Vodacom has built Africa’s greenest building. While this news instantly caught SHEQ MANAGEMENT’s attention, GAVIN MYERS soon discovered that it’s a beacon for health and safety as well.
Vodacom has built one of the most amazing buildings in Africa. And that’s not because it’s a great example of fancy contemporary architecture, as one might immediately imagine. At first glance, the building seems so simple in its design – yet scratch beneath the surface, you soon discover that it features a mix of environmentally-friendly engineering designs down to the most minute detail.
Built on 350 m2 of under-utilised parking area, the building, known as the Site Solutions Innovation Centre (SSIC), has been designed to speed up the deployment of the Vodafone Group’s sustainability goals. It currently houses a team of six experts whose have the responsibility of reducing the cost of rolling out and maintaining a cellular network while focusing on the carbon reduction target, the health and safety of the company’s people, and its interaction with the communities in which it operates.
In April 2008, Vodafone announced its intention to reduce its CO2 emissions by 50 percent by 2020 (against its 2006/7 baseline of 1,23 million tonnes per annum?). In May 2011, the company announced a carbon-intensity reduction target of 20 percent per node for emerging markets by March 2015, against a 2010/11 baseline.
This small building, then, is of big importance for Vodafone’s operations both locally and internationally. The company’s approach to the building process was in keeping with the building’s intended use. As Lance Louw, Vodacom group head of health and safety, explains: “We looked far beyond the impact this building would have post-build – construction and maintenance needed to be closely monitored as well. “A proactive safety culture and visible leadership, includes four safety tours in a 12-month period and one inspection tour per quarter, and this was channelled to ensure that all contractors worked according to our standard,” says Louw.
“The building has been designed to have a low environmental impact, but we looked at the integrated relationship between safety, health and environment – HSE is integrated into the company’s DNA,” says Andries Delport, Vodacom chief technology officer.
“Strong visible commitment from senior management was a prerequisite, especially with challenges presented by the unique design necessitating frequent changes to the safety plan,” he continues. Delport undertook the responsibility of safety-champion to ensure a safe working environment. “But the whole team rose to the occasion,” he explains.
Contractors had to ensure that Vodacom’s Six Absolute Rules were ingrained in everything they did. These rules are put in place on every project Vodacom initiates to ensure that contractors work safely and become part of the company’s HSE culture. Everyone is required to arrive on site wearing a seatbelt (no workers are allowed to arrive on the back of a bakkie), no-one may text or talk while driving, speed or work under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and only competent persons are allowed to deal with electricity and work at heights.
“During construction, this was a huge challenge,” says Louw. “We had to on occasions stop work to correct behaviours on site and discuss health and safety.” The Six Absolute Rules have now been carried through to the maintenance of the building.
And what a building it is! In addition to employing architects GLH & Associates, various green, engineering, water and acoustic consultants were brought in to ensure that the building would achieve the highest (and first) six-star Green Star Rating in Africa. A transport engineer was even consulted so that transport implications would be considered.
The construction of the building itself left very little waste behind. As SSIC manager Etienne Gerber explains: “Elements that came out of the old parking lot were re-used. The concrete bollards and soil were used in the surrounding landscaping, while the tar was crushed and recycled for other projects.” By using reinforced earth and gabion rock baskets for the substructure, the amount of concrete ordinarily used in the foundations and substructure was reduced by 34 percent. In addition, the pre-cast concrete slabs used for the flooring achieved an absolute cement reduction of 62 percent.
The gabion rock store serves a secondary purpose of pre-treating the full supply of fresh air entering the building. “There is no air-conditioning or recycled air in the building,” says Gerber. “The environment is much nicer, and we barely get sick.”
This is achieved in quite an ingenious manner. Air is blown over the rock stores, which are heated during the day and cooled at night. The warm day-time air is sent over the cold rocks to the courtyard. An absorption chiller then takes the hot water from the solar tubes on the roof, creates cold water that goes to a grille through which the pre-cooled air passes, before being sent into the building through floor ducts for extra cooling. The concrete slabs are thermally-activated by this system too, whereby some of the solar water gets pumped into the floor to create an initial, slow cooling and/or heating effect of 1°C/hour.
A double glass façade provides thermal insulation, minimising the heating/cooling element from outside and delivering a strong sound-damping effect. Large roof overhangs further contribute to thermal insulation.
The glass façade also cuts down the building’s lighting requirements. Automatic blinds around the building follow the sun and move up from the floor accordingly, keeping the amount of light constant and reducing glare inside the building. “For lighting, the blinds first go one third down, then daylight and occupancy sensors pick up movement, before switching on the LED lights,” explains Gerber.
Further, all electricity required for the building is produced by Solyndra photovoltaic solar panels. In winter, 250 kWh of electricity is produced daily – double the building’s requirements. Excess capacity is sent to the neighbouring building’s grid, and drawn on when needed at night. All energy-consuming devices, down to the coffee machine and video conferencing facility, were carefully selected for their energy efficiency.
A wetland created in the central courtyard uses plants and organisms to naturally purify water from the wash basins and kitchenette, and rainwater is captured on the roof and fed into the courtyard pond and into water storage tanks in the basement.
All timber in the building (Eucalyptus Gum) is accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council and locally sourced, while the ceiling is made of recyclable, sound-absorbing material.
Rounding it all off, the building structure is designed to be disassembled so that all elements can be re-used should the building be decommissioned. Gerber isn’t joking when he says a “short tour” of the building takes an hour …
For all its effort, Vodacom was awarded the 2012 Nedbank Greening the Future award in June – surely the first of many accolades the SSIC and all its innovations will bring the company in the not-too-distant green future.