How do you impress a client who has a university degree in architecture and planning from the Natal University, and who also happens to be King Kgosi Leruo Tshekedi Molotlegi of the Royal Bafokeng Nation? But not only did Activate Architects capture the essence of what was required, their design made enough of an impact to share top honours in the Afrisam-SAIA Awards for Sustainable Architecture.

“When we went to site for the first time,” says Activate Architects’ Reon van der Wiel, “we realised just how truly amazing the invitation was for a designer to engage in such a context. Virgin bushveld, indigenous trees and afro-alpine vegetation, all nestled at the foot of the Tshufi Hill, with stunning viewpoints over the town of Phokeng and local platinum mines.”

The brief was heavily biased towards creating a flagship school of world-class standards: ultimately to enhance the lives of learners from Grade R to matric, their families, and the community at large. It had to embody and symbolise the fact that Bafokeng people have a vision of transforming their communities through education.

Van der Wiel says “Our interpretation was to move away from the standard institutionalised built fabric of large classroom wings, passages and orthogonal layouts and look to the core of the school as a set of building blocks that would present as individual learning clusters. And of course, we were intensely focused on as much of a sustainable build as possible.”

The required facilities utilise a gross floor area of 25 000m2,  and include 37 learning classrooms, four laboratories, a library, an IT centre, drama and art spaces, an auditorium, multi-purpose hall, a refectory and catering kitchen, a staff room, head’s offices, administration offices, a clinic, two boarding houses, seven teachers’ homes, an edible gardening centre, waste management depot; sports fields and courts, and retention dams, wetland and conservation areas.

Comprehensive rehabilitation of the nearby quarry and surroundings required the removal of alien vegetation and the reinstatement of the stormwater stream, which when completed became a water feature. By recycling effluent water through the establishment of a black water treatment system consisting of a series of eight tanks, as well as via the reed beds of a specially-created wetland, the college realises a 100% fresh water savings on the irrigation of its sports fields and gardens.  Insite Landscape Architects’ Fritz Coetzee says their master plan was “to create a rich planting palette to ensure indigenous species, even insects and birds, and maintain the biodiversity of the area.”

One of the most practically pleasing aspects of the main classroom design is the incorporation of courtyards that provide good natural cross ventilation, thereby mitigating the need for air-conditioning in almost all the buildings.

A lozenge-shaped sun screen with a novel weave effect that translates into a lattice-overlapping structure allows for optimal light and temperature control.

The development of a food garden, sited slightly away from the school space provides a teaching space for a separate community programme that serves to educate locals about food gardening, and also provides food.

*Read the full feature in the December-January 2012/3 issueImages: Christoph Hoffmann (www.chp.za.com)