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Monday Sep 10, 2012

Three schools earn top marks for green design

When is a school not a school? When designed by architects who want to create environments for learning that captivate and inspire the pupils who attend them.

A view of the Elkanah House campus in Sunningdale on the Cape West Coast.

Three SA schools - two of them in rural areas - have come top of the class when it comes to environmental and green issues and this has translated into improved marks for pupils in a thriving and nurturing educational environment.

The SA Institute of Architects (Saia) under president Fanuel Motsepe has once again partnered with AfriSam (SA) (Pty) Ltd for the biennial AfriSam-Saia Award for Sustainable Architecture, aimed at recognising outstanding achievement in sustainable architecture as well as creating public awareness and debate on architectural issues.

Three schools are in the top 10 entries for this country's most prestigious green architectural award.

The schools are Lebone II College in Phokeng, North West; Vele Secondary School in Limpopo; and Elkanah House high school campus near Cape Town.

Lebone II College was designed by Activate Architects and Afritects, which won a competition hosted by Kgosi Lebone II of the Royal Bafokeng Nation to create a college for 800 pupils that would serve as a new education model with accommodation, farming and alternative teaching methods.

The captivating transparent structure aims to "de-institutionalise" learning by forming a set of "village clusters" with central outdoor courtyards and light filtered as if through trees.

The college was built in a disused sand quarry and rehabilitated a watercourse to create wetlands hosting indigenous vegetation. Local artists were trained to create detailed mosaic art on the site that portrays the relationship between the Bafokeng and the land. Solar geysers, stormwater harvesting, a blackwater treatment plant, waste recycling and a feeding scheme from vegetable gardens are all part of the project.

Architect Reon van der Wiel said: "Sustainability and education are joined at the hip as they are both concer ned with the future and future generations. For teaching to have lasting value, it needs to embody sustainability."

He added that in their design they did research on how to optimise the learning experience: "People learn best in environments that provide a sense of belonging and emotional security.

"If the learning environment is flexible, it allows multiple different teaching methods and styles to be employed which engages learners, while an open and transparent environment stimulates sharing and accountability."

A visit to Lebone quickly shows that the pupils are passionate about their school and enjoy being there. School marks have significantly improved since the school relocated to the new facility.

Asked where he saw school design going, Van der Wiel said: "The old mould has certainly been set aside in many places, opening the way for the creation of more creative environments. With this new freedom I would encourage designers and school leadership to focus on optimising the learning environment and not get caught up in a competition for the slickest facilities."

Elkanah House high school campus, designed by Nic Border Architects, has also helped transform its surrounding community.

Its site forms an integral part of the new suburb, Sunningdale, being developed by Garden Cities. Situated in the harsh, windswept, sand dune environment of Cape Town's West Coast, the buildings had to satisfy the ethos of Elkanah by providing a warm, welcoming, creative, nurturing environment while responding to the West Coast's unique climate, aesthetics and social conditions.

Its aim was to revitalise the pupils and greater community with new recreational, wellness, youth, art, IT, theatre and sporting facilities.

Primarily a school building, the facility had to play a part-role of town hall, community centre, theatre, youth centre and place of worship, so the buildings are multifunctional.

Asked why schools received three nominations this year while residences only two, Border said he believed that "school design can provide a wonderful platform to display good design principles as so many people get to experience and enjoy the buildings".

He feels it is vital that schools focus on sustainability.

"Schools play such an important role in defining who we are and what we become in life. Schools influence our children's values, ethics and habits, and continually question what the future generation's aspirations should be. Sustainability lessons learnt at a young age will be carried through into adult life."

Asked how the environment affected pupils, he said: "When children are exposed to sustainable practices on a daily basis, it starts to rub off on how they think and act, as can be seen by the wonderful recycling programme that was developed at Elkanah as a children's initiative."

Not all schools have the luxury of being built from scratch.

Asked what recommendations he had for other schools or learning institutions, Border replied: "A school provides a wonderful opportunity for community interactivity and should be multifunctional and inclusive of the surrounding community.

"Classrooms, IT labs and art rooms should not stand vacant at night when they can be used for adult education classes. A school hall should serve as the heart of the community, providing a venue for meetings, debates, dance and worship.

"Elkanah opens up [its] grounds once every month and runs a community craft market. This provides wonderful opportunities for young entrepreneurs to sell their goods while building community spirit and goodwill."

The third nomination, Vele Secondary School, is designed by East Coast Architects.

Schools play a critical role in the life of communities, especially those situated in remote areas.

Part of the Creating Schools initiative, the project based its development on input from the local community.

Pupils were given cameras and taught to map the area, including their routes to school. They identified hazards - leopards, baboons and snakes among them - as well as special sites in the landscape.

Their photos were exhibited to raise funds, but also inspired the school's design and the selection of its building materials.

The school invested in a digital weather station to create effective solar design and rainwater harvesting strategies. Science labs and IT centres were added and pupils were trained to serve as guides in nearby game reserves.

Energy conservation and water management are important themes both in terms of global resource implications and the reduction of school utility bills. The use of local resources - mainly stone and masonry construction - reduces the carbon footprint and invests in local economies.

Derek van Heerden, the architect on this project, believes that schools are places (or should be) where we get glimpses of the future, both in the formal infrastructure and buildings and in the pupils themselves.

"It is fitting that schools display the new realities in the time in which we are living. Learners are going to have to pull this one 'out of the fire', because this is the generation that will have to repair our mistakes."

Van Heerden said they had sought and received feedback from pupils, teachers and the community from the outset.

"This has had a massive impact on the eventual outcome, with the whole community embracing the school, which can only have a positive effect on education."

He believes fir mly that the schools built by the apartheid government were dull affairs that came out of a lot of distorted ideology.

"There was no dignity and the teaching/learning environment was completely lacking in inspiration. We believe that if anything worthwhile is to come out of post-94 South Africa these morbid environments have to be transformed."

And this can only have a positive effect on overall education.

Saturday Argus

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