Thursday, March 1, 2007

Now it's down to the earth in Muizenberg

Article by Patrick Burnett as printed in Saturday Argus, Jan 20 2007, and reprinted in False Bay Echo, Jan 25 2007, and also Business Day February 2007. Text copyright West Cape News, no reprinting without permission.


A Muizenberg couple are taking eco-friendly building to the suburbs, constructing a house using gum poles and mud walls which they hope will blaze a trail for alternative, down-to-earth housing.
Not only is Simric and Carey Yarrow’s house being made almost entirely from eco-friendly building materials, but when finished it will harness the sun and wind for energy and recycle household water for use in the garden.
Although a small market, eco-friendly housing and even whole villages are not unknown in South Africa. But the Yarrows’ house is unusual in that it is being built in Muizenberg surrounded by brick and mortar homes and 200m from the beach.
Electricity and water shortages in Cape Town over the past year would seem to be a vote in favour of houses which minimise water and electricity consumption. But the Yarrows’ effort to build their dream house has been an uphill battle.
Lack of recognition for alternative building has prevented them from getting a bank housing loan – a problem that threatens to restrict the growth in the market for eco-friendly houses.
The project began last year and interest has been so great that the couple have put up a board outside the plot informing the public about the house.
They are also holding once-monthly workshops where anyone who is interested can squelch in the mud and learn about alternative building.
Part of what the Yarrows hope to do is raise awareness about the possibilities of eco-friendly building.
Speaking on-site this week, Carey, a sculptor, said she had always dreamed of building a home in the country that integrated with the environment.
“When we spotted this plot I thought why not do it in town? It won’t blend in with the environment but it will bring nature back into the city in a way that will alert people to the possibilities.”
Husband Simric said: “At the moment there is a general perception that people have to have brick houses, but it is possible to have a house that is built in other ways. I just think the reason people don’t go this route is through lack of awareness.”
The finished double-storey house will consist of a main section with two bedrooms, a lounge, kitchen and bathroom. A separate one-bedroomed bed-and-breakfast flat will complete the house.
All the woodwork is treated with environmentally-friendly products and thick poles sources from alien gums are being used to support the roof.
Only a small part of the house will contain a bricks and mortar structure, with the rest of the walls being constructed using an age-old technique known as cobbing.
This entails beach sand, clay, earth, water and straw being mixed together and stamped to a smooth consistency with the bare feet – with whoever can be roped in being invited to stamp about in the mud bath. Layer upon layer of the final mixture is then used to create thick mud walls.
Cobbing has been chosen because the materials are sourced locally, there is no excessive run-off into the water table and bricks and cement are avoided, both of which have negative environmental implications due to their manufacture, said Simric.
The thickness of the cobbed wall insulates the house so that it is cool in summer and warm in winter, using less energy for heating and cooling.
North-facing walls will optimise the earth credentials of the house, soaking up the sun for warmth.
A grey water system will recycle water from baths, basins and the washing machine.
The house will initially be on the electricity grid, but Simric said they hope ultimately to be off-grid and energy self-sufficient.
He said he believed that not using alternative technology missed a valuable opportunity to empower people to build homes and address the housing backlog. But bureaucracy was a major blockage to widespread adoption of the technology, he said.
Not only did the Yarrows have to get an architect to vouch for their house in order to get councile approval, but financing through a bank proved impossible. Simric said banks required approval from the National Home Builders’ Registration Council (NHBRC) before they could finance a house, but because the NHBRC had no guidelines for approval of alternative building, it was not possible to get a bond from a bank. As a result the Yarrows have raised funding privately.
Finding companies to do the work has been another difficulty.
Stephen Forder, who is doing a master’s degree in sustainable development at Stellenbosch University and who lives at the Lynedoch eco-village about 10km outside Stellenbosch, said: “I think this kind of building will become more mainstream as issues like global warming become more pressing.”
He said one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions was the production of building materials. Forder said getting planning permission for alternative building projects was a huge problem and South Africa was a long way behind taking advantage of developments in clean building technology.
The reasons were that the climate was “very forgiving” and energy was also cheap, meaning there was no immediate impetus to use different technologies.
Ann-Marie Moore, architect-in-training at Eco Designs Architects, said people were beginning to understand that there was “a corner of the market that is asking for more sustainable, eco-friendly developments.”
“Now we have a lot of interest from larger developments and increasing requests for renovations to make homes more eco-friendly,” she said.
Gavin Lutge, the freelance structural engineer involved in the Muizenberg project, said people were more interested in building in a way that was not damaging to the environment. As regards NHBRC approval, Lutge said the NHBRC did not have regulations for the construction of eco-friendly houses. As a result, the Muizenberg house was being built based on New Zealand codes.
But Kgomotso Mahlobo, chief operating officer for the NHBRC, said her organisation was “very interested” in alternatives and how these could be supported.
She said the backlog in housing was because of the constraints of constructing houses with bricks and mortar. If there was an alternative using acceptable standards that were SABS approved and complied with the building regulations of South Africa then “I don’t see how we could not support it.”
When asked for comment, the Absa group – one of the largest home-loan providers – confirmed that it did not finance alternative buildings.
Absa said: “Absa does not as yet finance eco-friendly houses that are built using alternative materials.
However, we are consulting with the NHBRC regarding this issue and exploring ways and means on how we can best accommodate this emerging building trend in our home loans and housing financing products.”
Builders had also been invited to propose innovative financing solutions, it said.

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