Karen Eicker -
Johannesburg - 28 April 2005
Dr Daniel Irurah is a senior lecturer in design and construction at
Wits University, and Regional Project Co-ordinator (Africa Middle East Region) for the
Holcim Awards for Sustainable
How has education integrated sustainable issues in this country?
On the question of teaching sustainable architecture, this has come more from international pressure than from internal prioritisation of this issue. Internally I'm not sure we have yet come to terms with sustainability as a priority e.g. not many schools are yet able to cover these issues in comprehensive way, and they are not yet seen as critical issues in the way we define our studio programmes, courses etc.
Indeed, one of our challenges is to find people who can teach sustainability.
Internationally, it started with the environmental movement, then moved into politics and then into the built environment because it is so connected to the broader issues of sustainability.
But in this country, because of the need to deal with immediate issues of transformation, there has not been much room to prioritise sustainability. The issues are still fairly distant compared to immediate issues of empowerment, wanting to increase growth, poverty alleviation. They are perceived as two contradictory forces that can't be dealt with simultaneously, which I don't think is really the case.
In fact the poorer people who are facing the challenge of development are perhaps the ones in a better position to give meaning to the term 'sustainable development', because they don't have to repeat the same mistakes that have been done by the developed world.
There is a perception that we are going to do development now, and later we will do sustainable development - for me it is a bit of an awkward perception.
One area that has been identified by government is that of construction and jobs, construction and empowerment. Which is good. Unfortunately is not very well defined for 2 reasons:
Firstly, the whole chain of the built environment is not well understood. Decision makers tend to forget that there are also jobs in the production and distribution of materials. So it is superficially conceived from a job creation and poverty alleviation point of view. And there is not much follow up in programmes to link up with subsequent opportunities.
Secondly, I think that engineers are doing it better than architects - maybe because they are involved in infrastructure, they seem to have a systematic program tied to these issues.
How does this compare with Europe, Australia etc?
Developed countries are very competitive and highly regulated, so sustainability issues have been well-integrated into the whole work environment of architects and developers. For instance, in Denmark, the whole idea of recycling construction waste is already embedded in law. They don't have a choice, they have to do it.
Also the development of knowledge is ahead in terms of research, so new knowledge finds its way much more quickly and easily into their education curriculum. Here it is slower, and there is no significant legislation in place that is making other stakeholders respond - developers or banks etc are not under any obligation to consider these sustainability issues.
So we are operating in a very inhibited environment. It is not demanding a response to these issues.
And I think there is a fear that putting these regulations in place will threaten the growth of the construction sector, and that it will be more legislation that we won't be able to enforce.
Finally, there has been some improvement in building regulations in SA, so that energy efficiency should be considered. But this has been the case for the last 5 years, and we still haven't really seen it enforced.
So I believe that it will be many years before sustainability is significantly integrated into architectural education.
Are there not international protocols that will force our decision makers to put these regulations in place?
You must remember that the platform on which 'sustainable architecture' is built is that of 'sustainable development'. And that global agenda does distinguish between responsibilities for developed countries and responsibilities for developing countries, from a political point of view.
So the developed countries are seen to be the offenders - they have contributed significantly to the problem with their significantly high levels of consumption, and high pollution. And because they have the technologies and the resources, they have been left with a bigger responsibility of responding to sustainability issues.
A good example is the Kyoto Protocol, which relates to global warming and climate change. Where, I think, up to 2012 developing countries are not required to commit themselves to anything. You just do what you can. Especially when it comes to co-operating with developed countries to implement projects using 'clean' technologies.
But all that aside, we have our own very dire problems of poverty alleviation, which sustainable development must address as well. For example, problems relating to scarcity of water, and energy, which must address be addressed. And yet we are still looking towards conventional sources to solve these problems.
So if we look at it from a political point of view - what the UN and other agencies require, and what they are pioneering, there is no significant commitment from developing countries to pursue sustainable development. There is no obligation; they must only ensure that, as far as they can, they are keeping up with 'clean' technologies.
However, our own local environmental problems may well impact on legislation. For example, SA has just passed the Clean Air Bill, which means that the whole question of pollution, whether by industry, transport, or residential uses, is going to be significantly controlled by local authorities. In a sense, we are responding to local pollution issues, and in this way we can address climate change issues.
Also the issue of health in domestic situations, and respiratory illnesses, is another factor that is making the government consider energy and low-cost housing.
Water, too, is becoming scarcer by the day, and if we don't become more innovative about how we use it, we won't be able to meet the needs of an increasing urban population. So we must learn how to recycle etc, to get the same level of service while using less water.
So there are local issues that are going to make us address sustainability in architecture much sooner than international protocols will.
Dr Daniel Irurah