Sustainable academic outreach finds a new home at the redesigned Wits Rural Facility in South Africa’s Limpopo Province. Seeming to draw inspiration from Southern African folklore – which tells of the gathering of village chiefs and elders beneath the heavy limbs of the baobab tree – the newly upgraded Wits Rural Facility (WRF) has found its place beneath, and between, the hardy indigenous trees of its Highveld home.

Established in 1989, the 350-hectare satellite campus of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) was created as a base in Limpopo Province from which the institution could bring academic resources to bear on development challenges created by the Apartheid homeland system. It has since evolved and expanded in an unstructured manner, resulting in an encroachment of the built environment on the limited surrounding indigenous environment. As a result, this rural knowledge hub, which attracts local and international students, researchers and lecturers in botanical, animal and social research, underwent a redesign in 2014.

ENVIRONMENTALLY RESPONSIVE DESIGN

The WRF’s newly built structures yield sympathetically to the undulations of the surrounding sandy Highveld terrain, and are set against the backdrop of vertical indigenous trees. The individual buildings are low-profile and linked by covered walkways that mimic the irregular terrain by occasionally shifting to accommodate outcrops and protected trees.

Where necessary, portions of the roof have been cut away to allow trees to grow through the buildings and escape through the flat metal roofing. The roofs that link the different parts of the building complex imitate the natural topography of the site – rising, falling and dipping beneath the extensive tree cover.

This reimagined architectural design reflects a responsive and sensitive approach to the natural environment, rather than exclusively focusing on applying and installing modern environmentally-focused technology.

DESIGN BRIEF

The refurbishment called for an upgrade of the basic existing facilities to new training and conference rooms, a field laboratory, dining room, lounge area, a full kitchen with back-of-house support facilities, and substantial new staff and visitor accommodation.

The design brief required an architectural language that remained cognisant of the academic function of the facility, while remaining sensitive to the existing environment of the site. Central to this was an understanding of the campus’ unique nature in that its natural surroundings formed an important part of the educational experience. Lectures might, for example, be held outside to allow interactive environmental learning.

It was therefore appropriate that it landed on the desk of celebrated South African architect Kate Otten, whose passion for designing meaningful spaces that reflect emotion and African tradition has shaped a beautiful final result.

“To ignore the possibilities of a different way of learning in this environment is fatal, as it’s very different to a normal university. The environment in which the facility is located is very much part of the conscious design of the layout and structures,” says Otten. “Working within a sensitive ecological and social context requires a design approach that puts conservation and strengthening of the whole ecosystem, at its core.”

Otten and her design team have succeeded on this front, with the project having received a commendation in the National category of the Corobrik-South African Institute of Architects (SAIA) national awards in August 2016, as well as picking up a regional award for Limpopo. The design was also named a finalist in the 2016 Afrisam-SAIA Awards for Sustainable Architecture.

Elaborating on the WRF’s key design considerations, Otten describes being guided by the concept of “place-rooted architecture”. This is an architecture that is relevant to and extracted from its surroundings in terms of climate, environment, materials, construction methods and robustness. This philosophy also informed the creation of an architectural language that will guide all future developments on the site.

 PLACE-FOCUSED

Urban design firm Ludwig van Hansen A + UD was tasked with preparing a design framework and key criteria that would inform the building design brief and the site selection process for the project team. The framework prioritised a systems thinking approach which outlined how each building fulfilled an academic or supportive function, thus preventing unnecessary development on the ecologically sensitive site.

A survey of the facility was commissioned and all existing buildings, trees, general vegetation, and topography were marked. The existing main lodge site was indicated as the most appropriate location for the new training, research and conference facility, which would carefully incorporate the extensive tree cover and indigenous bush to make sure it was disturbed as little as possible. “As a result of the survey, only two trees were chopped down to accommodate construction – neither of which were endemic to the local area,” explains Otten. “The design concept was a sensitive and finely balanced response to this work, drawing together the various requirements of the brief in several ways, including using existing ‘disturbed’ ground and limiting expansion into the bush by using already developed sites and linking into or reusing existing buildings, where possible. We designed a building that moves rather quietly through the trees, which come up through the building in some places. The development doesn’t trap you,” Otten says.

Responding to the natural environment and guided by “place-focused” design principles, buildings are grouped into accessible “neighbourhoods” based on their function. Shaded walkways link the buildings and the various classrooms. The walkways also support informal learning by providing shaded outdoor spaces in which lectures can be held. Through careful use of muted colours such as greys and browns, as well as restricting the heights of the buildings – which rarely exceed the prominent treeline – the facility appears to retreat quietly into the landscape.

An amphitheatre and several external courtyards offer opportunities for addressing different audiences and employing alternative teaching methods, such as interactive sessions with the surrounding flora and fauna. This hands-on learning would not necessarily be possible at a city-based university, which is restricted by its urban location. The shifting geometry of the buildings allows for the creation of visual corridors into the surrounding bushveld.

“It also has to be understood that it’s a learning facility, not a bush lodge, so it’s quite ascetic in the way its been designed. I think that differentiation for me is very valuable – and how that informs the architecture,” notes Otten.

 GREEN FEATURES

Water efficiencies are achieved through rainwater harvesting, as well as through an onsite Biosorb-activated wastewater and sewerage purification and recycling plant. Once purified, water is stored in a 10 000 litre tank before being reused as grey water or fed into the natural watercourse for wild animals to drink, explains project manager Brendan Smith.

The purification process requires an 18 hour retention time, which enables the package plant to process 25 000 litres a day – the volume of wastewater produced by 160 people.

“The system collects all sewage and wastewater from the building complex and delivers it into holding tanks, in which enzymes are used to break down the waste. No chemicals are used at all, which makes this water almost potable,” he says.

A long-term environmental management plan was also developed to manage the rehabilitation of the previously damaged ecosystems, explains WRF operations manager Cameron Watt. “We are currently going through a horrific drought, so we’re able to harvest water using down pipes that all feed into water tanks.

“The design of the facility also allows for a lot of natural light, while large windows allow easy visibility between the interior and exterior spaces,” he adds.

The building’s passive design features – such as the deep, covered verandas that provide protection for the meeting rooms from the scorching Limpopo summer sun – help reduce the heat load on the internal climatic environment. The spaces thus become more comfortable to use while reducing the energy burden on air-conditioning systems.

High-level windows and cross ventilation through large entryways help to modulate high temperatures. Hot air enters the rooms through the large open doors before naturally rising and escaping through the high-level windows. An insulated roof further helps to moderate the interior room temperature, while double glazed windows and black wattle blinds offer additional protection from the sun along the western facade.

Solar panels were considered but ultimately found to be unfeasible, explains Wits director of campus development and planning, Emmanuel Prinsloo. This is because the extent of the trees covering the roof would block the sun and prevent the panels from functioning properly. “There is, however, low energy lighting installed throughout the facility and most of the buildings receive daylight, so there’s very little need for lighting during the day,” he adds.

Hot water is generated through the use of heat pumps, while cooking is done by means of liquefied petroleum gas.

The roof is made from Chromadek corrugated iron profile sheeting that rests on a roof structure comprising South African pine rafters and laminated beams and insulated with 120mm thick blanket insulation. The walls are built from clay bricks and the plaster is trowel-textured and left unpainted, which not only provides a beautiful tactile texture on the inside of the rooms, but also a small saving on paint costs.

“I believe the basics of how you design a building are more fundamental than any additives [such as paint] when it comes to sustainability,” Otten says, “so how you orientate a building and having windows that open are basic principles that can make a big difference.”

SOCIAL SUSTAINABILITY

Given the inextricable relationship between the WRF and the surrounding communities with which the university is engaged in social and medical research, it made sense to involve them in the design and construction process. According to Otten, maintaining the longevity of the interdependent relationship between the WRF researchers and the local community was one of the keys to the project’s success.

“The facility is now able to offer better research and laboratory facilities, enabling expansion of the research opportunities which benefits the local communities and Wits – specifically in community health, education and adult literacy. All of these anchor the facility in its local and global communities, and ensure its relevance into the future,” Otten adds.

The design team prioritised using locally available building materials and construction methods that were known to local skilled and unskilled workers – a “low-tech” approach that is evident in the decorative stonework. The local economy was supported by providing various criteria that limited the eligible contractors to only those based within a certain distance of the site. The contractors were also required to engage a certain percentage of their labour from local communities.

A LIMITED BUDGET

Otten describes the budget management as “rigorous”. “There were many limitations in this project and I liked that – this resulted in a lack of waste,” she recalls.

The project team worked extensively to ensure a conservative fiscal approach was taken, without compromising the design quality. As a result, the project was brought successfully within budget. “Wits is a public enterprise and that was a good moderator because private developments are always so indulgent, whereas with this project, budget was screamingly limited,” she reiterates, adding: “I love that it’s not exclusive; that it’s about connecting with the community. The building enables a kind of growth, progression, learning and change.”

BEYOND THE CLASSROOM

Delivering on its original mandate, the facility now serves as an idiosyncratic rural campus, allowing learning opportunities beyond the traditional classroom. Visiting students may, for example, find themselves seated beneath the very species of tree they are currently learning about, or a stone’s throw from a community whose structure and development is outlined in their sociology textbook.

“This intervention has facilitated a whole regeneration of the environment – quite literally from a flora point of view, but also from the fact that it’s growing and it benefits the community. That’s the bigger picture.

“To do architecture that is meaningful in that way is where my heart rests comfortably,” Otten concludes.

Words Natalie Greve photography graham de lacy