“An opportunity like this only comes when clients want to experiment, commit to the environment and invest in alternate technology,” says Tunde Oluwa, who heads the design team for the OR Tambo Narrative and Environmental Centre in Benoni.

Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality project manager Jaco Burger believes that this centre will serve as an example of green building for municipalities across the country.

The idea for the project came from former mayor Duma Nkosi in 2003 when the municipality approved the rehabilitation of the Leeupan and Esselen Pan as wetlands. This idea was to construct a centre where people could be educated about climate change, while others could enjoy recreational facilities developed for local communities.

Burger said the idea to merge the environmental education centre with O R Tambo’s legacy, followed a Council decision to honour his contribution to South Africa within the context of the ANC. This was the perfect site to construct a narrative centre detailing the history of the ANC from its founding in 1912 to the final disbanding of the National Party in 2005, since it is only 500 metres from where Oliver and Adelaide Tambo are buried.

Besides the environmental education centre and the narrative museum, the project includes an outdoor amphitheatre and five multi-purpose arts and crafts workshops. A caretaker’s cottage is also being constructed as a sustainable construction show house.

Oluwa says this project utilising traditional construction methods, is unique in many ways. It will assist in measuring the success of alternative methods used as a means of educating the green architecture industry in South Africa. The indigenous techniques used include rammed earth, straw bale and corn cob walls, thermal mass flooring, an evaporative cooling system, a green roof and Trombe wall technology.

Geothermic earth tube technology will be used to heat and cool the caretaker’s house as well as the narrative and environmental centre buildings.

The environmental centre comprises three pavilions of similar appearance. Marked with upside-down steel roof trusses resting on steel columns and cob earth floors, the walls are constructed of straw bale and plastered with cow dung and mud by local women using traditional building methods.

The temperature in these buildings is regulated through floor vents in summer. They utilise an evaporative cooling unit that delivers cool air back into the building.

“The roof gardens will also keep the narrative centre cooler,” Oluwa says, and shows how the building is constructed into the slope to maximise the view of the pan.

Recycled materials utilised and obtained from nearby industries include wood, steel and rocks. Rainwater will be harvested to water the indigenous gardens and flush the toilets, while grey water will be recycled and reused in the gardens. The narrative centre’s walls are marked with “truth windows” showcasing the materials used in its construction.

During Phase 2, the community’s urban agricultural project to the west of the centre will be expanded as an example of sustainability within the planned reserve. The Gauteng provincial agriculture department will assist with livestock improvement, while a greenhouse will supply seedlings for farming and gardening.

The environmental and recreational park to be developed around the pan will also include conservation zones, picnic and braai areas, sports fields, nature trails, walkways and piers.

* Read the full article in the April – May 2012 issue. Images: Elske Kritzinger (www.elskegallery.co.za)