At the opening of Cape Town’s Belhar Gardens rental estate – a project supported by the City of Cape Town, Nedbank and the Social Housing Regulatory Authority – then Human Settlements (DHS) Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said social housing was one solution to the national housing backlog. Unlike single-dwelling homes, social housing projects bring low earners to their city workplaces, meeting the constitutional right to housing at a fraction of typical city costs.
Yet social housing isn’t known for being good for community or environmental health. A challenge for the developers, architects and financiers is to ensure it creates positive, sustainable communities that don’t burden the Earth’s resources. And, as the WWF argues, rising utility costs can drive social housing tenants who can’t pay their bills towards informal housing. So social housing should be green for both environmental and socio-economic reasons to make it sustainable.
This dual drive is acknowledged in SA’s National Development Plan 2030, to which the DHS is committed. ‘Sustainable communities are built through well-structured development planning processes that help to guide them to optimally manage natural resources and environmental risks in the pursuit of social and economic goals’.
Belhar Gardens’ Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies (EDGE) certification is a milestone in the green building sector, setting a new benchmark for social housing projects.
The location as well as low rental and running costs of the residential units put them in high demand. They’re near the University of the Western Cape, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and other amenities. 70% of rental units are for households earning between R3 500 and R7 500 a month, and up to 30% of the units are for households with a combined monthly income of less than R3 500, with rents starting at R750. Rentals are below market prices, and the resource-efficient units mean monthly utility costs are also kept low, so tenants can make their payments in spite of inflation hikes and tariff increases.
The 630-unit complex, owned and managed by Madulammoho Housing Association (MHA), was the first to get funding from the sustainable affordable housing finance facility set up by Nedbank’s affordable housing development finance division and SA’s Green Fund to boost affordable green housing in the country.
The EDGE certification is significant, given SA’s history. Gavin Westbrook from Solid Green Consulting, the EDGE auditor on behalf of Belhar Gardens, says: ‘The certification demonstrates the growing trend of extending green ratings to all building types and social groups. The benefits from cost savings shouldn’t just accrue to those who can afford to make the changes required to their home.’
Green building certification is as necessary in the lower end of the market as it is at the upper end, agrees Megan Sager, founding director of Consulting for Sustainable Solutions, the project’s sustainability consultants. In addition to retaining tenants through offering lower utility bills without lessening their quality of life, ‘it assures long-term investors that cash flows will be somewhat buffered from future tariff hikes, which are likely to be well above inflation’.
Belhar Gardens’ water- and energy-saving measures were recognised last March by the Green Building Council of South Africa with its EDGE certification. The EDGE system, a registered trademark of the International Finance Corporation, honours residential developments that show at least a 20% saving in water and energy, as well as embodied energy of construction materials. The award encourages the real estate industry to build sustainably.
Sager says an EDGE certification can attract financers. ‘Getting EDGE certified may assist with securing finance on preferential terms, securing co-investment or exiting your investment.’ But given that the late commitment to getting Belhar Gardens certified proved an admin challenge, both Sager and Westbrook advise others to keep organised, vigilant records from the get-go for submitting proof of EDGE compliance more easily.
‘EDGE should be incorporated in building design and specification from the start to deliver optimal, fully integrated plans, ensuring that low- or no-cost interventions, like natural ventilation, can be claimed as credits and avoiding costly “retrofit” solutions at the end,’ according to Sager. She recommends an interdisciplinary approach. ‘Working with engineers, for example, on optimising rooftop solar energy or water-heating solutions can deliver great results.’ Also, don’t forget to visually document the process. Westbrook advises that ‘a lot of the credits have photos as an evidence requirement, so take lots at every site visit or inspection’.
Renier Erasmus, CEO of the client/owner MHA, says while ‘the initial monetary outlay to make the project green was about an extra R20 000 per unit, this was offset against a reduction in our interest on the loan with Nedbank’. Though he admits the cost of getting EDGE accreditation is still ‘a bit high’, MHA is packaging another project for possible EDGE accreditation.
Sager says greening costs are often financially impracticable for social housing companies, so ‘government should consider a tiered capital subsidy structure, introducing an additional “green” allowance for social housing projects that can show compliance with a recognised resource efficiency standard, like EDGE’.
Green features at Belhar Gardens include prepaid electricity meters in each unit, water flow restrictors, dual-flush toilet mechanisms, centralised heat pump stations for every block rather than conventional geysers, passively comfortable designs, and lower-impact materials.
Some interesting developments occurred around the water.
The taps and showers include water flow restrictors. However, according to Westbrook, ‘if the rate is too low, users may simply remove the aerators and any potential saving is lost. This was interesting to the building manager, who lives on-site, during the audit. He wanted to take the results to the community to show them the magnitude of the benefit from the low-flow fittings’.
‘Day Zero’ drought fears hit while the project was still under construction, so the developers, Calgro M3, relied on rainwater harvesting and borehole water, and cut down on ‘wet work’ construction to scale back water usage.
Through simple measures, however, ‘Belhar Gardens has consistently delivered water savings of 15% to 20% in comparison with other conventionally constructed social housing developments nearby’, according to Sager. During the critical water-shortage period, tenants were able to stick to the daily 6 kl allowance, as water tariffs rose.
In sum, Westbrook maintains that Belhar Gardens shows that ‘making an affordable housing project sustainable is not the insurmountable challenge people make it out to be’. Small changes (think low-flow taps, LED or CFL bulbs and better material choices) combine to make a significant difference without costing too much. ‘I hope more projects will follow this example and extend the benefit of efficient design to all building users.’