• Drew Wilson


Sustainability is what inspires me to get going in the morning. It’s what I think about when I look at my young daughters and when I think about their future. Read on to find out what sustainable construction means in South Africa and where the responsible lies.

Sustainability is more than a ‘green agenda’; it’s more than health and safety. Without sounding wishy-washy, it’s about legacy. It excites me to see the progress

in other countries and the readiness of certain industries in South Africa to finally accept sustainability as a fundamental part of business, not just an add on.

Sustainable construction in South Africa is a mixed bag, which is largely expected in a developing country with numerous barriers to meaningful change. While we exceed international best practice in some areas, we battle to meet basic social needs and environmental benchmarks in others.

Civil engineering, bridge, construction, South Africa, infrastructure, Cornubia, Umhlanga, Durban, KwaZulu Natal
Sustainable construction in South Africa must overcome challenges of a developing country.

What is sustainability?

Simply put, sustainability is creating something that has the ability to go on without you, the instigator. It’s not creating employment on a short-term project; it’s providing employment and training so your labourer can find work after your contract has ended. It’s not building an energy-efficient building; it’s providing the solar power infrastructure an energy-efficient building needs to operate off-gird.

South Africa is a place of need. Long-term job creation, better service delivery, preservation of the natural environment and training opportunities for unskilled and skilled labour – these are our most pressing demands. So how is the construction sector meeting these needs? The answer: unsustainably.

Setting the scene

Developed countries have the freedom to focus on ‘softer’ issues like CO2 emissions or material reuse and recycling. While the focus of developing countries is simply to build infrastructure to sustain the economy, without which economic progress is limited. In South Africa, we’re a country of two halves. These ‘softer’ concerns of construction are achievable goals in our urban areas and cities but in rural areas, which still lack basic services and infrastructure, they’re unrealistic without proper leadership and skills.

The implementation of sustainable construction practices in South Africa has the potential to assist in alleviating some of our very real challenges. It’s incredible to think that civil engineering has the power to balance social inequity, fight poverty and provide housing, water, electricity, sanitation and roads where most needed.

Civil engineering, bridge, construction, infrastructure, Durban, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa
Infrastructure projects in rural South Africa unable to focus on 'softer' concerns of construction.

Making a change

The government has responded by drafting legislature addressing some of our socio-economic issues to encourage a systemic shift. But, to date, implementation is lacking. I believe a big part of this is the scarcity of tools to plan, measure and rate sustainability in our unique context. And, I’m not the only one who sees this gap - other building professionals agree.

Exploring sustainability in construction was the focus of my Master’s thesis and my research results reveal South Africa’s current status from the perspective of fellow engineers and building professionals. 96% agreed that sustainable construction practices are important in developing countries, but only 10% have used rating tools to monitor and measure sustainability. On top of this, 50% admitted to not measuring sustainability on their projects, at all - ever!

Engineering a civils sustainability role

Project management and civil engineering in South Africa go hand-in-hand in the civil infrastructure industry. This means the civil engineer is responsible for the project from conception to completion, aiding the client in design, decision-making, contractor selection and onsite supervision. In South Africa, it’s not unusual to see a live project without a dedicated project manager. If it was commonplace, this role would manage the project holistically without bias towards any particular technical, financial, operational, environmental or social aspects of the project.

Engineers should seek solutions compatible with sustainable development principles and environmental responsibility. This is what we’re taught. We’re excellent at the technical side of things, meeting minimum standards and practical problem-solving but we’re still not doing enough to impact economic, environmental and social change. To make this happen, I see a meeting of two vital roles – the traditional civil engineer and the sustainability project manager.

Sustainable project management is all about planning, monitoring and controlling project delivery without losing sight of the environmental, economic and social aspects. This is where a sustainability rating tool or defining clear sustainability goals can really drive transformation. It takes into consideration the resources, processes, deliverables and effects of the project beyond the handover date. This emphasis on lifecycle ensures taking a long-term view, which can only be a good thing!

Civil engineering, bridge, construction, South Africa, infrastructure, Durban, KwaZulu Natal
Long-term view of sustainable construction will strengthen opportunities for meaningful change.

Now what?

The government, clients, contractors, community and stakeholders all play an important role in sustainability - without each of these cogs working in tandem, sustainability efforts would be in vain. That being said, the civil engineer is central and his or her influence in a project can’t be underestimated. In my research 50% said they believed clients are responsible for leading sustainability, while 22% believe it sits squarely on the shoulders of civil engineers. Through their advisory role to clients, the civil engineer is the common denominator in both scenarios… it’s time to step up!

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