same countries and organisations have profited from the abuse of humans. It should be noted that sustainability is a balance of human, environmental, social and economic well being, not just the reduction in the consumption of energy or water.

It costs a bit more to build if you want to use less electricity or water. Lighting technology that uses less power, mechanical systems (heating and cooling) that are water and energy efficient, cost more than old inefficient technology. Developers are often unwilling to make these investments. We need to show them the long term benefit of happy people, lower operating costs and healthy environments.

> Richard mentions that his research into sustainability, for which he was awarded the Afrisam-SAIA Award for Sustainable Architecture, finally amounted to a building that was meant to be built. The problem, Richard tells us, is that it hasn’t been.

What is stopping moving the project you proposed forward?

On a national level, we continue to produce apartheid townships instead of proper villages where all aspects of human life are catered for. So we have a national policy issue with the way we still roll out housing on greenfields sites far from where work and social services are provided.

We have so many existing cities or towns throughout the country - I will take Warden, as an example, on the N3 between Durban and Joburg. It is undeveloped to its potential with lots of vacant sites all through the town, however we are expanding the township outside of town - see image from Google Earth - without developing the town itself for people who would successfully use the schools, shops, water and electricity that are already available there. Is the town itself too good for the people of the township, still, 25 years after apartheid was thrown out?

Furthermore our procurement system supports the corporate control of the economy - the construction industry is monopolised, skills are not being developed or expanded. We build with an ever shrinking set of skills and this reduces jobs and the capacity for people to start small businesses.

You’ve said that you can’t just do sustainability as, “a strap-on-solar-panel project”.

As stated above, this is about quality of life, supporting the complex function of human life.

We don’t just eat, sleep, fuck and shit but the housing we provide only provides for this - at best.

If we are doing commercial developments we cannot only support major retailers. Having anchor tenants for shopping malls is critical according to the commercial banking sector but we need to develop environments in the rural centres where all the new malls are being built that stimulate local economy, skills etc - so the laws governing banking and investment are not contributing to our economic freedom - see point above re holding back.

‘Green’ as a tool for marketing batteries and solar panels

Well yes - isn’t that simply what it is. I have many private clients who complain about redundancy of equipment. Where does this get recycled? We need to design buildings that function passively to provide healthy living environments - spaces that support dignified human existence, naturally lit and ventilated, simple systems for the storage and recycling of water.

I heard at a conference a few years ago that 90% of sustainability is simple fluid dynamics and intelligent design. The equipment only adds 10% to the effectiveness.

We don’t need all the strap on attachments to make cities sustainable.

Research vs. implementation issues in South Africa

We need to change the attitude of implementing people and organisations. We cannot tolerate wealthy developers building unhealthy environments. The latest proposal for the Durban Point - by the city of Durban with Malaysian investors is case in point. We have great global understanding about locally relevant architecture, success to public open space. However, we are planning an exclusive private enclave on our greatest public assets - the Durban beachfront with a row of glass towers lining the beachfront.

The architecture is inappropriate in finish and form, the buildings will cast shadows and limit public access to the beach and areas behind. Major developments of this nature should be built in the principle of the NDP (national development plan) and in fact be beacons of it so that we can see it in action. Turning our public spaces into exclusive-use zones for the privileged is just more apartheid planning.

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