Mimicking a pangolin rummaging through the bush, Sandibe Okavango Safari Lodge draws its inspiration from nature, both in terms of its architecture and its functionality. The result marries luxury with sustainability.

Epitomised by conspicuous consumption, unbridled resource demands and a “no expense spared” attitude, the term “luxury” can be a difficult bedfellow with the concept of sustainable design.

Nicholas Plewman, principal at Nicholas Plewman Architects (NPA), has had to constantly negotiate the complexities of this form of building. It all started for Plewman over 18 years ago when he received his first major project on his own since graduating: a safari lodge at one of the Okavango Delta’s best situated concessions.

The lodge he designed, with a very strict budget, was “a very ’90’s Mexican adobe-styled lodge. Even though it was bricks and mortar, it was low impact in other ways”, he says.

Seventeen years later, as with all other sites in the Okavango Delta, the lodge came up for reconcession.

In the interim, however, the Okavango Delta had been made a World Heritage Site and much stricter environmental guidelines on development came into effect.

&Beyond, the lodge’s concessionaire, retendered for the concession with NPA and won. The client brought Michaelis Boyd Architects, a UK-based firm, onto the project as associate architects, but NPA remained the architectural lead.

Inspired by nature

“I had been waiting for the last 17 years, wondering how I would rebuild the lodge,” he says. “I returned to the site for the first time since the lodge was completed. We came up with two leitmotifs as a starting point for the design: one was the weaver’s nest, the other was the ever- elusive pangolin.”

Plewman expands on his pangolin influence by describing the lodge’s site as having a “very special atmosphere”, as elusive and rare as the pangolin. The armoured and scaly mammal also has a hard and faceted shell that can be translated into a building envelope.

Plewman also drew influence from the wooden shavings produced by the baYei people of the region, who carve their dugout boats from Jackalberry trees (Diospyros mespiliformus).

The architects decided to design the entire building out of wood.

With the concept defined, they went about assembling a highly skilled project team that could realise this complex building on a site over 100km from the nearest town. “The structural engineers, De Villiers Sheard, had significant experience in a number of environmental projects and were comfortable with complex designs made from local materials. Similarly, we turned to New Southern Energy, who did a sterling job on the building’s alternative energy technologies.”

Marrying luxury and sustainability

Sandibe Okavango Safari Lodge was designed as a high-end luxury hotel. Guests at this end of the spectrum expect, as Plewman describes, “copious amounts of hot water, and to be warm in winter, cool in summer, so you couldn’t really skimp on power. Composting toilets and lukewarm showers are just not an option”. Because the site is 100% off-grid, this normally results in most power being produced by a diesel generator. “This made it easy to justify the large initial outlay for solar energy,” says Plewman. “The one thing you’ve got is sun, and so it has to be solar.”

The final installation saw a large 100kWp ground mounted polycrystalline solar array providing the bulk of the lodge’s energy demands, with two 150kVa diesel generators relegated to producing a maximum 30% of the lodge’s power.

Plewman notes that the saving is unparalleled.

“The system will pay itself back within three years. We also implemented every kind of power saving device, for example all the lighting is latest technology LED lighting.”

Misae Furugori, an associate at Michaelis Boyd, says the bedrooms were designed with cross ventilation in mind. The client also asked for airconditioning so they designed units to cool bedroom areas, powered only by solar energy.

John adds: “The air-conditioners are run from the normal power supply of the lodge, which is fed from the integrated PV solar-battery-generator system.”

He says water is sourced from boreholes near the lodge and heated, mainly by solar power, using evacuated tube technology. This is backed up by heat pumps, which run for one to two hours per day. Water is stored in a central tank and a highly insulated ring main provides hot water on demand to lodge visitors.

There are two supply loops; the longest is just over a kilometre. Plewman says the insulation ensures the temperature drop between the furthest unit and the generator unit is only 1.5ºC.

Structural integrity

Plewman says the structure of the building emerged from a number of options, which ultimately resulted in a series of laminated pine portal frames. These were handmade in sections at Whiteriver Sawmills, one of South Africa’s few remaining laminated timber factories.

The portal frames were clad in wooden shingles sourced from sustainably managed forests in Canada after a South African supplier ran out of stock. “The best shingles in the world are made from American Cedar because they’re thin, they’re lightweight, and they have an oil in them that makes them last,” says Plewman.

While the container of shingles was at sea, the architects and engineers set about designing the complex portal frame structures. The beams were, however, not engineered well, and complex solutions had to be found on-site to assemble the structure.

Despite this, like a giant ribcage, these portal frames gave form to the wooded site.

Meandering between the trees like a pangolin hunting for grubs, the lodge came to life.

Challenges

Planning a complex development in another country with two architectural firms at the helm can be a difficult exercise, although Furugori says the architects maintained close contact throughout the project with weekly Skype meetings.

Plewman says the building was never supposed to be an eco-building from the get go, but rather a high-end, luxury game lodge, the architects took a number of steps to ensure the building had almost no adverse local impact. To achieve this within the constraints of the wider site, a number of simple design decisions were made.

These included sourcing all materials, where possible, from the Southern African region, limiting the amount of glass used on-site, choosing biodegradable materials, using timber that is sustainably grown, limiting reliance on unsustainable energy sources, and using a labour intensive building design. Plewman describes this as “ploughing something back into local communities in terms of skills and resources to build”.

The intersection between luxury lodge requirements and sustainable building are interesting. There seemingly has not been sufficient take-up of environmental concerns amongst those guests who require luxury at all costs.

Despite the challenge implicit in the brief, and the stringent requirements of a World Heritage Site and the Botswana government, the project team produced an elegant and responsible lodge that, through simple gestures and design decisions, is firmly embedded in nature.

By: Guy Trangos

The full feature can be found in earthworks magazine issue 28, October-November 2015.