André Eksteen, EARTHWORLD ARCHITECTS
Democratising the Building Industry; the role of a circular economy in a new approach to making.
A unique approach to building materials, construction and detailing is presented; this approach is related to our context and socioeconomic conditions with a focus on “making”, a view to ease of implementation, installation, assembly and disassembly; in this process, structures with high capacity are created. The design of the Future Africa campus at the University of Pretoria has been an integrative process learning from the collective knowledge and experience of manifold contributors, as collated by the Future Africa Management Team and articulated by Earth World team of architectural experts: “The architecture of the campus should play an active role in shaping minds, as much as it does in shaping environments. The brief required for a number of programs to be accommodated on the campus, including a dining hall, a conference center, research commons and 300 living units, with varying scales, ranging from single bedrooms, to family units.
It is explained that the concept is based on ‘AFRI-TECH’, combining high-level design processes with local resources and skills. Existing design and construction processes, common in practice in the region, were challenged. With regards to the housing component, in order to minimize time on site, as well as to rethink how traditional materials are employed, the 300 housing units are prefabricated from precast concrete and assembled on-site, with services and fittings having already been installed. Each living unit is constructed from a series of precast concrete modules, allowing for variations in composition and size. This approach improves quality control and challenges traditional uses for precast concrete as a construction material.
The project architects challenge the traditional construction process changes which sees many involved: “from sourcing, to manufacturing, to retail, eventually reaching site through contractors. Shortening this value chain would drastically reduce cost and time; dealing directly with manufacturers also allows for greater understanding of construction materials and improving quality control.” The architects therefore aimed to establish inter-disciplinary partnerships with designers and manufacturers. As one example, flat-pack, structural timber portal frames were developed to carry the communal facilities in the development. The resultant segments were easily transported in small truck, could be handled by one or two people and assembled in a few hours. The whole process intended to reducing the need for water, shuttering and heavy machinery. (ibid)
The development sits on the edge of site, hugging the hill behind it, thus allowing for minimum disruption of the features of the site and capturing the views, and sun light, from the north. Every few meters, external, shaded staircases are introduced with distinct steel and concrete details. The structural and spatial elements are visible and also distinct. The non-structural elements such as the wooden purlins and polycarbonate roof sheeting are used to create protection to the walkways, with concrete slabs over the stairs. (ibid)
The facades have fixed and flexible elements determined by the concrete, steel and glass sections. The steel frames allow for projecting “boxes” which house some of the communal areas which are grouped rather than distributed throughout the building to allow for maximum engagement and interaction. These glass boxes have concrete floors and project from the main facades in the internal courtyards. The building is layered horizontally, with a concrete wall separating the residential spaces from the walkways.
The use of materials and the detailing is unique in that the different materials and components are clearly distinct from each other, yet work together to create a harmonious whole. The residential sections of the project are only now starting to be inhabited and they are starting to personalize their spaces. The furniture systems are designed for maximum flexibility and the spatial arrangement is intended to encourage impromptu gatherings, meetings and collective cooking and eating in indoor and outdoor spaces on several levels and intervals. These communal spaces are dispersed throughout the building.
The project differentiates between long and short term elements and this is made evident in the architecture. There is a level of disentanglement achieved and the project has allowed for the involvement of different people, with different skills, to be involved at a later stage in the construction process – thus not all decisions were made from the outset and it became a process that emerged and involved others. To be able to achieve this, the building was designed with a view to achieving maximum adaptability with minimum disruptions. While the final “product” has a very distinct architectural character; there was a strong focus on “process” and that this was not an “object-driven” process.