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One of the many things we’re learning of late, is what the word ‘essential’ really means. And although it can be different things to different people, it often entails re-evaluating our lives and how we live – including living cleaner and greener.

WORDS: MARANA BRAND – IMAGES: SHUTTERSTOCK

The far-reaching lockdown experience has no doubt provided much food for thought and room for introspection, causing us to re-evaluate our lifestyle and long-term goals, but also our immediate surrounds – our homes.

Household incomes will remain under pressure for some time. Increasing electricity costs, coupled with further load shedding and higher municipal tariffs, will continue to erode monthly budgets and disposable income. It therefore makes good sense to try to reduce these as much as possible and gear one’s lifestyle to suit the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Leave the grid

“It’s clear that in a post-lockdown world, living off the grid is likely to look increasingly appealing to homeowners, buyers and tenants both from a cost-efficiency perspective as well as adding value to properties.

Some may even relocate to achieve this,” says Anthony Stroebel, head of strategy and innovation for Pam Golding Properties and a director of the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA).

People will seek to become more self-sufficient, with their own electricity, water and even urban food gardens as a means of affording a measure of relief, independence and security in these uncertain times, he says.

“With over 16,7 million households in South Africa, homes are a significant consumer of water and energy resources as well as generators of waste. Any contribution towards reducing this consumption and output not only has the potential to help reduce the collective environmental footprint, it also adds value to a residential property, particularly in terms of desirability.”

Good for schemes

Steep annual increases in municipal electricity and water tariffs are a constant incentive for sectional title (ST) schemes and housing estates, for example, to implement alternative energy and water supply solutions, but increasingly they’re also seeking other ways of making their schemes “greener” and cheaper to run.

“Sometimes when we talk to trustees or owners about ‘greening’ their scheme, they shy away from the idea because they think it means a major overhaul as well as major expenditure, but they soon get enthusiastic once they see that making their scheme more sustainable, will ensure that it has better cash flow,” says Andrew Schaefer, MD of national property management company Trafalgar.

“That’s especially appealing in times like these when everyone is experiencing some degree of financial stress and there’s strong resistance to increasing levies even though costs are rising.”

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Start small

He says that in existing ST buildings or estates, the green measures that can be introduced range from a simple switch to lower-cost LED lighting or to eco-friendly products for cleaning, all the way up to the installation of a complete photo-voltaic (PV) electricity supply system such as those now used in many shopping centres and office buildings.

Other possible initiatives include sinking a borehole and installing rainwater storage tanks to reduce municipal water usage; instituting a recycling or reclamation system for the whole housing scheme; and retro-fitting a fibre network to provide high-speed internet connections and enable more residents to work from home instead of commuting to work.

In addition, says Schaefer, ST scheme trustees and homeowners’ association (HOA) directors should be encouraging and assisting individual owners in community housing schemes to implement water and energy saving measures in their own homes.

These include installing tap aerators and water-efficient showerheads, making use of energy-efficient appliances and organising car pools if they do commute to work to reduce their carbon footprint.

For those working from home, a small power inverter to keep computers and other electrical appliances running during power outages might also make sense. These devices convert solar DC power into AC power and installation would not require the permission of the body corporate or HOA.

Value increase

“Of course there are costs involved, but owners need to consider that any of these measures taken in their own homes or implemented in the housing scheme will not only shield them or their tenants from the consequences of load shedding and water interruptions, but will also help them achieve savings on the cost of electricity and water supplied by the municipality, make their scheme more attractive to potential home buyers, and enhance the value of their properties,” Schaefer says.

“This is evident from the growing demand for ‘green’ homes and apartments in new developments where, in terms of the National Building Regulations, solar water heaters or heat pumps are compulsory, there are minimum insulation requirements to reduce heat loss in winter and heat gain in summer, and any heating or cooling systems installed have to be energy-efficient.”

Follow the rules

However, says Schaefer, ST scheme trustees and directors do need to make very sure that they follow the correct procedures before deciding on any “green” improvements to their schemes such as a communal solar power system.

A reputable property management company can simplify matters and help trustees move their plan forward quickly and in the most cost-efficient manner.

“We can of course assist trustees to streamline this process, and to address the question of how to finance such improvements. It’s quite possible for the body corporate of an ST scheme to obtain a loan to fund their ‘green’ improvements and to pay this loan back out of quantified savings, but this will need to be approved by special resolution,” Schaefer says.

Rooting for it

Plant a tree – and boost your home’s value

Although more and more people are discovering that one of the most effective ways to offset their individual carbon footprint is to plant trees, homeowners have an added incentive to do so, says Gerhard Kotzé, MD, RealNet estate agency group.

“Apart from being sinks that trap carbon dioxide and so help to regulate weather patterns, air quality and even ambient temperatures, our experience shows that established trees in your garden or complex can increase the sale price of your home by between 5% and 7%,” he says.

“Most buyers naturally favour ‘green’ areas with shady streets and lush-looking gardens with big trees. What’s more, trees can help to cool your home and shelter it from strong winds, provide a habitat for birds and beneficial insects, create focal points in your garden, enrich the soil and produce bonuses such as flowers, fresh fruit or nuts.”

Proudly South African

However, there are a few important things to consider when choosing which trees to plant and where to plant them, he notes.

“For example, indigenous species are generally the best choice, as they tend to need less water but are also less susceptible to local pests – and more attractive to birdlife.”

In addition, Kotzé says, you need to decide whether you want an evergreen or a deciduous tree, depending on where you intend to plant it. An evergreen that does not drop many leaves will probably be best close to a pool, for example, while a deciduous specimen that loses its leaves in autumn might be a better choice for an area where you want to let in extra warmth and light in winter.

Consider the roots

The type of root system a tree has is also an important consideration because vigorous lateral roots can lift paving and even crack walls.

“When choosing a new tree, you need to consider how big it’s likely to get in a few years, and make sure this will be in proportion to the size of your garden – a huge spreading ‘umbrella tree’, for instance, could be a bit overpowering in a townhouse garden, but might look perfect in a landscape setting.”

The purpose of the tree – to provide screening for privacy, perhaps, or shade, or fruit – will also influence the type of tree you choose, as will the hardiness or resistance of the tree when it comes to frost and drought, he says.

“In other words, it’s best to do some homework before you go tree shopping. It’s also best to buy your saplings from a reputable nursery or tree farm that can give you the proper advice about how to plant and look after your trees to ensure they thrive,” Kotzé says.

How you can help

If you already have enough trees in your immediate surroundings, you can help to improve other areas and benefit communities and the environment by donating a tree through Food and Trees for Africa.

For more information visit trees.org.za.

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