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Green Housing Complexes November 23, 2007

Posted by grimmeister in Uncategorized.
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In South Africa, there is a housing phenomenon called “complexes”. These commonly occur in the form of several storey townhouses; separate, but closely packed bungalows {simplexes}; or double storey bungalows {duplexes}.  Complexes characteristically exist behind a large, electric fence topped wall, creating in effect, a walled community. Usually, complexes are built on greenfield sites, sometimes on brownfield sites (like near landfills, in some obnoxious cases), or  on previously huge suburban properties which have been subdivided. The image below (1mb), of a middle class suburban part of northern Johannesburg  demonstrates the pattern quite well (thanks Google Earth, I can see my car!).

suburban pattern

They are increasingly pervasive for reasons of 1) perceived security, 2) convenience and 3) cost. More cynically, land developers also push the building of such places for reasons of profit, driven by own-to-rent speculators. The kind of title under which homeowners often acquire them is ‘sectional title’. I am definitely no boffin when it comes to such legal concepts, but I see several obvious implications of such title:

  • It is difficult to change the structure of such homes, especially external;
  • Any changes have to be agreed to by ‘body corporates’ ;
  • There is perceived value in keeping up standards of appearance;

I started thinking about how such complexes could be  made more environmentally friendly and about how difficult this would be to achieve. I will discuss a few things in context of the earlier image.

On the positive side, as far as I understand it,  complexes concentrate people and make it easier in theory to supply services to, like roads, water, sewerage and power. If everyone aspired to or expected a suburban house like can be seen on the right hand side of the picture, a city like Joburg would be spreading at a scarier rate than it already is, threatening the peri-urban fringe and making us all even more reliant on cars than we already are. A reasonably spacious (often older) complex is appx three times denser in terms of houses than a similar sized patch of suburban houses.

There is a flipside to some of these issues and a whole host of others. The increased densification puts pressure on existing services – this area is subject to power blackouts, the roads are more congested and damaged by the increased flow of traffic, and the water supply has had to be re-engineered. In the push to house people, the biodiversity of the area (rich, by the way – try bullfrogs and grassland birds for a wee little snifter) is put under huge pressure, and the greenbelt surrounding the city is eroded,leading to produce having to be shipped in from further away, thereby increasing transport costs. Furthermore, the South African housing construction idiom is bricks and concrete. Termites would annihilate untreated wooden structures. The environmental impact of this is the transport costs of bringing in construction materials and the energy usage in producing them. In addition, the impermeable surface of a given area is increased, leading to increased and more acute runoff, a real concern given Joburg’s rainfall arrives in the form of torrential thunderstorms.

So, what could be done? Solutions seem  so simple. I am not sure they are, as I do not understand  all the engineering and economics behind the built environment, but here goes a few obvious ideas.

1.) Google’s data suppliers would have few issues in getting satellite imagery. Aside from afternoon and evening thunderstorms, the sun beats down strongly, happily  and abundantly. With great conviction, I can opine that none of the complexes in the image use solar energy in a planned way. One or two homeowners may have solar heated swimming pools, but few would have solar geysers. Look at all the roof space – where are the solar panels?

2.) Where are the rainwater tanks to capture runoff from all these roofs? People water their gardens and fill their pools from their taps. Surely it makes environmental sense to reduce runoff and actually use rainwater domestically?

3.) How about this – can’t a complex have a vegetable garden? This not only provides for some food requirements, but imagine the possibilities for educating children about farming, nature and one of life’s virtues, patience. Also, I suspect a vegetable garden, if properly designed, could provide a sanctuary for people. Most of these complexes have some common land, often barely utilised. Grow some crops I say!!! Reduce our reliance on vegetables grown far away and heaved in by smelly trucks. Along similar lines, what about a complex compost heap and/or earthworm farm for recycling organic material. This would provide goodness for the veggie patch and for peoples gardens.

4.) This is far fetched, but I know it is possible, as a friend in the area is doing exactly this with an addition to his house – build houses out of local material using sustainable building practices (rammed earth walling for e.g.)

5.) Put double glazed windows and roof insulation in the houses to reduce use of aircon in summer and heaters in winter.

I am sure there are other ideas.

Trouble is, generating the will amongst homeowners, land developers, and body corporates seems a huge mountain to climb. Will a body corporate allow homeowners to install solar panels/ geysers, windmills, watertanks, double-glazed windows etc, given that sectional title almost implies an ‘all-for-one, one-for-all’ approach? Tell the average homewoner that they could quite happily have a solid house built of sand and mud largely sourced from the earth turned over to build that very house and you will surely get a strange questioning look at the least. Forget most property developers! The chase for profit means that the complexes need to be built as rapidly as possible using the means that are known to builders (bricks and concrete). As for a vegetable garden – well, wouldn’t that mess up the nice symmetry of the lawn and attract rats? Heaven forbid that a complex have a compost heap!

Complexes provide a  small opportunity to develop  some of the more ecologically friendly aspects of community living – I am pessimistic about the chances of this happening though. I will report on how some of these ideas are received, as I have just become a trustee of my own body corporate. Some socialist leaning friends of mine found themselves working for bastions of capitalism in the form of the business press. When queried about this apparent mismatch, they said they would fight the revolution from within, and always wear red socks to work. Can I fight the green complex revolution from within and wear 100% organic cotton socks? Who knows, but at least the socks are easy.

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