Breakthrough technology makes Soweto school among world’s greenest

LYT Architects vision of a new type of school envisions the outside being as much part of the classroom as the building. (Image: LYT Architects)

• S. Makhani
St. Martin de Porres
+27 11 936 3052

Sulaiman Philip

Curious kids come and go, watching from the top of an embankment as the first of the four structures of their new campus rises on what was once the school’s sports field. The field is now a dust bowl, the grass churned over by trucks and boots. The backhoe pulling down the embankment sends clouds of dirt and grass into the air each time it slams into the dry earth.

St Martin de Porres High in Orlando West, Soweto, is not an average township school. Once its new campus is complete it will be one of the most environment-friendly and sustainable schools in the world. Twenty new classrooms will replace temporary structures of brick and zinc built 50 years ago. The campus is being constructed using modular building technology developed in South Africa and using a Green School design concept developed by South African architecture firm LYT Architects.

Constructed from prefabricated panels manufactured offsite, the four structures use integrated solar technology and natural light to reduce power consumption from the grid. Instead of traditional peaked roofs, the buildings’ flat roofs will be able to harvest rainwater for watering the gardens and sanitation.

Sliding panels allow natural airflow to warm and cool the rooms, and wash each classroom with sunlight. Sustainability will even extend to schoolwork. The 720 pupils will be given tablets for their studies to make the school as paperless as possible, and horticulture and recycling will be included as new subject choices.

A different kind of teaching

Patrick Nayler, a director at LYT Architects, says the firm’s belief that buildings influence life is central to their concept. “The sliding doors and open walkways are integral to the design. It allows a different kind of teaching to take place, one that elevates the indoors as much as the outdoors. We should be encouraging education outside the classroom as well; we have the climate that makes it possible.

“We envision the school becoming a communal node, expanding beyond its function as a school. Organic hydroponic gardens will be established to educate the learners and community members about intensive, highly productive methods of farming, and to produce healthy food for the school learners, as well as a modest income for the local community.”

Offsetting carbon emissions

Designing intelligent buildings is one thing; even better is having the technology to make them a reality. The South African developed, world-leading green technology allowing the first structure to be erected in days, and the entire school in a month, is the result of a partnership between Sasol and Novo Domus, a construction systems design company.

Two of the three largest industrial polluters on Earth are South African. Power utility Eskom and petrochemicals giant Sasol are both dependent on coal, and their resultant emissions put the country at risk of being fined billions for not meeting its commitments to the Kyoto Protocol.

The technology used by Novo Domus – the name means “new house” in Latin – comes out of billions of rands of research funded by Sasol to offset their carbon emissions. The prefab walls and insulation foam use the byproducts of its coal to liquid fuel process.

“What does Sasol gain by shutting down production?” asks Keith Warmback, the project manager and owner of Novo Domus “Nothing, plus the number of jobs lost directly and indirectly would be staggering. Funding this research, incubating companies to take advantage of the research, creates jobs as well as helps Sasol to generate carbon credits to offset its carbon footprint.”

In the relative quiet of the site office, Warmback sits in front of a desk covered in architectural plans. “It’s not just the buildings. The entire process is green. The trucks bringing panels from factory to site as well as all the construction equipment run on biofuel. There is no waste because the entire building is made to order.”

Easing the healthcare and housing backlog

Warmback believes the technology is a cost-effective solution to the backlog of school construction in the country. Steel panels are slotted into place for walls with PVC resin used as insulation. Double-glazed window frames and ceiling panels keep the temperature a constant 18 degrees Celsius no matter the weather outside.

The construction site is not as loud or chaotic as a traditional site. For one thing, the crew is smaller – there are no bricklayers. Other than skilled artisans and heavy machinery operators, the crew consists of local community members trained by Novo Domus in the new construction technique. Warmback says the simplicity of the modular structures makes their construction an easy skill to learn. “We built a school in the rural Eastern Cape. There is nothing there, no roads, a mud school and houses built out of mud and thatch. We built a school with people we trained in the local community. Those skills are now being used to build houses and clinics.”

The construction of an entire school is a lot faster and a lot cheaper than a traditional bricks and mortar structure – R30 000 instead of R1.5-million. There is a lot less waste than in traditional wet work construction, which requires bricklaying, plastering and pouring concrete. “As much as 25 % of material is wasted in traditional construction,” Warmback says. “The modular design with prefabricated panels means there is no waste. Another advantage is that any material available in abundance in any location can be substituted in the process.”

Novo Domus will be redoing the roads and parking lots at St Martin de Porres as well. Instead of traditional tar they will be using a new polymer adapted from an Israeli technology. Guaranteed not to crack or develop potholes for 10 years, it has been tested at a mine in Australia for the past four years. “The surface flexes and grows harder and stronger the more traffic using it. It’s new technology and, once it proves successful here, we hope to use it across the country.”

Combating anxiety over new technology

Novo Domus has found it slow going convincing government departments and contractors to accept its modular building technique, despite it being the standard internationally. Since it built its first structure, a simple single room displayed at COP 17 in Durban, most of its orders have come from international clients. In Liberia they have built 5 000 low-cost houses; in South Africa just a dozen schools.

Nayler, of LYT Architects, identifies the problem simply. Everyone wants a brick structure because that is what they know, he says. “What mitigates against adoption of this concept and technology is the concerns of the holders of the purse strings. The more buildings we put up the faster the anxiety over a new technology dissipates.”

The first building at St Martin de Porres has been completed in time for the international C40 Mayors Summit, which begins in Johannesburg today. Joburg mayor Parks Tau will host a delegation of mayors from the 63 cities attending the summit at the school. For the mayor, a parishioner of the congregation of St Martin de Porres, it is a showpiece of the city’s programmes to combat climate change.

“We have a responsibility to provide leadership and to share our experiences, best practice and capacity for innovation with the rest of the globe,” Tau said ahead of the opening of the summit. “Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time, in the end, we are measured not by how much we undertake, but by what we finally accomplish.”