South Africa’s National English Literary Museum (NELM) in Grahamstown is a brilliantly curated casket of the nation’s fictional and factual treasures.

To watch a behind-the-scenes video of NELM, click here

For a gallery of images from NELM, click here

It was the first building to attain a 5 Star Green Star SA Design rating under the Green Building Council South Africa’s (GBCSA) new Public and Education Building rating tool in 2013, and has now received its 5 Star As Built rating after completion in early 2016.

This is the realm of literature and legends. What could so easily have been dull and dreary to most, is presented at NELM as fascinating, fresh and fun for all – from rowdy scholars to sombre researchers and ordinary bookworms. It’s a new experience for NELM’s delighted team. Holed up in impossibly cramped quarters for decades, they are now thrilled to be able to display and share their vast and continually accumulating treasure.

Museum director Beverley Thomas says although the building was completed in April 2016, it took a year to manage their extraordinary relocation tasks (like the off-site fumigation of curated material) and complete their three-year preparations for the exhibitions before NELM officially opened to the public on International Museum Day, 18 May 2017.

NELM’s facilities include exhibition venues, archives, libraries, a fully equipped theatre, an auditorium, offices, flexible conference and classroom facilities, public amphitheatres and leisure walkways.

Gargantuan letters spell out the word “literature”, winding through the spine of the undulating main exhibition hall, which provides reflection zones equipped with MP3 sound installations for listening to poems, stories, novels, and music. Intriguing objects are also on display, including the typewriters of JM Coetzee and Herman Charles Bosman, which according to Crystal Warren, manager of NELM’s curatorial division, the latter swore was charmed “so he would know if anyone else had touched it”.

Warren is equally enthusiastic about the children’s area, surrounded by movable amphitheatre-style benches and featuring cut-out “trees” on which children can hang their own literary works for public reading.

While the vibrant permanent exhibition area on the ground floor attracts a wide audience, Tom Jeffery, NELM curator of exhibitions, describes the second transitory exhibition area on the mezzanine level as appealing to a more informed audience. The current display features mail written in protest against censorship during the apartheid era.

Green achievements

Green building principles were top-of-mind from the outset. The building was chosen as a pilot for the GBCSA Public and Educational Buildings rating tool – so the limited precedent meant that much research was done in the planning and conceptual stages.

East London-based Intsika Architects were appointed to design and supervise construction and quality control of the project. Architect Rob Gillard is delighted with NELM’s 5 Star outcome and says it will set the benchmark for future projects that use the tool.

Energy efficiency

In designing for limited environmental impact, Gillard and his team chose the critical document storage area as their starting point.

“The primary criteria for document storage are to avoid indoor temperature fluctuations and to ensure a low relative humidity content in the air. We opted to excavate the hill site and construct the main archive storage facilities below ground, where geothermal studies have shown there to be low temperature fluctuations,” he explains.

“The building is specifically orientated on an east-west axis, with large stone gabions on the north and west facades that act as a heat sink, keeping indoor temperatures cooler by day and releasing some of the embodied heat back into the structure by night.”

More than 20 000 precious heritage assets, ranging from crumbling published works to modern archival documents, artworks and journals, are preserved within the eight fingerprint-accessed archive rooms.

Given that the air is pre-conditioned by the building, the HVAC does not need to operate at full capacity. It simply controls the indoor temperature within very fine tolerances. This reduces mechanical heating and cooling costs. A valuable passive design feature is the large roof garden, which faces the adjacent residential properties, enhancing the building’s picturesque setting.

Additional energy strategies were targeted to reduce the building’s overall energy consumption, such as occupancy lighting sensors and a Building Management System (BMS) that monitors consumption and optimises the effectiveness of service systems.

Environmental design

The environmental wellbeing of occupants is enhanced through uninterrupted external views and accompanying natural light, individual climate control and lower noise levels, and the minimised use of materials emitting volatile organic compounds (VOC). Sustainable initiatives are displayed electronically, providing education about potable water savings, energy use as well as greenhouse gas emissions savings.

Water saving strategies have been implemented to drastically reduce the use of potable water and consumption is closely monitored. Inside the building, dual flush toilets (using only 3.6l per flush) and low-flow taps reduce water wastage. The touchless sensor taps are also self-charging – while running, the flowing water generates power to recharge the sensor, with no standby mains consumption required. The urinals are entirely waterless. Outside, the 100% xeriscape landscaping is irrigated with rainwater.

Sustainable materials include rubber flooring made from recycled car tyres, and carpets produced largely from recycled plastic bottles. Cocomosaic tiles – made of coconut-shell, mahogany bark or reclaimed timber mosaic pieces that have been bonded together – were used to create durable, warmly textured wall features. The concave/convex arrangement of the tile segments, which assist with refracting sound, provides acoustic dampening properties.

NELM discourages private vehicle use by purposely providing fewer than expected parking bays, while offering dedicated preferred parking positions for carpooling and hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles. Safe and convenient cycling and pedestrian routes have been provided, along with storage and shower facilities for employees who cycle to work.

With thoughtful integration between the striking building and the natural landscaping, an inviting, park-like atmosphere has been achieved at NELM, which reiterates the museum’s role in society as a cultural sanctuary.

By Mary-Jane Botha

See earthworks magazine issue 39 August-September 2017 for the full feature.