Welcome to the future of living at HabitatBy: THORSTEN SCHIER
BUILDING with tyres, used car springs and old fire extinguishers? Not using any municipal sewage systems and at the same time producing fertiliser?
Creating more electricity than is needed and giving the rest back to the power company?
All these things might seem like utopian visions of the future, but at the Habitat Research and Development Centre (HRC), they are a reality.
With the world facing the prospect of global warming, ecological living has become a buzzword and the HRDC is ahead of its time in this regard.
Established to research the viability of alternative building materials and environmentally friendly sanitation and energy techniques, the centre serves as an example of the fight against global warming.
Dr Andreas Wienecke, director of the centre, says the HRDC is there “to show people what’s possible”.
He says the centre is supposed to demonstrate to people that for something to be attractive it does not necessarily have to be shiny and new.
In a recent publication titled ‘Guidelines for Building In An Energy Efficient Manner’, it is estimated that a massive 60 per cent of the world’s energy goes into the building, upkeep and demolition of structures.
Using second-hand materials could significantly reduce this number.
The centre’s gate demonstrates this concept perfectly as it is entirely made up of cut-up old spades and wheelbarrows.
Lights in the centre are all innovatively adorned, with some using old aluminium printing sheets as lampshades, others car oil filters.
Third-grade sheep’s wool is another ingredient you would not usually expect in the construction of a building, but the centre has used it stuffed into plastic bags as a roof insulator.
Trial buildings on the centre’s premises constructed entirely from clay and hydraform bricks, a Namibian invention, attest to the fact that building with concrete is not the only option.
The philosophy of wanting to change people’s perceptions extends to the centre’s approach to sanitation and electricity consumption.
Wienecke says the HRDC uses no municipal sewage system whatsoever, and treats sewage on site.
A composting toilet, for example, uses one tank while the other produces “high-quality fertiliser”, according to Wienecke.
Future plans for sewage treatment include a system whereby the roots of bamboo plants are used to treat underground sewage, which can again be used to water plants and crops.
Even though it recently had some solar panels stolen, the centre runs entirely on sun power for most of the year, and has an environmentally friendly electricity trading system in place with the municipality.
When the centre produces more power than it needs, it sends this back into the municipal grid and gets a credit.
On days when the sun is less strong, the centre can use this credit to supplement their solar power from the municipal system.
Wienecke says this system is even more advanced in Germany, for example, where people actually get paid for producing solar electricity.
For a country with as many days of sunlight as Namibia, solar power is an obvious solution.
But the sun also has its downside and many people and companies use air-conditioning to excess, even though it is an extremely power-consuming device.
The centre’s approach to this problem takes its cue from an ancient technique perfected by the Persians: the wind tower.
A hollow central tower is constructed with a pool of water at the bottom.
As the water evaporates, it meets with hot air coming from outside into the tower.
Mixing with water vapour causes the air to become heavy and it sinks to the bottom, where ventilation systems are connected to buildings into which the cold, heavy air escapes.
The tower demonstrates what the centre is all about: simple, effective and radically different ways of approaching everyday issues.
It has already attracted attention from architects and environmentalists from around the world.
In addition to its research work the centre, through its co-operation with the Shack Dwellers Association, hosts workshops for people looking to learn its innovative building techniques.