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Elevating the humble loo block

By Eamonn Ryan

It is estimated that by 2025 half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas due to growing population. Employing Enviro Loo sanitary technology, construction technology company BOXA and its partners have installed a fixed, off-grid toilet facility at Victoria Yards, a landmark urban regeneration project, near the Johannesburg CBD.

Urban farming at Victoria Yards.Credit: Eamonn RyanThe combination of these new building and off-grid technologies is a world first, says BOXA founder Anthony Lewis, with the intention having been to develop the prototype and thereafter pilot the facility for a broader roll out. BOXA is elevating the humble loo block – literally, 50cm off the ground. It’s also rather pretty and certainly even today’s concerned generation of environment warriors wouldn’t be able to pick holes in its green attributes.The combination of these new building and off-grid technologies is a world first, says BOXA founder Anthony Lewis, with the intention having been to develop the prototype and thereafter pilot the facility for a broader roll out. BOXA is elevating the humble loo block – literally, 50cm off the ground. It’s also rather pretty and certainly even today’s concerned generation of environment warriors wouldn’t be able to pick holes in its green attributes.Victoria Yards is a sprawling precinct of old warehouses, steamworks, laundries and historical buildings extending to some 20 000m2, which have been lovingly repurposed and restored as part of a broader urban regeneration project called Makers’ Valley which spans the Jukskei River. Situated over the road from the Nando’s global headquarters and developed by Group44, it is entirely off-grid and literally blossoming as its activities include urban farming. It is a socio-economic project with a commercial twist, which was visited by the Duchess of Sussex on the Sussex’s 2019 visit to South Africa. A formerly derelict site, it now boasts 40 to 50 tenants. Artists, artisans, sculptors, metal workers, carpenters, distillers and brewers are all part of the fabric of Victoria Yards, simultaneously supporting marginalised youth and women.

BOXA identified Victoria Yards as the ideal location to exhibit prototypes of an entirely off-grid toilet block together with a multifunctional learning environment that would be suitable for a range of functions for the local community including early childhood development, adult education and training. By aligning closely with Victoria Yards’ mission of sustainable community development, and contrasting the regeneration of old structures with the new building materials and technologies that are now available, BOXA aims to showcase the possibilities of building in the 21st century and shift mindsets from more traditional ‘brick and mortar’ construction methods that are becoming environmentally and logistically unsustainable, particularly in African markets.

Lewis explains that he is developing an off-grid sustainable ablution facility and chose this location as his first project because it was already high profile and being off-grid itself matched the values of BOXA. He explains that its business model is to produce sustainable, high performance ‘buildings in a box’, in this case an ablution block in a box, but with an ‘envelope’ capable of multiple uses. “We integrate and aggregate technologies to provide rapid-build solutions,” in this instance the rapid build is only one component of the toilet solution – the others being an entirely off-grid facility which harvests its own rainwater and generates its own electricity to work the water pump. Our objective was to demonstrate that such a structure can be installed within five days, using no cement or water in its construction, “and we more-or-less accomplished that, given it’s a prototype”.

This means it can be placed anywhere – in an open field, in the bush and in a rural school. The waste from the toilet, due to the dry sanitation system, several months later simply becomes compost – which at Makers’ Valley with its urban farming can be used immediately.

The 12v pressurised motor, powered by two 360W PV solar panels on the roof.Credit: Eamonn Ryan

It’s like Lego

The walls comprise a lego-type polycrete dry-stacking block system, the roof and floor slabs are Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), suspended off the ground on a steel pile foundation system. The four composting toilets are supplied by Enviro-Loo, a South African company and global leader in dry sanitation systems. Rainwater is harvested off the roof and stored beneath the floor slab in a ‘Damsak’ – a large bladder that can store enough water for over 20 000 handwashes from the water saving taps. The lights and on-demand water pump are powered by a simple 12V DC solar system. The classroom will be built in April 2020, again in five days, and will showcase this world-first integration of new materials and systems on a larger scale. 

Anthony Lewis, founder of BOXA, holding the Rainwatch filter. Credit: Eamonn RyanThe blocks for these prototypes were imported from Namibia where they are manufactured using desert sand, and Lewis is in discussion with PolyCare Research Technologies GmbH, the German company that developed the walling system, to establish manufacturing plants in South Africa, using the plentiful mine dump sand, “because it’s a waste stream”. “But while looking at this product we realised we would in effect be presenting our customers with the problem of what cladding, flooring and other components to use, too many choices. We realised we would have to engineer the entire structure. BOXA is a consequently a developer of holistic rapid-build solutions for essential community infrastructure (classrooms, toilet blocks, clinics, housing) through the integration of innovative and sustainable building materials, systems and off-grid technologies. 

“At BOXA we are committed to viable, high performance alternatives to using cement, water and river sand in construction, packaged with convenient and cost-effective ‘operating systems’ for power, water and sanitation in order to minimise the environmental footprint. Cement production accounts for over 8% of our global CO2 emissions, and in many African contexts, it is a huge logistical and project management challenge getting bricks, cement and water to site and keeping projects on time and on budget. In fact, it is our view that Africa’s essential development needs could be much more effectively and sustainably addressed by adopting these new environmentally friendly building technologies that are now becoming available and accepted for the first time. Globally, a ‘Sustainability Revolution’ is taking place, and much like the digital revolution we will witness significant advances in the construction sector and the built environment as these technologies will rapidly become more prevalent,” says Lewis.

The casting of concrete foundations can be particularly time consuming and challenging in certain soil conditions, so BOXA used Surefoot, a steel-pile foundation technology that was developed in Australia, which is ideal for the lightweight BOXA top structure that it has developed in the form of the CLT slabs and Polycrete wall blocks. The entire structure is supported by seven steel footings and a laminated timber beam substructure which in this project took exactly six hours to put in,” explains Lewis. “There’s no way you can plumb anything here, because it is a flood zone in the Jukskei River valley with the toilet block literally sitting on the river. The water table is as high as the ground surface itself. But at the same time, it was the ideal position for these toilets to be installed on this site. 

“The combination of these new building and off-grid technologies is a world first.”

“The systems that go around the ‘envelope’ include: the rainwater harvesting, solar energy and dry sanitation. All the water you would ever need for the ablution block sits beneath its floor in an expandable 4 500ℓ PVC ‘damsak’, having been harvested off its 4m X 6.5m roof and this includes the six- to seven-month dry season. With the dry sanitation system by Enviro Loo the only thing water is used for is washing hands. It is for this reason that the facility is raised 50cm off the ground with the steel piles to create a void for the bladder, as opposed to storing it in rigid external tanks,” says Lewis. It is pre-filtered off the roof via a product sponsored by an Australian company called Rain Watch, before going into the damsak. 

“The damsak is highly scalable and could even store 100 000ℓ for all the needs of a school, for instance. The reticulation of the water is then done through a 12v pressurised motor, powered by two 360W PV solar panels on the roof. The taps are aerated to minimise water consumption to 0.65ℓ/minute, meaning one damsak will deliver more than 20 000 hand washes.” The atomising mixers are provided by Swiss Eco, which Lewis says has the most advanced technology in aerated taps, and which has sponsored them.

Contractor Angus Fleming of Sustainable Building Solutions says that SwissEco is retrofitting numerous schools in South Africa, and even without the full off-grid system, its atomising taps are saving schools 15 000ℓ a week. He says the payback period on such systems “is probably several weeks”. Harscan was selected for its plug-and-play characteristic, which fits the building-in-a-box concept. Rossco supplied the sanitary-wear, and SwissEco the atomising taps. 

“Hep2o was chosen for the water supply due to the ease of installation. The secure jointing method and flexibility makes it the ideal product for quick safe installations. Hep2o has no scrap value and has a design life of over 50 years,” says Malcolm Harris, Harscan owner. 

“This is the first time such a project has been done: we had no precedent,” says Lewis. “Being a prototype, and also a relatively expensive installation, it was a collaborative initiative that was enabled with the generous support of a number of suppliers, contractors and artisans who contributed their time and technologies. But through the building of this prototype and feedback from the users we will have a much clearer view of the possibilities, improvements and costings for commercial installations on a scalable basis.” 

It’s not just a toilet – it’s an education facility“We see the market for such a product being mid-to high-end, rather than low cost – at least until we have the scale to deliver at the appropriate price point to the mass market. Talking specifically of the ablution facility, it would be ideal for game farms and lodges out in the bush, for both guests and staff. To build anything in the bush is a challenge, and in some places like Botswana you are not actually permitted to use concrete or septic tanks – it has to have no environmental footprint. Other market segments include golf and eco estates, wine farms and venues sited in remote places of natural beauty, and generally environmentally conscious projects. Its final look is also aesthetic rather than purely utilitarian, thanks to Frank Bohm at Frank Bohm Studios who led the design and build process,” says Lewis.
In time, it will include Internet of Things (IoT) chips enabling water levels to be monitored, and for water-conscious guests to see how much water they’ve just used by means of a display. This will educate users on water consumption – and interest in the technology might persuade more people to actually wash their hands.

From left: Malcolm Harris, owner of Harscan and Sustainable Building Solutions’  Angus Fleming. Credit: Eamonn Ryan

While the product isn’t currently aimed at low-cost housing, Lewis says this is the major challenge facing all of Africa and the ultimate goal of BOXA is to have its product pre-manufactured and capable of being shipped and installed anywhere in off-grid Africa where it would require minimal skilled labour to actually install. Lewis says affordable housing will become a key focus for BOXA – but only once it has a Polycare factory in South Africa, and appropriate scale. It also has particular application to schools, so many of which do not have appropriate ablution facilities.

“This handsome and inviting little building is packed with technology and surprises that we hope will delight and educate its users in the possibilities of new building technologies, sustainable development and saving water. Going to the toilet is an essential daily function for every human being, and we hope that this will inspire others to see sanitation and building in a different, more progressive light,” says Lewis.

The Aussie connection Grant Oldfield, director of Northstar Development, the sole agent for Africa of the Rainwatch filter, says, “The main purpose of the device is to cost-effectively improve the quality of harvested rainwater and reduce the build-up of debris, contaminants and sediments in the storage container. It is primarily used in residential rainwater storage applications in Australia, Thailand, Vietnam and now South Africa. Multiple units can be used to accommodate larger roofs. The Rainwatch is a high flow rate, gravity feed 50 micron rainwater filter that does not require a pump to operate. Due to the patented design, it achieves high flow rates at a fine level of filtration.
“I believe that it is a critical component in reducing the normal build-up of debris and sediment in the bladder that would occur from air contaminants, leaves and dust. If not for the Rainwatch filter, the underfloor bladder would more regularly need to be emptied and flushed, which would be disruptive to the required use of the ablution facility.

“Our target market currently is residential rainwater capture and storage, commencing in South Africa and expanding to cover the African continent. The Rainwatch filter supports rainwater capture in a range of situations, from the common suburban setting to regional or remote settings and off-grid applications. The Rainwatch filter improves water productivity because it broadens how rainwater can be used or applied without expensive filtration and powered pumps and supports people knowing where their water has come from, being captured and stored locally. We are also working to apply the Rainwatch to produce drinking quality water without the need for power or chemicals. An additional benefit of using the Rainwatch in a rainwater harvesting system is that it eliminates the need for separate leaf catchers and first flush devices. It can be easily cleaned, and the filter itself is washable and reusable, meaning that maintenance costs are very low. Currently, we are in the process of establishing our distribution network in Africa (https://rainwatch.com.au/contact/). 

“I have loaned a unit to Dr Kevin Winter, Department of Environmental and Geographical Science, UCT. Dr Winter has used the Rainwatch at his residence, demonstrating how the Rainwatch filters out debris and sediments. He has stated that since installing the Rainwatch he has noticed a reduction in the level of physical solids and organics, such as leaf litter, that would normally have entered the rainwater tank and created a habitat that encourages mosquito breeding and larvae during the warm summer months. After three months of use, the filter media shows that it is capturing the fines extremely well and is preventing this from passing through the filter and into the tank. He also has said that the other impressive aspect of the Rainwatch is that no return flow or backwash has been observed even in varying rainfall conditions – from a few millimetres to 70mm in 24 hours,” says Oldfield. 

 List of professionals:

  • Project manager: BOXA, Anthony Lewis
  • Architect: Frank Böhm Studios
  • Contractor: Sustainable Building Solutions, Angus Fleming
  • Contractor: Innovative Interiors, Chris Pienaar

List of suppliers:

  • Piping: Harscan and Wavin
  • Filters: Rain Watch, Grant Oldfield/Australia
  • Dry sanitation: Enviro Loo Mark Latrobe CEO
  • Damsak: Gordon Bredenkamp
  • Mixers/taps: Swiss Eco Werner Meiring 
  • Sanitaryware: Rossco


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