Off the grid

Namibia’s N$100 billion economy produces its first N$40 billion budget
August 14, 2012
Ostrich-egg basket for Easter?
August 14, 2012
Namibia’s N$100 billion economy produces its first N$40 billion budget
August 14, 2012
Ostrich-egg basket for Easter?
August 14, 2012

Text and photographs Ron Swilling

I am in Namibia, and I think of the sweet-smelling thatch from the Kavango, dry-packed rock walls from the Kunene, and sandy hydraform blocks from the central areas. I see run-off water feeding flowers and trees, solar panels collecting the energy provided by the abundant Namibian sunshine, and rain tanks storing the bounty of summer storms. I am cool in summer, warm in winter – and the Earth is my friend and my home.

I think adobe – the thick mud walls of Mali and Morocco and the inner sanctuary in Moorish architecture. I imagine cool interiors in the desert, running channels of water and birdsong. I imagine the home as a place of the heart and hearth.

In the past, indigenous architecture featured local material and the knowledge gleaned over thousands of years through trial and error to keep the home cool, well ventilated and insulated, and retaining the day’s warmth for the cooler hours by harnessing the sun’s rays.

The Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of the shift from building harmoniously in villages to constructing mass housing complexes in city suburbs. The western tradition of housing proliferated, drifting further and further away from ecologically sound construction. In most conventional building operations, structures were often erected with little awareness of environmental considerations, or of optimising conditions so that the home used as little energy as possible, or made little effort to return water to the soil and thus continue nurturing life.

We are now circling back, remembering the ‘down-to-the-earth’ principles, and returning to the concept of utilising what’s readily available (the most sensible option, after all) to construct our buildings more efficiently once again and to create healthy living and work spaces. In Namibia, a world-class research centre on the outskirts of Windhoek is experimenting with just that: researching what natural products are locally available; how to build harmoniously, robustly, wisely and cheaply, while using indigenous material; recycling where feasible; and ensuring the footprint is as small as possible.

Namibian architect, Nina Maritz, and a team of contractors stretched their boundaries to embrace an out-of-the-box approach when building the Habitat Centre

The Habitat Research and Development Centre (HRDC), established by the Ministry of Regional and Local Government, Housing and Rural Development (and often co-operating with NGOs and higher educational facilities) is making their findings accessible to others to promote sustainable housing.

When walking through the HRDC, the visitor is pleasantly surprised. The buildings are airy, bright and attractive. Rooms are built with high roofs (insulated with sheep’s wool from the south of the country or with recycled styrofoam and cardboard) and large windows, allowing in optimum light and reducing the need for artificial lighting. The Centre is off the grid, and not dependent on municipal services for electricity. Large solar panels provide ample electricity, even a surplus over weekends, which is returned to the City of Windhoek.

The office buildings were constructed using hydraform blocks, which were originally designed and developed in Namibia and consist predominantly of sand and a low percentage of cement. Old printing plates have been used for the light fittings and reeds for the ceiling, creating a light and airy finish. Ducts from an energy-efficient evaporative cooling system run cool air through the rooms, lowering temperatures on scorching summer days.

In the HRDC buildings, use was also made of old tyres and rubble in gabions for retaining walls, as well as clay, sandbags, cobs and rammed earth. In one building a mixture of sandbags, tyres, burnt clay and hydraform blocks have been used for the walls, displaying a medley of building alternatives, choices and possibilities. Placards on various buildings inform visitors what material has been used in their construction, with ‘windows’ showing the un-plastered raw material that is still visible in parts.

Well-known Namibian architect, Nina Maritz, designed the Habitat Centre. A team of contractors stretched their boundaries of conventional building to embrace an out-of-the-box approach, using locally sourced building materials and practising sound environmental principles.

A positive spin-off of environmentally sound practices is the greening of an area, as insects and birds are attracted to the site and a healthy ecosystem is enabled

Being a national research centre (as well as an educational, information, conference, demonstration and exhibition facility), different methods and products are developed and tested over the years to gauge their performance and durability, while simultaneously evaluating their costing. A range of projects is currently being developed in conjunction with the Namibian Government and the private sector, with the more successful ones already implemented in schools and communities.

Namibia is the driest country south of the Sahara. It is therefore imperative to save water wherever possible. It has, however, become a norm in conventional housing that good drinking water is used to flush toilets. This amounts to squandering a precious resource. Grey-water filtration plants can now make some of our effluent available for reuse.

The Centre has researched various dry-sanitation systems – ideal for the conditions in an arid country – that it has on site for low-intensity usage. It also makes use of a biogas plant for its conference centres where the effluent is treated naturally, running off to feed a wetland of reeds lower down on the property (while producing usable fuel). It is, therefore, not connected to the municipal sewerage network and saves the service fees. Green drums are also placed at points to collect rainwater. Always a positive spinoff to environmentally sound practices is the greening of an area, as insects and birds are attracted to the site and a healthy ecosystem is enabled.

The impression made on a visitor walking through the HRDC is of innovative thinking and building that is pleasing to the eye, modern, natural and harmonious. Two roof gardens are tended on the roofs of the two ablution facilities for insulation, fans turn in the wind on the tops of the dry toilets, enormous solar panels lie comfortably on the amphitheatre roofs, and packed-stone walls create a strong and earthy effect.

Clearly the ‘flush-and-forget’ and ‘fast-food’ way of thinking is no longer an option as the consequences of our way of life arrive increasingly on our doorsteps  

The Centre reveals the numerous possibilities of using local construction materials and environmentally friendly techniques that are available to build efficiently. Contrary to popular belief, these building techniques and methods are not aimed at the wealthy, creative or wacky; nor are they methods devised merely for impoverished communities. Conversely they reveal an alternate awareness of living (and building) that is relevant to everyone.

Dr Andreas Wienecke, director of the HRDC, points out a frightening fact, namely that the deforestation of the densely populated north-central area is clearly visible on Google Earth, with a distinct line showing the border between Namibia and Angola. “My point is that if you can see a problem on Google Earth, you have a problem.”

Clearly the ‘flush-and-forget’ and ‘fast-food’ way of thinking is no longer an option as the consequences of our way of life arrive increasingly on our doorsteps. The unequal equation of the time it takes for a tree to grow and the time it takes for one to be cut down provides a clue to our predicament, especially with an ever-increasing population. A culture that once utilised trees for their homestead fences, now makes use of reeds, sheeting and bricks as the majority of the trees have already been cut down, turning the land into a barren swathe. It is, thankfully, centres like these that are showing us the way to move forward positively, even in these dire times.

This article appeared in the April 2012 edition of FLAMINGO Magazine.

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