An innovative programme showcases a unique approach to school design where the school becomes a hub for sustainability in practice, embedded in a wider and largely impoverished rural community.

A sustained, participatory approach to design, learning and management of the school would provide a workable model for future school development, it was hoped, and would mark a departure from simply building schools, towards creating true “learning spaces”. The influence of these spaces would transcend the boundaries of the schools themselves through their cultural and economic connectedness and relevance to the surrounding community.

Seven Fountains Primary School in Kokstad, KwaZulu Natal, has been featured in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) publication launched in Paris on 29 September 2011 entitled “Designing for Education: Compendium of Exemplary Educational Facilities 2011”. The publication highlights the extensive consultation process in designing and building the school, community engagement, the sustainability features and emphasises on the creating learning spaces.

Both Seven Fountains and Vele High School in Limpopo, the other school in the programme, were presented in October 2011 at the International Summit at the Greenbuild Conference in Toronto, Canada. The 90-minute presentation emphasised the iterative process of the conscious, community-based design approach and showed how post-occupancy evaluation data on the performance of the passive design interventions at Seven Fountains, along with qualitative feedback from educators and staff, informed the design of Vele High school which is located in a very different climate.

What is common throughout the programme is the continuous learning happening at many different levels. The school curriculum is being reinforced through information posters on resource management in the classrooms which also illustrate some of the behavioural adaptations necessary to fully realise the passive design features and resource efficiency of the buildings.

Learners are actively engaging with the growing of organic food in the school gardens and, in the case of Vele, with the preservation of local biodiversity in a built environment through green roofs. Staff members have been capacitated to actively engage with various management aspects of the school through resource usage monitoring systems. These systems, along with feedback from staff and learners, have enabled further learning for some of the professional design specialists.

Shared facilities such as the libraries and the computer centre have extended the educational reach of the school into the surrounding community, who share a sense of ownership through the initial participatory design process and the sharing of sports fields and other “beautiful spaces”. In the case of Vele, learners have received tour guide training from a nearby tourist lodge so that they can explain various sustainability features of their school to visitors.

With these far-reaching benefits, it is understandable why the programme has gained prominence in education and sustainable design circles both locally and internationally.

Read the full feature in the June-July 2011 issue on p23.