Between a rock and a hard place

Green building is a space of innovation, and in its pure form, sustainable practice encourages the growth of micro-economies, both on-site and around the development of new technologies.

But in South Africa, for those who have innovated ways of building with natural materials such as stone, clay and straw-bale, the path to certification is a difficult one, and one that small-scale operators and start-ups often have not been able to survive.

Four ways to impact

New building materials and technologies have to comply with the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act.

There are four ways to compliance: through the SANS 10-400 “deemed to satisfy” route or through a “rational design” route signed off by a competent person such as an engineer. The third route is through Agrément certification.

The fourth is to develop a national standard by putting together a technical committee to approach the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) with a set of guidelines based on international best practice.

Like all builds built to the national standard, a competent person such as an engineer must take responsibility for the building system. SABS deals with mature technologies and established products, many of which are or have been standardised elsewhere in the world.

When a new product or process or innovative use of material is developed, it usually falls outside the scope of existing SABS standards – this is where Agrément comes in. The Board of Agrément South Africa is made up of various role players in industry and includes an SABS representative.

Once non-standard products become established and common-place they move into SABS territory and often become standardised, in which case the need for Agrément certification falls away. Solar water heating systems are an example of such a product.

But when it comes to natural non-cement-based building technologies, the processes of SABS and Agrément itself have proven challenging for smaller scale operators. This has an impact on homebuilders and clients who want to build with specific natural materials – no certification equals no finance.

There are many reasons for this deadlock and ways to overcome them are crucial to the expansion of natural building methods. Two operators – one who has found an innovative new way of using rammed earth technology, and another who is waiting to have a traditional rammed earth building process certified – have both hit snags under the current certification processes. These provide a thought-provoking take on the reality of innovation in the construction business.

An “unwritten” agreement

For Craig Smith*, who heads up a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that produces and builds with compressed earth blocks, Agrément certification has taken over three years – a process he says demonstrated a bureaucratic lack of communication and an unwritten agreement that cement is better.

But according to Joe Odhiambo, CEO of Agrément, Smith’s experience runs contrary to the organisation’s modus operandi. Agrément, he says, carries out performance-based tests centred on the performance of that technology alone – they do not compare technologies – and clients are welcome to observe the tests: “Clients may even be present when the tests are carried out. We provide test reports to clients on request.”

On publication of this article, Smith’s company was given the results of the tests conducted in 2010 and 2011 – all of which show that his company has passed them. But at the time of the tests being conducted, Smith says his company was asked to put up a temporary wall for a water penetration test where two bars of water pressure are put on a section of wall for 20 hours. The certificate took months to be issued.

“The wall was set up for water penetration tests, but because it was left for so long, they told us the wall had shown signs of tardiness,” he says. Because of this, Agrément would not issue the certificate. “But we built the wall to withstand that particular test, therefore not worrying to protect the sides, top and back of the wall as one would do in a normal build,” says Smith.

He says Agrément then told them to “add 5% cement stabilisation”. They also requested that his company “add a bonding requirement and another cement additive that is both unnecessary and incompatible for the stability of the blocks”.

Even though there is proof that the tests in 2010 and 2011 were successful, because of having to add cement to their mix, his company has to undergo all the tests again, since the composition of the technology has changed.

But Odhiambo says Agrément would never advise a client on their product, as this is not its role. “Agrément does not tell anyone to do anything,” he says. Agrement’s tests are done by a panel of experts from academia and business, which implement international best practice.

“Our testing requirements are performance based,” he says. “This means that we do not mind how the product is made and what it is made from provided it is seen to do the job in all aspects of performance.

“If it fails, you are advised accordingly and given the opportunity to correct the problem. If there are delays, problems on the way due to the client not providing the samples required or if the product fails to meet the required performance criteria, then, we cannot be held liable for the length of time it takes to complete the technical assessment exercise. We try to expedite the process as much as possible.”

As to why the results of Smith’s tests took so long to get to him, Agrément cites miscommunication and performance issues. Odhiambo now aims to set up a meeting with the test team and Smith. “We hope to resolve the issues,” he says.

A project on hold

For John Brown* who works at an architectural firm contracted to build a public sector facility from rammed earth blocks, waiting on an SABS standard for rammed earth technology has left their project on hold.

In the interim they have been working with the Zimbabwean Rammed Earth (RE) Standard, a SADC-approved standard that South Africa, despite its obligations under SADC, has not ratified.

“We have built a private dwelling and that was approved by the local council, but with a public sector building, we would prefer to work from a standard,” he says. “We’re working with the Zimbabwean code, but are actually almost doubling the required thickness of the walls, primarily for insulation purposes, but the structural engineers are obviously happy with this. We will be negotiating with the department to follow the ‘rational design’ route but would prefer the security of an approved code.” In the meantime, his company has received tenders for the project.

Presently, the Zimbabwe RE standard has been adopted by eight of the ten SADC voting countries. Last year, Swaziland published the standard. The African Organisation for Standardisation (ARSO) has accepted compressed and rammed structures. South Africa is a signatory to ARSO. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (linked to Agrément) was represented on the ARSO Board but SABS has not budged on the issue.

The clue for many in the natural building industry lies in the function and composition of SABS’ technical committees. “It is the existing standards technical committee (TC), in this case SABS TC 059-01, which approves an additional work item,” says Songo Didiza, who represents GreenCape, a member of TC59 since June 2014.

“For a new subject to be certified, the process would be to request to participate on the TC 059/SC 01 and propose a new work item.” An organisation has the option to either participate as a voting member or as an observer member in the committee.

In both cases an application should be submitted through the organisation or industry body. The problem is that for small business operators such as those in the rammed earth industry, this is an impractical and costly exercise.

“It’s entirely self-funded,” says Andy Horn, of Eco-Design Architects and Consultants. “Nobody pays you to be there. It’s centralised and everything happens in Pretoria. That means you have to fly up and keep a hand in the process all the way through.”

This kind of system favours bigger businesses, which have the budget to sustain such initiatives. Director of SP Energy, Howard Harris, who sits as an independent energy expert on the SANS 204 committee, says: “If you look at that committee, four or five are independent – but the bulk of the between 38 people are industry representatives, invited by the chairperson. This is a double-edged sword. It’s good in the sense that you get somebody there because this is an unpaid exercise. But it’s bad in the sense that they are really looking after their own patch.”

Horn has written to SABS to enquire about the composition of the TCs, with no response. “Behind the scenes, I think there is a little bit of an agenda, because the people on the technical committees represent the brick industry and cement industry.”

But Harris denies there is a conspiracy or unwritten agreement between concrete pundits within SABS, and Didiza agrees. “There are several climactic concerns that affect why there is little consensus on compressed earth blocks, one of them being seismic activity,” she says.

This, however, is a challenge easily overcome, says Horn. “Like all masonry materials, earth builds are strong on compression, but weak on tension. You circumvent this by building a ring beam, which can be done in concrete or timber.”

This ability to think laterally, and cross-pollinate in terms of materials, or with years of hindsight and research available to follow best practice, does not seem to be accounted for in current certification processes and regulations.

The way forward

Horn suggests one way to break the deadlock is to see green building as a hybrid of technologies – where the formwork still uses timber, concrete, or lime. “We still use concrete, just less of it,” he says. “We have very advanced concrete and formwork industries, and if it all came together we could be leading the field among SADC countries in rammed earth building.”

Instead, he says, the standards are being raised too high by panels of industry experts who favour concrete and brick: “For single storey, they are requesting a compression capability of 3MPa for block and 4MPa for double storey, 7MPa for hollow block, or 10MPa for brick. But if you do your research, you only need a strength of 2.4MPa for double storeys. This is moving us away from small micro-economies with innovators, and pushing us towards high tech factories, and centralised control, which favours the corporates.”

The way out of this impasse, it seems, is for government to step in and make sure standards are fairly applied, and done so in line with international green building trends, and that there are measures to encourage the adoption of standards for non-cement innovation.

“Thousands of people are building with natural earth and mud in rural areas, and they are doing so with no technical assistance or guidance,” says Horn. “These buildings do collapse because they are not built to a standard.”

The move by Equal Education and government to “eradicate mud schools” has dealt a blow to green building principles. “We should be improving, not eradicating,” he says. “Schools are the first place where these technologies and principles should be taught.”

Brown’s public sector project provides a window of opportunity for government to take a leading role. “We are investigating the rational design route and hope to have a government building out of rammed earth to share in the near future,” says Brown.

“I think it has been quite brave of the department to take this initiative, and along with the rock stores in the building, pursue the green building ideas.”

Until then, for the rammed earth industry and other natural builders, the best option seems to be to form a working group under SABS and present the TC59 with an international best practice set of standards in line with their processes.

It’s a time-consuming and costly process, and Horn is currently looking for funders to assist him in joining the TC59 under the Whole Earth Building Foundation.

The membership of Green Cape’s Didiza on the TC59 is also promising. “One solution may be to move SABS deliberations closer to small business operators,” she says. “Industry stakeholders have to be pragmatic in how we create a well-informed transitional path towards sustainability. You can’t shut down whole industries.”

There also needs to be a sound intention to see building processes and technologies in more holistic terms. “We’re wanting to do the right thing when it comes to earth building,” says Brown. “But in terms of the standards, there’s no right thing to do – and there should be.”

(*) names have been changed due to the sensitivity of the projects.