In conversation with 2020's GBCSA Rising Green Star winner, Catherine Luyt, from Ecolution Consulting.

Words COMPILED BY Mary Anne Constable

A Green star
Catherine Luyt
Ecolution Consulting

There is so much embodied energy in the existing building stock that cannot go to waste. I would really like to see a shift in focus to upgrading the old, and what we already have, as opposed to the notion of new is always better.

Q: What attracted you to green buildings initially, and why did you become a sustainability consultant?
CL: I did a post-graduate diploma in Environmental Management at Stellenbosch University in 2014 and
took a great interest in the urban/built environment aspect of environmental management and sustainability concepts. Upon learning about green building certification towards the end of my studies I really became interested in the topic. I think we can all agree that for any real action to be taken, to mitigate the effects of climate change, it has to happen largely in the urban centres.

Q: What are the founding principles that you believe all green buildings should aspire to? Describe a couple of examples of the projects you’ve worked on which exemplify these principles.
CL: It sounds obvious, but the main principle is that the project team comprising of developers, architects, engineers and eventually facilities managers and building occupants, have to entirely believe and support the true reasons for deciding to become a green building – whatever these motives may be. This must be communicated to the entire project team, so that everyone is fully behind and supports the client’s intent to pursue a sustainability strategy.
Additionally, there needs to be the understanding that the process is a journey and not a one-stop shop, especially for existing buildings that are interested in retrofitting and altering their operations to become a greener building. The process of becoming ‘green’ takes time. There are lessons to learn and many frustrations as this is still a new concept to many individuals and businesses who are still determined to uphold the old status quo and outdated ways of building.
A great example of a project that has wholly embraced the journey concept is Equator – The Belt Factory, which is based in Pinetown, Kwazulu-Natal. Approximately three years ago Equator embarked on this green journey. While they recently received a 5-Star Green Star Existing Building Performance certification, there has been a great focus on behaviour change with all staff of the factory and involvement of all building occupants in their sustainability journey, so that the building can optimise its operations. The green journey and its focus have shifted over the years as they have progressed and as everyone has deepened their understanding, but the intent has remained the same that the business wants to be better for the planet and its people.

Q: Do you sometimes experience resistance to green building principles, and how do you overcome it?
CL: Of course. There is often resistance to a lot of the work that we do on projects. It mainly stems from a client or company having the intention of building a green building or embarking on a green journey, but there has been no filtering down of these ideals to the rest of the project team who ultimately make the day-to-day decisions. It is also difficult when a client is interested in building a green building for marketable reasons or the perception of doing the right thing but has no vested interest in the building down-the-line once it has been occupied by tenants or sold. Therefore, the client may have little vested interest in technologies or interventions that have a higher capital cost but a long-term saving for the occupants. I have noticed that the best results often come about when the building is owner-occupied because then there is a greater buy-in to invest in interventions that will reap savings further down the line, but may cost more now.
To overcome these challenges often takes a lot of coaxing and good negotiating. Ultimately, we need to communicate the long-term benefits vs the short-term costs – both financially and environmental.

Q: What is your favourite project you have worked on and why?
CL: There are three! Again, I would have to make mention of Equator – The Belt Factory as being one of my favourite projects. There was so much passion and enthusiasm felt for the green journey and the Green Star certification, from the director down to every employee within the company. I felt a huge sense of buy-in and genuine interest to change and seek out more and more ways to become efficient. We have even worked closely with the company every December, deciding how to do their corporate gifts a bit differently. Last year, in 2019, Equator decided to carbon offset a specific number of flights for each of their major clients. This was a great way to spread awareness within the fashion industry about something as simple as air travel.
Hotel Verde Cape Town was also a standout project for me. I only started working with them a year after they opened so I was more focused on their sustainable operations than the construction. The hotel, its management, and owners are always looking for ways to become more efficient throughout the building. While the building is fitted out with many amazing, ground-breaking, and efficient technologies, it is again the operations that makes this project one of my favourites. The creativity that goes into keeping operations efficient is truly inspiring. In 2019, I was the AP on their Green Star EBP recertification, for which the project received the highest number of points for any Green Star certification that year.
Virgin Active Constantia Net Zero Waste was another favourite of mine. To look solely at the issue of operational waste and getting waste to net zero, in a building which sees thousands of people through the door each week, was a major challenge that Virgin Active rose to. Creativity had to be involved here in order to think of ways to reduce waste and encourage members to buy-into the process with Virgin. They achieved their Net Zero Waste certification in 2019.

Q: How do you think Covid-19 will mould the green building movement going forward?
CL: There are two aspects where I think we will see significant changes:
Firstly, there will be increased focus on Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ). IEQ has always been considered a rather ‘soft’ topic in green building and often not granted the same prominence as energy and water interventions. This will change now. Companies will place greater focus on improving their space’s IEQ to address health issues where they can – ventilation being one of the key features.
Secondly, I believe most office layouts and structures will change going forward into a more hot-desk type space, where no-one has their own desk. This will most probably reduce the floor plate of offices, and people will start to consider how to use the space more efficiently and effectively to encourage this more flexible style of working.

Q: What key information would you like all property developers to understand about green buildings?
CL: Do not greenwash! People are more clued up in 2020 than you think, and you will be caught out. Building green is still tough in the South African market and by no means status quo yet, but we will get there hopefully. To build green does take additional effort and possibly cost more, so developers must accept and commit to that. I often get the unpleasant feeling that developers believe that by simply appointing a green building consultant the project will then become green with little other changes to design. This is disheartening to see but things are slowly changing, and it takes a few key-players in the industry to push the boundaries and inspire others to make similar changes.

Q: What has been your greatest challenge so far as a young sustainability consultant?
CL: Trying to show clients, or future clients, the intrinsic value of having a sustainability consultant on their team. All too often we are viewed as a ‘nice-to-have’ and unfortunately in 2020, with the economic downturn, we are often the first to be dropped from a project or not viewed as a necessity to be hired on new projects.

Q: What key changes would you like to see happen in the green building movement in South Africa and worldwide?
CL: Simply an understanding that we just cannot afford to build how we used to. Green building is the only option for the planet. I would also really like to see more refurbishments of buildings taking place, rather than demolition followed by new buildings. There is so much embodied energy in the existing building stock that cannot go to waste. I would really like to see a shift in focus to upgrading the old, and what we already have, as opposed to the notion of new is always better.