The Green Star SA Communities rating tool is currently being piloted and adapted for the South African context by the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA). Two innovative projects that are taking sustainability to the streets: the luxury Blue Rock Village in the Western Cape and the Braamfontein West regeneration project in Joburg’s inner city.

The new Green Star SA Communities rating tool assesses the planning, design and construction of large-scale development projects at a precinct, neighbourhood or community scale.

Unlike other Green Star rating tools, which cover eight separate categories (plus innovation), the communities tool comprises five categories: governance, livability, economic prosperity, environment and innovation. The tool includes uniquely designed yet highly relevant credits such as engagement, corporate responsibility and sustainability awareness (governance); culture, heritage and identity (livability); affordability, digital infrastructure and employment, and economic resilience (economic prosperity); and greenhouse gas strategy, integrated water cycle and ecological value (environmental). The noticeable trait is that Green Star SA Communities places emphasis not only on environmental factors, but also social and economic ones. The tool aims to improve the overall quality of the public spaces between buildings and how these buildings and spaces interact – especially with environmental improvement as a fundamental goal.

“The principle approach is similar to the other rating tools, in the sense that it has a number of criteria and metrics that assess the different elements of a development, but at a neighbourhood scale,” notes Manfred Braune, chief technical officer of the GBCSA. “The GBCSA will use Australia’s version of the rating tool as a starting point, and we will localise and develop a methodology for applying sustainability in the African context through what the GBCSA calls a Local Context Report (LCR) that explains how the tool must be applied in the South African context.”

Over the next few years, the GBCSA will allow pilot projects to test the tool and provide valuable local feedback.

Thus far, two projects have committed to piloting Green Star SA Communities – Blue Rock Village and the Braamfontein West Improvement Project (BWIP); the GBCSA is seeking further pilot projects.

Blue Rock Village

Blue Rock Village, a private development nestled in the foothills of the Helderberg mountain range just outside Somerset West, has committed to achieving a 6-Star rating under the Green Star SA Communities pilot. Construction was due to start on Giovanni – the first of the residential apartment buildings in the development – in September 2016. The 16 000m2 building will consist of 64 luxury units, including four penthouses. Approximately 90% of the total Blue Rock development will be residential buildings.

Blue Rock has many impressive sustainability features to support its Green Star SA Communities ambitions. Perhaps the most notable is encapsulated in the development’s slogan: “car – free – living”. Only a single outer-ring road will serve the development. Internally, other forms of alternative, sustainable transportation – such as an efficient bicycle network and infrastructure – will be provided to ensure effective mobility with low environmental impacts. The development intends to “hide” parking garages by locating them underground, thereby maximising pedestrian walkways and visible green spaces. There are also ambitious yet realistic plans to revive the decommissioned train station located inside the property boundary, and create the demand needed to bring the MyCiti bus service to the area.

The intention of Blue Rock is to provide a community where people have all the necessary amenities within walking distance, including apartments, a gym, hotel, business district, wellness centre, medical and recreational facilities, and a retail component. Proximity and convenience are encapsulated in the vision of the development – “live – work – play”.

The notion of a multi-use private village of this scale (total site area of 40 hectares) is rare in the South African context. The developers believe that by targeting a Green Star SA Communities certification they can enhance the quality of life for residents more than what is already envisioned. Fabio Venturi, founder of Terramanzi Group, the green building consultants working on the development, believes the tool “encompasses and rewards community level design excellence across important and very relevant criteria, across residential and mixed use estates, as well as public spaces and neighbourhoods – something that is desperately needed in a South African context”.

Sindile Mavundla, public relations manager of Blue Rock Village, says every apartment will be fitted with energy-efficient appliances, LED light fittings and double-glazed windows. The walls of the apartments are meticulously designed with insulated materials to ensure a constant temperature of 22ºC is maintained. Residents will be without a geyser; rather, a central heating system that heats up water extracted from the reservoir – situated in the heart of the development – will be installed. There will also be solar PV, mainly to power the central water-heating system.

When asked about his experiences during the development of the LCR, Venturi says it has been an exciting yet gruelling process: “Engaging with industry experts (urban designers, town planners, developers and other relevant specialists), credits are slowly polished or reshaped without changing the design intent of the credit.” This, he acknowledges, can be quite challenging given the stark differences between Australian and South African standards and benchmarks within certain social aspirations of the tool. “Hopefully a project from each sector [greenfield projects, brownfield, infill and existing developments] will participate in the pilot as this will result in the most robust LCR process for the tool and a more efficient rollout.”

Braamfontein West Regeneration Project

The Braamfontein West project, a 12-block precinct situated close to the Johannesburg CBD – and also a pilot project – provides a successful example of a private-public-civic partnership for sustainable community development with multiple stakeholders. While Braamfontein West will be developed as a prototype for implementation to measure the effectiveness and prospective applicability of the Green Star SA Communities tool to other areas, in the process it aims to achieve a physically robust, socially diverse, financially augmented and livable built environment in this precinct.

The Braamfontein West area encompasses a wide range of land uses, including cultural and creative activities, retail, residential, offices, educational institutions, entertainment, and civic and local government that demand strategic urban design and infrastructure improvement. This is where Green Star SA Communities provides structure to the existing and proposed regeneration programme.

“If it proves to be a successful executable model, it can induce the regeneration of adjacent precincts across Braamfontein, the city and beyond,” says Ecocentric’s Shabari Shaily, who is actively involved in the development of the LCR for the Green Star SA Communities pilot programme. “This will ultimately lead to a homogenous yet vibrant planning framework that integrates every block of cities and towns into an interconnected well-functioning system.”

Shaily says that the Green Star SA Communities tool provides major potential for helping to attract investments and ensure returns. This can be achieved through opportunities such as new infrastructure and building projects such as upgrades, renewable energy systems, urban farming and development of recreational facilities. However, for the public sector, the financial benefits of using rating tools are not always clearly understood. “For a regeneration project, the motive of the public sector is not particularly the return on investment, but rather the government’s responsibility to ensure good governance and provide livable spaces for the citizenry. Green Star SA Communities could provide feedback on the return on investment and align with government’s sustainability agenda, thereby streamlining the process of urban regeneration.”

A tool with potential

The contrasting nature of the abovementioned developments demonstrates that Green Star SA Communities can be relevant to both private and public sector developments. But perhaps the most important aspect distinguishing the tool from others is the scale at which its impacts will be felt. “While buildings and building rating tools have demonstrated operational savings for owners and tenants, addressed demand side management for resources, dealt with waste and created indoor environmental quality features that benefit tenants, Green Star SA Communities represents an opportunity to benefit society at large, improving big picture livability, spaces, prosperity, community interaction, initiatives and the general wellbeing of all users,” concludes Venturi.

By Devan Valenti

The full article appears in Earthworks Magazine, Issue 34: Oct/Nov 2016, pp 128-141