Gorgeous Green House

The Renovation Journey of a 1940’s ‘Traditional’ to 2015 ‘Contemporary, Green & Gorgeous’


Join the Rooftop Revolution, it’s the Solar Solution!

Join the Rooftop Revolution

We’ve got 24 hours for South Africa to Go Solar!


In the midst of a crushing electricity crisis, Greenpeace considers it a right of every South African to produce their own power, and to feed extra electricity into the grid and get paid for it as a long-term energy solution.

This means being permitted to put solar panels onto rooftops and connecting to a decentralized energy system, where energy can be generated near the place where it is needed. This would have a double impact of increasing energy efficiency, while allowing electricity production to finally be in the control of the people who need it.

As we have seen in examples in more than 50 countries, a rooftop revolution is not only feasible, it is ready to go.

So this is great news!

What is holding this back? Paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork, with barriers imposed by the South African government.

YOU can change this!

Greenpeace is urging government to make the process feasible for South Africans.
we are sending a formal submission to NERSA (the National Energy Regulator of South Africa), and with your help we can put the pressure on NERSA to simplify the regulations governing installing solar panels and feeding extra electricity into the grid.

It’s pretty technical, but essentially we believe that if you sign this petition to NERSA then there is a clear indication of support for simplifying the regulations, and focusing on helping people install solar panels, rather than burying them in paperwork. 



Green Concrete: an oxymoron? (plus pics of our polystyrene process)

DSC00073There is no doubt that concrete is a filthy substance to produce. Worldwide, it is the most widely-used construction material with over ten billion tons produced annually and it carries a massive CO2 burden – in total about 7% of global CO2 emissions come from concrete production.

On ‘round one’ of the Gorgeous Green House design we were rather shocked to learn how many truckloads of concrete would need to go into the building.  We began looking at alternatives:

Fly-ash concrete is readily available in many countries. Fly-ash is a waste material – the inorganic residue – that remains after pulverized coal is burned in coal-burning power plants. Disposing of it can be a problem. Fortunately, the construction industry has discovered that fly-ash can produce a superior concrete with excellent finishing characteristics.

Recycled aggregates and lightweight aggregates can replace the usual sand and gravel in some concrete applications. This can consist of crushed concrete, brick, or crushed glass. Lightweight concrete is made by using expanded volcanic materials – pumice and perlite, for example – to replace some of the usual stone aggregate.  Volcanic materials also add some thermal insulation value to the concrete. Unfortunately this is not yet available to us in South Africa.

There are also interesting products in R & D using for example waste products from oil refinement with huge CO2 emission reductions in the production process. Not yet available.

Traditional alternatives such as timber construction could also be considered.

So what did we do?

Polystyrene ready to go

Polystyrene ready to go

Firstly, we lost as many flat could roofs as we could to be replaced with timber trusses and metal sheeting.

A much larger percentage of concrete to be used though, is in the slab between the floors, the off-shutter wall and supporting the roof garden so we turned our attention here.  The roof garden was non-negotiable as the structural support required doesn’t provide any options.  We could have put timber flooring in elsewhere but it would be heavily treated for termites, noisy and aesthetically not in keeping with the contemporary design of the house.

The awesome British show Grand Designs provided inspiration.  Polystyrene is being used in conjunction with cement to reduce the volumes required.  Timber formwork is fiddly to make and a lot of it cannot be reused. Using polystyrene in place of timber effectively kills two birds with one stone: it acts as formwork to mould the concrete and is then left in place to provide insulation.

First phase off-shutter wall

First phase off-shutter wall

Polystyrene beads can also be added to a concrete mix but our engineer was not happy with the structural support this process would provide.

So our green guilt is somewhat reduced and we are also reminding ourselves that concrete lasts. This is the stuff the Romans and Egyptians built their empires with!  It’s impermeable to air and wind-driven rain. And concrete is inedible, so bugs and vermin can’t gnaw at it. A building with exterior concrete walls can also be energy-efficient, especially in climates that have daily temperature fluctuations. Even though concrete provides little insulation, it creates thermal mass that can store warmth or cold, reducing indoor temperature fluctuation.

Polystyrene in situ waiting for pour

Polystyrene in situ waiting for pour

Check out our polystyrene process and stage one of the off-shutter wall.  Concrete is being poured on Monday 05-08 Another significant milestone achieved. Very exciting!

A reminder of the end goal :  living within biodiversity

A reminder of the end goal : living within biodiversity



So What’s the Problem With Eskom Power?

We’ve all been grumbling in recent years at Eskom’s unreliable provision of electricity and are aghast at recent tariff increases.  Brace yourselves; Eskom is targeting an average annual increases of around 15% for the next five years.  The rate you per kWh depends on how much you use.

Figures from ESKOM website

Yet compared to global consumers our electricity bills are cheap.  Europeans for example are paying 4 times as much.

Coal is the most polluting energy source on the planet, and the main cause of the world’s CO2 emissions. (In addition it spews out nitrous oxide (N20), hydrofluorocarbons (CFCs, HCFCs, and HFCs) and methane (CH4). These emissions trap the sun’s heat and warm the planet, adding to the earth’s natural greenhouse effect. Coal ash, the solid waste produced contains large quantities of toxic metals, including mercury, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, nickel, and selenium.

South Africa is the world’s fifth largest producer of coal, and is the sixth largest consumer on the planet.

The reality though is that the price we pay does not reflect our real cost.  South Africa’s addiction to coal generated electricity (only 1% of our electricity is coming from renewable resources) has other externalised costs including the following:

  • Acid mine drainage
  • Air pollution
  • Polluted water, massive use of water in production
  • Tunnels causing instability
  • Coal miners and local communities health and high mortality rate
  • Environment and eco-system degradation from the physical process of extracting the coal
  • Long term environment and eco-system degradation as a consequence of the greenhouse gases produced.

The University of Pretoria’s Business Enterprises unit has just released a report entitled The True Cost of Coal which clearly outlines the impact of continuing on this path.  The projected externalised costs (the ones that don’t appear on your utility bill) for the proposed new Kusile mine alone are a whopping R60.6 billion (766,656,000.00 USD) a year! The same report outlines the benefits of the transition to renewables, including far greater job creation and potentially faster provision to communities who are as yet not connected to the grid.  There are still 10 million South Africans without power (nearly 20% of us) and the technology is here to do it clean and safely.

But….How Much Will it Cost the Average Household to go Solar?

Before answering that question I urge you to look at your current energy costs.  Scrutinize your electricity bill.  Look at how many Kwh you are currently using.  The Eskom table above could be a little misleading as my family is currently paying R1.02 (0.12 USD) per kWh. Calculate what you will be paying based on a 15% annual increase over the next say 10 – 15 years.  Try not to fall off your chair in a dead faint!

Eskom have a nifty calculator on their website that allows you to drop in your current kWh consumption and it shows you what you are paying and how much you will pay next year.  Go to http://www.eskom.co.za/c/53/tariffs-and-charges/ and click on the residential tariff comparison tool.

I worked out that if my family were to continue in our current very non-green house with our current shocking consumption of 1664 kWh per month our electricity spend over the next 10 years   would    be in the region of R694 995.93 (80367 USD).  Over the next 13 years    R1 236 697.00 (143 013.00 USD). Your own calculation may well provide similar impetus to explore alternatives! So clearly ‘dirty energy’ is costing us at all levels, but it still boils down to ‘what can I afford now’?

For several years I’ve had a minor obsession with the notion of ‘getting off the grid’.  I would ask vendors at Sustainability Expo’s and the like “how much for a family of 5 to set up to get off the grid”?  Five years ago the response would be a sorrowful shake of the head and responses like “maybe just aim to get your water heated and supply your lights”.  If I pushed the numbers ranged around the 1 Million Rand (116 000.00 USD) mark.  Fortunately the cost of photovoltaic (PV) cells is falling fast and some say that they will be at grid parity with Eskom by 2015.  (David Lishitz: Our Power Station).

I’ve been researching options, talking to vendors and doing some sums.  I recommend that you talk to   www.solarsunsa.co.za   who will walk your through the minefield of technicalities to help you understand your options.  Please beware of the plethora of inferior imports.

I’ve worked my calculations based on an annual consumption of 6694 kWh which is feasible if you make some changes.  For example, just switching to a solar geyser or heat pump can reduce your use by 40%.  (Note:  I plan to post a lot more all options to reduce energy consumption, including the hotly debated solar geyser vs heatpumps issue!).

The bottom line:   to get 97% off the grid your costs (panels, inverters, batteries, display screen, controllers, installation/labour etc.) from a reputable provider will cost approximately R340 000.00 (39317.92 USD).

I know, I know!!!  It’s a massive amount of money but if you plan to be in your home for a while you will get your money back by year 13.5 and thereafter you are laughing.  Remember the 15% increases we are promised? The scenario in the previous paragraph plays out like this:

So sadly, it’s clear at this point that only the wealthy can afford to make the investment (and benefit from the longer term payback) but is this not true of most investments?  Perhaps this is the way to view the opportunity?  My sense is that if industry, government and private households just get this thing started volumes will drive costs in the right direction, enabling more and more people access, encouraging further price reductions etc.  What will also create incentive is the ability to ‘sell back’ our excess energy when we have more than we need.  This is standard in other first world countries so fingers crossed we will catch up soon.

So, if you’ve got the means to make this investment and want to look at the viability for yourselves where to start?

Designing Your Solar System

Assuming you have already reduced your energy usage via the usual switch to LED’s, energy efficient appliances, solar geysers/heatpumps, general energy conscious living etc. start talking to vendors in the industry about how they would put together a system for you and what the costs would be based on your kWh consumption. Ask for a range of quotes to take you from 60% – 95% ‘off the grid’.

Battery Enclosure

You need to have a place to put your panels, and batteries, display screen and converters etc. That all needs to be planned for and a good specialist should advise.  You will need an outside cupboard that is well ventilated.

Most vital to the success of the technology will be the amount of sun you are in a position to harvest.If you are concerned that your intended roof/wall/garden space gets too much shade you

Solar Pathfinder

can ask you vendor to install a Solar Path Finder to calculate how many kWh of energy you will be able to harvest at all months of the year. The first design of our Gorgeous Green House had the panels positioned in the shade of an ancient Albizia adianthifolia (Flat Crown tree), not good! Trevor Wheeler www.solarsunsa.co.za  climbed up on our roof to put the Solar Path Finder in 3 places to take readings for us so we are now confident that our roof now facing North East is going to be right.

Don’t be put off if your are retrofitting and you roof line is wrong.   One can get creative and brackets can be used to place them just about anywhere as the link shows:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vC-Xb3uaTk0

IOL Business Report SA Time: Fri Oct 05 2012 11:21:33 GMT+0200 (South Africa Standard Time) http://www.greenpeace.org/africa/en/News/news/The-True-Cost-of-Coal/

(http://www.precaution.org/lib/08/prn_is_coal_green.081106.htm) ( World Coal Association. 2010. Coal Statistics. http://www.worldcoal.org/resources/coal-statistics/


Green Cooking with a Polysterene Filled Bag

Even if you don’t give a damn about the health of our planet and are only swayed by  things that make obvious financial sense then this is a product for you.  I’m ashamed to say that I have only recently made my purchase and I am at a loss as to say why it has taken me so long!  Foolish me.  Here is how it works:

1. Prepare you soup, stew, curry, rice etc on top of the stove as usual

2. When bubbling furiously, snap on the lid and nestle it into the wonder bag.

3. Pull the drawstring tight and leave for as long as you would normally. You can’t burn the pot so if you forget about it it won’t dry out.

4. Several hours later (or less depending on what you are cooking) a delicious, tender and succulent curry!

South African eco-entrepreneur Sarah Collins came up with the idea four years ago during a power cut, when she managed to keep her dinner cooking by surrounding the pan with cushions. She admits: ‘It’s the oldest technology in the world. I don’t understand how someone else hasn’t made it already. Our ancestors buried hot stew pots in the ground to keep them cooking without fuel and our grandmothers tucked them into hayboxes’. With the Wonderbag, Collins has simply brought the idea up-to-date and made it portable.

So in addition to the obvious energy  savings (50 –  90%) using a Wonderbag also:

  •  leads to improved air quality in homes by reducing smoke from cooking fires.
  • reduces risk of shack fires caused by paraffin stoves.
  • empowers communities by increasing the cash available for discretionary expenses.
  • provides job opportunities and skill development opportunities in disadvantaged communities for women making Wonderbags.
  • allows tasty, nutritious meals can be prepared ahead of time.
  • reduces food wastage as food cannot burn or overcook.
  • provides cooling properties allowing people dependant on public transport to bring their food shopping home before it spoils.
  • with regular use, one Wonderbag can avoid one ton of carbon emissions every two years.
  • reduces total community demand for wood as fuel in rural areas promotes forest regrowth and biodiversity.
  • polystyrene is re-used instead of dumped in landfill sites.

Phew do you need any more convincing!  Look out for them at flea markets, food markets and the like.  I got mine for R100 ( about $12) at the Durban Sustainability Expo.