Going green: Sustainability – the last frontier

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By Ginger Mauney, Project Co-ordinator, Conservation and the Environment in Namibia

People from around the world are drawn to Namibia’s vast, wild places, but with tourism increasing at approximately seven per cent a year, how is the industry responding to the growing and encroaching demand?

Habitat centre

At the heart of this question lies the interconnection between development and the environment, between growth and preservation, and the search for balance. No one wants to be accused of killing the goose that lays the golden egg, inflicting the fatal blow of sacrificing the environment to the cost of development.

Today, many developers and architects are proving that when building, the benefits of applying a sensitive approach to the environment far outweigh the costs. With innovation and insight, they are treading lightly, applying the ethos of conservation and sustainable development to lodges and tourism centres throughout the country.

The approaches used to achieve sustainable development are as varied as the locations, the needs of the initiative and the available resources. Whether it’s energy use, lighting, cooling, heating, materials, water, waste or aesthetics, each is assessed on the merits of the project. Decisions are made to fit the place, creating a better, more eco-friendly and often more economical whole.

“This is not a special project issue,” says Nina Maritz. “Sustainable principles need to be applied to all buildings.” She also knows how it’s done. Maritz, a leading proponent of sustainable building in Namibia, is the architect behind the internationally acclaimed Habitat Research and Development Centre in Katutura, the Visitors’ Centre for the Twyfelfontein Rock Art Museum and Wilderness Safaris’ newest lodge, Andersson Camp, near the Etosha National Park.

Twyfelfontein Visitors Centre

“The idea is to approach building holistically, considering power, energy, water and the principle of embodied energy which refers to the amount of energy required to manufacture and supply a product, material or service to the building site throughout the building process, from conception to finished product,” stresses Maritz.

This approach was applied at the Habitat Centre in many wonderful and whimsical ways. Also, it works. In fact, it works so well that the development of the Habitat Centre was used as a case study for students and practitioners in the Green Studio Handbook.

For the Visitors’ Centre at Twyfelfontein, Maritz took the ‘cradle to cradle’ approach, focusing on reversibility. Since no cement was used in the construction, the entire structure can be taken down and moved without damaging the environment.

Smart sensitive building

Yet lodges often function on a different scale and with different purposes. Guests are meant to feel welcomed, at times pampered, and always at peace in their surroundings, and these surroundings must be aesthetically pleasing. As is evidenced by the work of Namibia’s leading architects and builders, today’s lodges are nestled into the landscape, echoing the colours and textures of the surrounding bush, leading to a tactical, sensual and often educational experience for guests.

“Etendeka Lodge is a fantastic example of how saving water can be inspirational. Guests are made aware of the aridity of the area and the importance of saving water. At the end of the day they see a 20-litre shower as a luxury and a way of making a contribution. The average US citizen uses 17 times the resources of the average Kenyan. If we can help educate guests on how to conserve resources while in Namibia, they can take this information home and apply it to their everyday lives,” says Maritz.

Etendeka is also an example of a lodge that has responded to and been rewarded by the eco-awards programme. In partnership with the Namibian Institute of Architects and the Namibia Nature Foundation, eco-awards are a mark of distinction for accommodation establishments that are planned and managed according to environmentally friendly principles.

Founded in 1995, eco-awards assess tourism establishments in seven categories: water, waste water, waste, energy, environment, guided tours, and employees and local communities. Huab Lodge was one of the first to earn eco-award ‘flowers’, and while the lodge runs in many eco-sensitive ways, perhaps the most resounding is that there is no sound pollution. Huab Lodge is run on solar power, ensuring a quiet experience where natural sounds aren’t marred by rumbling generators.

The Gobabeb Training and Research Centre is an instituation that has always been conscious of the environment, but until recently was trapped by old technology. Although it is located 70 kilometres from the national power grid, in 2004 Gobabeb started weaning itself from diesel guzzling and carbon-emitting generators and began to harnass solar power, making the most of its natural environment. Today, this SADC Centre of Excellence is 98% self-sufficient in terms of the power it uses.

Boulders Camp on NamibRand Nature Reserve is an example of sensitive development by keeping in mind what came before. Numerous stone artifacts dating to the last 10 000 years were identified on the reserve. Prior to building Boulders Camp, an in-house and outside assessment was done of the area earmarked for construction to ensure that building didn’t conflict with important, ancient sites.

It was noted that with careful planning and training of guides, it would be possible to integrate the camp quite closely with the local archaeology, and, by including information on the area’s prehistory, enhance the tourists’ experience.

Given the new legislation within the National Monuments Council, plans at NamibRand Nature Reserve are to to establish a heritage conservation area on the reserve, further protecting this rich archaeological area from prospecting and development.

The three R’s

With the guiding principle being ‘sustainability – the last frontier’, the three Rs of environmental sustainability (Reduce, Re-use, Recycle) were applied to the design and construction of Andersson’s Camp on Ongava Game Reserve, Wilderness Safaris’ newest camp.

Instead of earmarking a beautifully intact piece of nature for development, the dere-lict farmstead of Leeupoort was chosen as the site for the new camp. After years of cattle farming and environmental neglect, the land was restored as close as possible to its natural state. In addition, the original farmhouse was reused as the kitchen, an aspect of salvaging, while the farm dam was turned into a plunge pool, saving on embodied energy.

“The recycling and reusing of materials on site and materials that came from the renovations to Ongava Lodge meant that instead of wasting old materials, a new purpose was found for them, also saving on their embodied energy. This also fitted in well with the theme of the historical Andersson being an explorer and the place being a trader’s camp, where nothing useful was thrown away. This farming-explorer vernacular constitutes an early form of ‘zero waste’,” highlights Maritz, the architect of the project.

Where new buildings were erected, the environment was given top priority. Reversible construction was used for the tents and no cement was used, so that should needs change in future, they can be dismantled without leaving building rubble or scarring the landscape. No trees were removed around the tents, and the decks, made from invasive prosopis wood, were raised so that the footprint and impact on the land was also reduced.

As demand continues to grow, the approach taken by developers and architects to protect the environment will ensure that tourists to Namibia aren’t disappointed. With beauty, brilliance and sensitivity, new developments in the country are enhancing the visitors’ experience, making a positive contribution to the economy and the environment, and adding to Namibia’s stellar reputation abroad.

This article appeared in the 2008/9 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.

Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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