The University of Fort Hare (UFH) has recently focused on developing its East London campus. Their new teaching complex had sustainability built into its design concept, offering students in sustainability, engineering and other disciplines an environment where they can learn through the building itself.

Native Architecture was sub-contracted to Ngonyama Okpanum Associates (NOA), the UFH’s contracted architects, and did the design and documentation process in consultation with Sindile Ngonyama, principal of NOA. Architect Alan Ter Morshuizen explains that the focus on green building design and sustainability came from the forward-thinking Vice Chancellor, Professor Derrick Swart, and the strategic development team who commissioned the architects to produce a strategic development framework plan to address the integration of “town and gown”, underpinned by the sustainability imperative.

The architects and engineers needed to optimise daylight and natural ventilation and also had to provide for conditions such as the high humidity period from mid-December to mid-March, the hot, dry “berg wind” conditions during autumn and winter, and the prevalence of strong coastal winds (mostly from August through to December). In addition, East London is at the receiving end of a particularly aggressive, salt-laden, wind-driven atmosphere.

The architects’ framework regulating the design for all the buildings of the campus included inter alia: all floors being accessible for services; all buildings oriented with long façades facing north; limited air conditioning for apparatus only; naturally ventilated spaces; natural day lighting; locally sourced materials; and light-weight construction.

To accommodate the need for flexibility, all internal space divisions had to be easily demountable and recyclable, but at the same time meet acoustic and fire requirements. Sustainability features such as the use of alternative energy sources and rainwater harvesting were included, and with the needs of pedestrians and quick circulation between lectures being very important at academic institutions, these factors were also carefully considered.

HCC’s consulting engineer Hamish Scott explains that the structural solution required balancing a number of conflicting alternatives and demands: the tight budget, the large spans required to allow comfortable parking at basement level; minimising the carbon footprint and thus among others using as little as possible cement in the “all concrete” building; the necessity to have a floor system accessible to some degree to allow flexibility in the servicing; and the need for perforations to allow air movement in all directions.

With precast elements for both beams as well as floor and ceiling tiles forming a key part of the design, Al Stratford, the design architect for the project, developed a precast concrete flooring system which was manufactured by Wintec close to East London. The use of this system resulted in the reduction of the building’s concrete mass by 47% compared with conventional construction.

A big challenge was to ensure that the building would perform satisfactorily as an “air conditioner”. The architects got the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to use predictive simulation technology to perform extensive modelling.

Ter Morshuizen summarises their main challenges as “coming up with an authentically sustainable

solution which was feasible and did not cost more than conventional construction; eliminating the air conditioning from the project without adding cost, yet achieving a viable study environment for the staff and students”. He adds that it was extremely important to “secure a contractor that had the skills, the staff and the will to do justice to such a challenge. We were hugely blessed in the contractor that we got, as they met all of these criteria admirably.”

Access to a building such as this also offers the potential for being a learning experience in itself.

“We have been requested to provide the students and staff with written instructions as to how the building works,” says Ter Morshuizen. However, he says in his view such instructions alone are “highly unlikely to make any difference: the UFH needs to embrace the building and all that it can do for them. Their Sustainability Department should become experts on the principles on which it has been designed and then systematically educate all staff and students as to just what they have in the building and how to use it optimally.”

The full articles appeared in the February-March 2012 issue on p39.