Pietro Russo, architect and director, Ecomo

Q: What impact is the ‘Passivhaus’ movement – where care is taken to reduce the ecological footprint of buildings – having on the SA market?
A: It will take a very long time. In Europe, it has only begun to be implemented slowly over the past five to 10 years, depending on the country. In some places it’s compulsory and even incentivised. Here, we are only now shifting slowly towards a more eco-conscious way of building.

At this moment, 99% of people are still not prepared to pay extra for a solar system, double-glazing or any other way of construction that will minimise the consumption of energy to cool or heat their home. As long as there is no legislation in place, the Passivhaus concept is still very far from being a reality in SA.

Q: To what extent are South Africans buying into the idea of retrofitting homes to be more sustainable?
A: We generally change our outlook only once we are personally affected. Not until recently did individuals start thinking about catching rainwater or installing water-saving shower heads, because they were affected by the drought. They installed solar systems because they were affected by electricity hikes and, earlier, by load-shedding.

Q: Should it be mandatory for every household to retrofit their homes so they are more sustainable?
A: Yes, absolutely. Although people who can’t afford it should be subsidised or incentivised by the government. Every house should recycle their greywater to flush the toilet or use for irrigation. It is hard for me to comprehend that, with the drought, we still flush our toilets with drinking water. On the same note, why, with more than 300 days of sun a year, don’t we at least have solar geysers installed in all homes?

Q: Ecomo homes use timber, magnesium board and aluminium sheeting for the panels. What sort of maintenance is required?
A: When it comes to timber-cladding, we mainly use North American cedar or thermo-treated European wood, which needs no maintenance. At a client’s request, we can use a combination of wood with magnesium boards or aluminium-cladding material, neither of which requires maintenance other than re-painting every four to five years, exactly like a plastered wall.

Q: The pre-made Ecomo pods are fixed into concrete pile foundations, which require council approval. How long is the approval process?
A: It takes the exact same time as a conventional construction. Obviously it all depends on the municipality, but I would say around three months. Some of the more forward-thinking municipalities are more supportive of the fact that we try to build in a more eco-conscious way.

Q: Traditionally, timber is not used as the main material in the construction of SA houses. Are more companies using it now?
A: I think that worldwide there has been a shift towards timber construction, especially since the entry into the market of CLT [cross-laminated timber] and glulam [glued laminated timber]. Up until 2000, the use of timber homes was rather limited (with the exception of the US, Canada, Austria, Südtirol – in Italy – and some Scandinavian countries).

Over the past 20 years, people have started experiencing the benefits of this sustainable construction model. The construction process is efficient and streamlined. The panels are made off site and installed on site, minimising the impact on the natural environment. This results in much faster construction times with almost no delays.

Q: Since production is in a factory, and keeping the materials used in mind, how does the Ecomo concept contribute to reducing waste?
A: That is most probably the biggest advantage of modular construction. Every panel or component we make has been designed around standard timber sizes and available panels. Our standard wall panel length is 4 880 mm, which is simply a result of four boards (each 1 220 mm wide) put next to each other. We managed to reduce our off-cuts by almost 50%. And, because construction is in the factory, we are not weather dependent and have no wastage due to damage from sun or rain.

Q: How does the Ecomo home deal with water storage/recycling and solar-energy generation and storage?
A: A Karoo house we built is completely off-grid, with PV panels and a battery bank to store energy at night. The geyser is a  combo of solar and gas. The water is separated in three groups. We installed two 10 000 litre rainwater tanks on each side of the building for domestic use. These tanks are connected to the main supply, which is sourced from a borehole in case of no rain. The household water is only used for the sink, basin and shower. Once this water is used, it goes into a greywater purification tank, which supplies water for flushing the toilet and for irrigation.

Q: Are South Africans becoming more interested in building more sustainable houses?
A: Most people in SA know very little about alternative and sustainable construction. Many have lived in brick and mortar houses for their entire lives and the concept of a timber home is foreign to them. However, more people are thinking out of the box. They want to live more consciously and contribute to the planet’s well-being. To be honest, sustainable homes do cost a premium, but they definitely pay off in the long run.

By Ilze-Mari Gründling
Image: Janine Petzer

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