Does Sustainability Have a Place in Africa? The story behind Tšitso Architecture

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The issue of climate change in the global south, especially Lesotho, is a contentious one. Some feel that it is too tedious and that we have many other problems to focus on; and some feel that it is entirely manufactured and can be ignored. Unfortunately though, whatever our feelings may be, the evidence of our lived experience is telling us that things have changed. 

Just this year alone (2021), we have experienced atypical cold spurts in Lesotho in what should normally be our summer season. Sometimes when it rains the streets become flooded while people’s homes shift foundations and crack from ground water and erosion. 

When it isn’t raining it’s unbearably hot with the interior of buildings requiring mechanical ventilation throughout the day. In the winter it is bitterly cold and most households have to divert much of their income to keeping the house warm. But what does sustainability have to do with all of this? 

Sustainability can be defined as follows: 

“Sustainable design seeks to reduce negative impacts on the environment, and the health and comfort of building occupants, thereby improving building performance.”

-GSA

“By incorporating our African principles of sustainable living, which are seated in respect and gratitude we can continue to forge our way into a better future for ourselves and those who come after us.”

– TŠITSO ARCHITECTURE  

So where does Tšitso Architecture fit into all of this? 

Tšitso Architecture is a multi-services architectural firm based in Johannesburg, Maseru and Gaborone. The team have combined experience of 24 years in the industry, which has equipped them with the skills necessary to navigating the unique and ever evolving African Built Environment landscape. 

At the core of Tšitso Architecture is their motto:

“Sustainable Architecture, Enhanced Lived Experience”- Tšitso Architecture 

 
In a conversation with Ms Mamofella Mphaka as a company representative in Lesotho, here is the story behind Tšitso Architecture: 

“As a 100% black African owned and run architectural firm, we are often asked whether or not there is a place for sustainability in our region and more specifically a developing country such as Lesotho. 

Our answer is, yes. Why? Simple- we believe that at the core of the African soul lies practices and rituals that are rooted in taking care of, mending and giving conscious gratitude to nature and all of its components. It is evident in some of the rituals that we still practice today. Therefore, sustainability, as it is now referred to in contemporary times, is an inherent way of life of the ancient African person. It has a place here in modern life too.”

“That is however the more philosophical motive. The practical reason is that we are more severely affected by climate change and thus need to engage in measures that will help us live successful and comfortable lives in this changing climate. The side effect thereof being the restoration of our local environment which is a commodity of tourism and a reduction of damage to infrastructure which is essential to our economy.”-M. Mphaka 

“As Basotho, sustainability is intuitive to us and woven into our culture. An accessible example of this is that most of us grew up with our grandparents having a large rain water collection barrel attached to the side of the house. Another example is that the traditional Basotho adobe (mud & straw brick) hut remains one of the most thermally sound building materials even when compared to a concrete brick. We at Tšistso architecture harness this intuition and with the knowledge of 6 years of architecture school and many more years of experience in the industry, engineer creative solutions to address the issues that we face with our climate today.” -Continues Mphaka

“There are principles that guide the creation of sustainable buildings. This knowledge is the result of studies conducted by those who came before us as well as new discoveries that are made each day. This industry is every changing with new technological inventions and we use this knowledge to create the best outcome for our clients. To give a clearer picture of our work, here are some of the principles that we use:”

Building Design vs. Climate Change

A building’s shape can be expressed in ratios which, when adjusted can affect the climatic comfort of its occupants. As an architect, one is tasked with working out the optimal building shape to maximise the comfort of the occupants. 

Orientation relative to micro climate

The direction that the building faces needs to be optimal relative to climatic conditions such as North sun, wind and driving rain. If the orientation is not optimal, one can end up with a building that e.g.: is unbearably hot in summer and too cold in winter or draughty and drives rain in through door openings. 

form_orientation_2 | Passive design, Cooling techniques, Sustainable  building design
Response to micro climate through form. (Mour,2019)

Fenestration and other openings

Fenestration are the windows (glazing) components of a building. Some building comprise entirely of windows while others will typically have a few openings punctured into solid walls. It is the architect’s job to calculate the ratio of fenestration to that of solid walls. Most countries will assign a ratio within which a building is allowed to be, outside of this range, the building is required to be assigned double or triple glazed windows. This ensures that the internal temperatures remain comfortable without the building having to rely on mechanical ventilation which alleviates the overall stress on the grid that causes power cuts. 

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Lighting quality vs. solar heat gain via fenestration. (Building Energy Efficient Standards, CA USA, 2016)
Modelling internal thermal comfort vs. fenestration with building software. (IESve, 2021)

Materiality

The materiality of a building is the matter that it comprises, from the steel in the foundations; the concrete; the walls; roof and all internal finishes. This is probably the most exciting of all the conversations for clients as there is a huge variety of materials available on the market today. 

An effective combination of materials can result in an optimum building that also has a minimal environmental impact. Unfortunately though, our Basotho nation seem to be very conservative in this regard but as with other parts of life, people are starting to warm up to exploring different materials. 

Bamboo architecture. Zab E Lee Cooking School. (Ciangmai Life Architects, Thailand 2017)
https://inhabitat.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/1/files/2011/01/Nike-Football-Training-Center_Julian-Abrams-4c.jpg
Composite Timber. Football Training Centre (RUFproject architect, South Africa, 2011)
Metal cladding (Willinga Park, Australia)
Rammed earth (Rammed earth projects, South Africa)

By carefully calibrating these elements and the others, your architect can create a net- zero building for you. 

Net Zero is when a building is able to give back as much as it takes out or more into its climate thus sustaining or mending the environment that it is located in. A collection of building of this nature are called, net zero villages, then net zero town, cities, countries… and before you know it we’ll have a net zero earth. Practically, a net zero building has some and more of the following features: passive heating and cooling, solar power, water recycling, bio waste transformation for the recycling of the outcome components, a rain water harvesting roof, high r value walls; roof and floors and low impact or recycled materiality. The side effect is that the costs of running a net zero building are at a fraction of running a building on the municipal grid especially given the rising electricity costs and unreliable water supply. 

Net zero building principles (BigRentz, 2021)

There are many more facets to sustainability and we guide our clients step by step to understanding and realising their green building ambitions. We hope that our efforts will change minds and start contributing towards an enhanced, abundant and marketable Lesotho one sustainable building at a time. 

Examples of our work:

Homestead rural retreat

Client brief: accommodations for three families at the family homestead; tranquil, holiday feel to complement the existing huts. 


Rural Patio:

Client brief: a place braai, chill and eat where all age groups can spend time together.  

Back Yard Patio: 

Client brief: An entertainment area in the back yard of the existing dwelling to host friends and family and escape the daily bustle of life. 

Veld House: 

Client Brief: House of a newly acquired farm plot in the Witwatersrand veld that encompasses all self-sustainable elements especially in light of load shedding. 

Bathroom & Patio: 

Client brief: A new master bedroom wing that is a get- away retreat space from the rest of the house. 

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