Nina Maritz, founder, Nina Maritz Architects

Q: You recently received the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in Paris, the fourth African architect to win it. How do you interpret the awards’ theme ‘architecture as an agent of civic empowerment’?
A: No architecture is politically neutral, however much we may fool ourselves into thinking so. Architects must decide whether to impact negatively or positively on civic life; on the activities of people within their urban or rural context. The design process and the design itself can either help people become stronger and more confident, particularly in claiming their rights and taking control of their own lives, or it can prevent it.

Such empowerment also comes from designing buildings that are not a burden on a community’s natural resources or capacity to manage and maintain them, but more importantly, bring positive benefit in terms of education, health, economic opportunity and so on.

Q: What needs to be done to increase the profile of sustainable design in community development in Namibia?
A: Sustainability is often seen as an added expense, and as development is so sorely needed and funding is so little, it gets ignored. The onus is on construction consultants to better understand sustainability, so that they can advise clients and users that truly sustainable design need not cost more, but can often be cheaper.

Now that we are experiencing an economic downturn, it is an opportunity for consultants to convince clients of the necessity of sustainability, through using economic arguments, and to educate themselves more on the advantages of a sustainable design approach.

When it comes to community development, these are the most vulnerable groups and already severely affected by climate change and other environmental destruction. So I have found NGOs and communities in general much more receptive to the concept of sustainability.

Q: What is the state of sustainable design and construction on the continent generally?
A: Frankly? Not good. There are many architects, such as the well-known Francis Diébédo Kéré, Kunlé Adeyemi, Mokene Makeka and others doing incredible work but, in general, it is ‘business as usual’, completely ignoring the climate-change elephant in the room. Yet again, Africa is lagging behind; we are repeating the same mistakes that have been made in the developed world from the 1960s to the millennium, creating unimaginative tract housing, statement villas, monuments to capital and power, and what one can call ‘commercial tat’, only a fraction of which addresses sustainability in even the smallest way.

Q: You are a founder member of the Green Building Council of Namibia. What is your vision for the country’s sustainable design industry?
A: It should not be a separate industry, but everyday practice. I would love to see a future where all buildings are so sustainable, resilient and regenerative, that there is no need for a Green Building Council anymore. In the meantime, the GBCNA and other initiatives are mechanisms to get there.

As the format of GBC membership and certification can be costly, we need to work on a system that would encourage more parties to go green, in as many ways as possible. I’d like to see a healthy balance between passive design techniques (where design aspects of buildings are inherently sustainable) and sophisticated technology, which can ‘tweak’ a building to optimum performance. They can work well together, but applying technology without first maximising the passive design is not sustainable. The developing interest in design among the younger generation has the potential to create unique home-grown solutions.

Q: How can the use of water best be incorporated into building design?
A: For a start, don’t build where there is a serious risk of water running out completely. Question the water source’s sustainability, as well as the uses that water will be put to. Harvest rainwater, with a lot of storage capacity to optimally exploit our short rainy season – not as an add-on to be omitted when budgets get tight, but a non-negotiable.

Install all the standard water-saving systems, high- or low-tech, and recycle greywater. It would be great if we could eliminate waterborne sewage completely and rely on dry toilets only. A lot of water can be used in cleaning large, glossy surfaces, for example, so materials that are more forgiving in concealing dust make more sense.

The design can subtly encourage sparing use by making water-using systems more visible (such as hand-wash areas in public passages); incorporating inventive signage (including very visible metering); and streamlining processes such as large-scale dishwashing. Xeriscaping [which reduces or eli- minates the need for supplemental water for irrigation] with indigenous landscaping is a given.

Q: How are alternative construction methods useful in rural or remote projects?
A: Using locally available materials is a logical response to context, as they have minimal embodied energy and fit in better aesthetically. Employing unskilled local labour keeps the funds in the community and creates a better identification with the buildings. Alternative construction has incredible properties that we tend to forget: stone gabions or earth walls (adobe, rammed earth, sandbags) perform thermally much better than conventional materials; are much less expensive; and are easier to repair, maintain and extend.

Properly designed, structures can be more resilient and adapt to soil subsidence, tectonic movement, extreme temperature and humidity variations. They also age a lot more gracefully.

By Ilze-Mari Gründling
Image: Janine Petzer

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