We can all take green action

(this column first Appeared in The Herald on 7 August 2013)

I spent last Sunday afternoon strolling around the exhibits at the Homemakers fair in Port Elizabeth. I had a reasonable cappuccino, did not lose any children and managed to cleverly avoid a route that passed by the super expensive leather lounge suite my wife has had her eye on.  All in all, not too terrible an outing. But as I drove home on that wintry afternoon, I caught myself harbouring curious, little, almost subconscious feelings of guilt for not buying all the cool and trendy “green” home improvement technologies on offer. I shrugged off the guilt very quickly as I came to see for the first time that we have been lead very cleverly into a trap of believing that climate change is our fault because we have not bought the latest vacuum tube solar water geyser, or the rainwater harvester with in- line UV sanitizing, or the super efficient wind turbine with deep cycle batteries. We have somehow allowed ourselves to be conned into believing that in order to solve the problem on years of excessive consumption, we have to buy more stuff!

 I love all of these new technologies. They are so much fun. It gives a sense that all of us are pioneering a new path in some way. But, there is a lot more that we can do to bring about greener buildings. No, I don’t think its practical that we all start living in houses made of coke bottles and Checkers packets and I don’t think that we should feel guilty about not being “hippy” enough to do it.
The action that ordinary working people can take has much more to do with the choices we make than the new things we buy. Allow me to give some practical examples. Walk into your boss’s office and ask if the building has had an air tightness

test done, showing “leakage rate of less than 15 cub m/hr/sqm at relative pressure of 50 Pa”. Explain to your boss that an air tight building requires less heating and less cooling and therefor uses much less electricity, therefore burns less coal, therefore causes less climate change.

Or how about this? In your next job interview ask what percentage of the space is “naturally ventilated in accordance with SANS 10400”. Explain you anticipate receiving more than one job offer and one of the factors that will help you choose is the Indoor Environmental Quality of your future place of work.  Or perhaps when you choose a school for your child, be sure that you select  one that offers 60% or more of its teaching spaces with a “daylight factor of not less than 2% at desk height under a uniform design sky”. You don’t even need to know exactly what this stuff means (I have put a comprehensive looking list on the Urban Circle Blog. This may help).
By taking these actions you get two things to happen. Firstly you can make an informed decision and vote with your feet, letting the market slowly isolate the big property owners who are not getting with the programme and rewarding those that are. Secondly you are sending a clear message with each action that Green Building issues such as these need to be put on the agenda of these large organisations, that these are not just “nice to haves”, but “must haves”.
Next time you buy a house or rent a flat tell the agent you only want to see properties that comply with SANS 204: 2008 (energy efficiency in buildings). If a thousand of us or even a hundred of us start doing this, property developers will very quickly begin to respond.  When you sign up for a gym membership make sure the gym uses harvested rainwater to flush its toilets and to irrigate its garden. If there is no gym that does this, then choose the one that promises to do it in the shortest period of time.
Many of these actions are longer term and slower moving, but what you can do today to reduce greenhouse gases is to walk from your office to the ATM. Walk from your home to the supermarket. Take a bus to the Library. Walk to the post office. If your place of work is not within 400 m of an ATM, a post office and a supermarket, get another job. If you are a business person looking for new premises, choose one within walking distance of public transport and the basic amenities people need every day. In this way we reduce the number of cars and the emissions they cause. We will reduce the amount of electricity required to process the steel to make these cars. We will reduce the amount of petrochemical asphalt required to build the roads on which we drive these cars up and down.
What I think I am saying is, don’t underestimate the value of the action you can take every day. These actions all help toward the creation of greener buildings and a greener city. If you can buy the expensive new technologies that make you home greener, please do. If you can live in a house made of re-cycled plastic, please do. But if you can’t do those things right now, don’t feel guilty. There is a lot you can do to get the big guys in business and government to take notice and to change things around.
Start today.
THC 1 08 13

Author: Tim Hewitt-Coleman

The World can be a better place.... But how? Taking the debate beyond the political, beyond the theoretical into the real economy, into the physical and spatial dimension where cities, landscapes and livelihoods take form.

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