What the earthworm doesn’t want, the moth will use. We should build our cities that way.
[ Article by Don Pinnock, published in the Sunday Times, 20 March 2011]
‘That window,’ says Vernon Collis, ‘do you know where it comes from? No? It’s meranti from Borneo. Half those forests are already gone. This house? It comes from a hole in the ground – many holes actually. Stone, sand, cement, iron, glass and aluminium mines. And when its life ends – and it will – it’ll be broken up and trucked to fill another hole in the ground. All that CO2 pumped out digging, transporting, breaking. And what a waste….’
He stares at the ceiling for a moment, working out how best to explain the war he’s waging against the disconnect of his two professions: engineering and architecture. ‘Engineering students aren’t being taught to understand the material cycle – where things come from and the effect it has on the environment. As professionals they just pick up a phone and order from a supplier.
‘A century ago engineers selected materials themselves from source, architects went to forests and quarries. They could see the effect of their professions on the planet. Today there’s a veil between us and the commoditisation of materials.’
As a young engineer in the 1970s, Vernon was in an aircraft looking down at the mass of concrete, tiles, metal and tar that is Johannesburg and had an epiphany. Stuff being transported in and stuff being transported out. It couldn’t last. He stepped off the plane with alarm bells ringing.
‘I wanted to look at the damage the building industry does,’ he says. ‘Almost 40% of the world’s mineral resources go into construction. In the United States 92% of all material moved each year is for building production. It’s the hidden horror of global warming, flying beneath the radar. You read about green developments in the food or fuel or power generation industries, but who’s saying anything about houses or factories or roads?’
Vernon began diligently tracing material sources. What he found was that at least half the world’s land masses had been altered by humans, and the other half was mainly mountain ranges, inclement rainforests, deserts and ice. Most of the change had been done by farming, mining and urban fabric, and of those there, the last was expanding fastest. To get a handle on the problem, he began building his own house.
‘It was on a slope so I needed to level the site. It would have taken 50 truckloads to remove the rubble. Lots of CO2.. So I separated the stones from the sand and used them to build the walls and the sand as part of the cement mix. I sourced everything from nearby, used recycled material and ended up owning a beautiful house with minimal environmental footprint.’
That’s when he conceived a plan to demonstrate his ideas on a wider scale and tendered to build 13 low-cost houses at Mbekweni near Paarl along the same lines. They became known as the Stone Houses and, in academic circles, are justly famous.
‘We used the site to generate as many resources as possible and I trained locals and a prison team to do the construction. We dug the foundations with spades and used what we dug out to make the foundations. That became the theme of the process.
‘We used recycled bricks, built windows and doors from recycled timber pallets, re-cut dumped safety glass for windows. I found a guy who imports marble kitchen surfaces and discovered many get broken in transit or installation – about a tip a month. I said to him: “I can tell you where to dump them.” So now the Stone Houses all have beautiful marble floors.
‘We made the houses double-storey to minimise the footprint and leave more of the plot to grow vegetables and we angled them to get maximum sun in winter and max shade in summer. And we worked with the people who were going to live in them.
The aim, he says, ‘was to build sounder, more culturally appropriate, more labour intensive buildings using less toxic and more recycled materials. And be attractive as well as comfortable.
‘Look at those beautiful villages in Europe built during the Renaissance. They’re still there after 400 years because they feel good to live in. Now that’s sustainability!’
During construction a local supplier threatened to beat up Vernon for not supporting his business. He chalked it up as a sign of success.
So have the Stone Houses changed low-cost housing construction? Vernon sighs. ‘It takes time and there are so many factors operating against sustainability. The whole building industry works to standards designed around unlimited growth and accumulation of capital. Engineers are scared to deviate or innovate in case they get sued. Everything’s done on tenders and procurement systems that are outdated and, frankly, damaging.
‘Trying new things is frontier work and people aren’t yet trained to do it. The government doesn’t have the willpower. The industry’s primary goal is to make money and reduce labour input. Everyone’s thinking in one plane, a straight line, working to an inflexible system rather than creating around what’s available and appropriate. The planet doesn’t function that way.
‘I try to work the way nature does,’ he says. ‘What the earthworm doesn’t want, the moth will use. If anything’s lying around in a forest of garden something will use it. Nature cross-networks, innovates with what’s available and doesn’t run down systems. If we’re going to survive as humans, we’re going to have to think organically.’
In the beginning, Vernon’s campaigning around sustainability earned him crank status. These days organisations are starting to listen. He was co-opted to assist with village reconstruction after the tsunami in Indonesia, did a feasibility study for appropriate reconstruction after the earthquake in Haiti, built a bank in the Transkei out of materials recycled from the site and is designing all the buildings along sustainable lines for a gold mine in Sierra Leone.
‘People are beginning to realise that organically constructed buildings are more interesting, nicer to be in and look better,’ he says. ‘But consciousness around sustainable construction is snail-slow. A person will recycle plastic, drive a few kilometres less and share school lifts, then do a renovation on their house with no holds barred, asking no questions about what it cost the planet. And the engineer or architect won’t advise to the contrary. There’s just no connect.
‘But it will change. It has to. Either construction goes down the self-sustaining road or it runs out of road altogether.’