Building blocks of hope

[Image] The eye-catching container house is a model of sustainability and eco-friendly technology.
(Image: Dennis Guichard)

[Image] The cheerful lounge area is a shared space, as is the kitchen, scullery, dining room and homework area.

[Image] A garden on the lounge container provides extra insulation.
(Images: New Jerusalem)

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Janine Erasmus

The New Jerusalem Children’s Home in Midrand, Gauteng, combines sustainability with aesthetics through the inspired installation of 28 shipping containers that serve as accommodation for 24 of its children.

New Jerusalem is something of a trailblazer in sustainability, and saw the opening of its first green house in February 2012. That building consists of the 28 creatively arranged 12m by 6m containers, and is touted as Africa’s first eco-friendly children’s home.

The container home was designed by Johannesburg-based 4d and a Architects. To get the best use of the containers, the design team of Sean Wall and Mia Anfield put together an innovative plan that involved some containers standing on their ends, others with portholes or floor-to-ceiling windows installed in their walls, and all fitting together in a double-storey structure that works efficiently.

“It was quite a challenge because it was the first time we’d worked with containers,” says Wall. “We were inspired by American architect and artist Adam Kalkin, who had more experience in this than we did, and we contacted him through Adrienne [Feldner-Busztin]. He came out to South Africa pro bono and gave us some very useful tips.”

Feldner-Busztin is a fundraiser for the home.

Then it was a matter of finding equivalent local products to those used in Kalkin’s container home, and working out the right configuration for the containers.

“We could have just stacked some containers on top of each other, but we wanted to incorporate architectural features – we wanted a wow factor,” says Wall.

According to New Jerusalem, the house is just the first of several eco-friendly installations on the cards. Plans for the others are finished and have been approved by the Johannesburg city council.

“Now we just have to raise some funds,” says businesswoman and advocate Anna Mojapelo, New Jerusalem’s co-founder together with her sister Phina, a social worker.

The first building was funded partly through the efforts of Wall who, with a cycling partner, competed on behalf of the home in the eight-day Absa Cape Epic mountain bike race and raised about R80 000 (US$9 000).

“We plan to establish an office, a chapel and a resource centre,” says Mojapelo, “with a library, computer room, and study area for the children.”

There are also another two houses in New Jerusalem’s future expansion.

Pride and dignity

The new building is home to two families of 12 children, each with a house mother. Boys sleep downstairs and girls are upstairs.

It incorporates the old brick house, which was in dire need of a revamp and which is now the kitchen, scullery and dining room. These are shared, as are the lounge, homework area and laundry.

The simply appointed but comfortable bedrooms are designed for two, four or eight children, and each young occupant has his or her own bed and cupboard.

According to New Jerusalem, since moving into the new facility the children have gained in confidence, pride, sense of dignity, and self-esteem.

Going with containers

Containers were the preferred resource for various reasons. They offered a substantial savings compared to building houses from brick and mortar – 25% of the cost of building the traditional way, according to World Architecture News.

“We were aiming for sustainability and low maintenance,” says Wall. “And it’s an ideal way to educate the kids about these matters.”

The speed of construction was another factor – much of the preparation was done at the container depot, leaving the laying of foundations and about six months’ work to be done on-site, and that was only because of delays getting some donated goods to the site.

Because the containers are recycled the house is kind to the environment too. New Jerusalem says that many interior fittings and finishings were donated by companies who themselves manufacture eco-friendly products or run their companies on green principles.

With its many windows and openings, the house can operate with minimal use of artificial lighting during the day. The building also features solar heating and lighting panels, wooden sun screens, steel roofing for temperature regulation, infrared heaters, a roof garden which helps with insulation, rainwater tanks, recycled carpet tiles, and a device to convert black water to grey water for irrigation.

“The wonderful thing about solar lighting is that even when there is a power failure the green house still has light, which means the kids can do their homework at any time,” says Mojapelo. “It is a light house.”

And the eco-friendly features are kind to the budget too. “They have reduced our monthly electricity bill quite a lot,” she says.

Looking after the most vulnerable

New Jerusalem was established in 2000 by the Mojapelo sisters, who serve as the organisation’s CEO and COO respectively. They started off by opening their own home to a needy child, and today some 80 orphaned and previously neglected or abused youngsters are in their care.

New Jerusalem provides shelter to children from infanthood to 16 years of age. Besides its function as an orphanage, New Jerusalem also sees to the education of its young charges, as well as children from the community, through a crèche and preschool as well as aftercare.

It celebrated its official opening only in 2012.

The home has received funding from the Department of Social Development, and in 2009 built a Montessori preschool on the premises, thanks to support from a Dutch organisation called Orange Babies.

“But we needed a master plan for the home, one that takes the future into account,” says Wall. “That has now been drawn up and is ready to go.”