Global design award for SA project

10 June 2013

An early childhood development centre and teacher training facility in Johannesburg, designed and built by US student volunteers in partnership with South African engineers and contractors, has been named “best small project” in Engineering News-Record’s (ENR’s) inaugural Global Best Projects competition.

The winners, selected by an independent jury of industry leaders in design and construction, were announced during ENR’s Global Construction Summit in New York on Friday night.

Engineering News-Record is a leading construction industry publication owned by US company McGraw Hill Construction.

The “Schoolhouse South Africa” project, along with London’s “The Shard” project (winner in the “best large project category”), were singled out by the judges as “particularly innovative examples of global design and construction, excelling in all judging criteria and demonstrating the past year’s best achievement in worldwide project excellence”.

Opened in 2011, the schoolhouse has become an integral part of its neighborhood in Cosmo City, Johannesburg, showcasing the use of innovative building systems in low-income communities.

The project was led by a group of architecture students from Cornell University, in partnership with Johannesburg-based non-profit organisation Education Africa, whose architecture programme encourages student organisations to design and build low-cost pre-schools within impoverished communities.

Student-led organisation Cornell University Sustainable Design took on the project, encouraging its members to work side by side with local community members in Johannesburg.

“It was very important to formulate a common vision, because everyone had a stake in it,” said project director Barry Beagen. “That common vision was the same with the suppliers, contractors and our partners as well, because we knew this project wasn’t just about the volunteers coming and going.”

The project team included Johannesburg-based engineers and contractors PD Solutions, as well as the City of Johannesburg and South African early childhood development organisation Play-With-A-Purpose.

The building’s structure was formed using earth-filled polypropylene bags placed inside EcoBeam frames, an extremely low-cost system which increased the building’s thermal mass while eliminating the need for active heating or cooling systems.

“By filling the bags with soil excavated during the foundation-laying process, we reduced waste and transportation while transforming residual matter into a high-performing and resilient wall system,” said Cornell team member Daniel Lu.

A reinforced concrete ring beam was placed atop columns integrated into the wall system to increase interior spans and prolong the building’s useful life. Clerestory windows and child-height portal windows eliminated the need for electric lighting.

“This project shows us all that beauty doesn’t need to be expensive, and challenges aren’t always led by very experienced professionals,” said one judge. “I am proud of our industry when I see the next generation leading the way.”

SAinfo reporter