Grain silos make for funky student accommodation

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A mix of alternative building materials and reclaimed industrial building stock has turned Mill Junction from an eyesore into Cinderella. (Image: Citiq)


• Lesley-Ann van Niftrik
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It looks like a beached container ship decorated by an insane clown, but Mill Junction, the newest student residence in Newtown, is a brilliant reclaiming of old industrial building stock. It is also a way to bring the energy of student life into the inner city of Johannesburg.

Mill Junction uses one of the old Premier Mill silo structures as a base to build housing for 400 students. The speed of the redevelopment – nine months from start to finish – is down to the repurposing of old building stock and using alternative building methods to not only speed up completion, but cut the cost of development as well.

The original administration building and 10 grain silos on Carr Street are topped with four floors of repurposed shipping containers. The use of alternative building materials like shipping containers means that a project can be completed faster, and cheaper. “We (South Africans) are slow to take to alternatives to bricks and cement but alternatives allow us to bring more buildings online in a market desperate for them,” explains Citiq’s chief executive, Paul Lapham.

As Johannesburg sprawls outwards, students looking for affordable, secure and suitable accommodation are being pushed further away from the campuses they attend. With the student population growing, the need for the quick development of housing has become critical. Developers like Lapham are turning their gaze toward the inner city, where solid neglected office blocks and former industrial buildings are standing empty.

Originally erected in the 1960s, the silos are exempt from new government regulations covering green buildings. However, Mill Junction has a number of energy conserving features that allows the residence to run on 50% less energy than a comparable building. Induction stove tops, LED lighting, heat pumps instead of geysers, double glazed windows, and even the use of shipping containers are part of the green ethos behind its construction.

Interesting buildings

“An interesting base makes for interesting buildings,” says Daniel Aarons, Citiq’s in-house architect. He joined the company after work started on the building but has been involved since construction began in June last year.

Stretch your arms out while standing in a corridor and your hands touch the walls without straining. The corridor ahead winds and bends to the door of the common areas leading to the lift shaft. The only artificial light burning is the LED above your head.

It should feel like the walls are closing in on you, as if the entire floor just above your head is a weight settling on your head. But start walking and the lighting moves with you, keeping up like the flashing lights of a DanceEvolution arcade game. The tight space is broken up by a communal kitchen or bathroom, and the large windows throwing in blocks of sunlight further brighten up the corridors.

“The corridors are not straight, a deliberate design feature. With the support columns jutting out and the bends it does not seem as tight as it is. The large windows and the overhead lighting help as well,” explains Aarons.

The silo walls are 18 centimetres thick, strong enough to hold the additional four levels of shipping containers stacked on top of them. The silos are arranged in five rows of two. One of the concrete pipes has been converted to house the lift shaft and staircases, while a further two house the bathrooms and communal kitchens for each floor.

Construction concerns

The silos offered the biggest challenge during construction. Cutting out the window frames on each floor destroyed countless saws till they found a diamond edged saw, and pouring concrete floors where there was no support structure added time to the project’s deadline.

Nationwide, of the 530 000 students applying to university, there is accommodation for just 100 000; the squeeze is tighter in Joburg, where there are two major universities within its municipal borders. The University of Johannesburg has a student enrolment of 49 000, with just over 8 500 beds in 30 residences.

Lapham says the market for student housing offers endless growth for developers willing to take the chance. “At Wits [University of the Witwatersrand] alone there’s 50 000 students, but on-campus residences provide only 4 000 beds. For a little more than what students expect to pay to share a suburban three-bedroom house with seven other students, you can get a single or double room at Mill Junction.

Two rooftop communal areas are the highest point in Newtown, giving unobstructed views of the city’s skyline. All the rooms are outward facing as well, so students are looking out on to the city or the suburbs. The view is just one benefit of living at Mill Junction, but for Lapham having the students living in a part of inner city Johannesburg desperately in need of re-invention is a bigger bonus.

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Mill Junction is the highest point in Newtown and offers residents unobstructed 360˚ views of the city skyline. (Image: Citiq)

Night life

Internationally famous venues like Museum Africa, the Market Theatre and Carfax nightclub are just streets away, but the drab industrial nature of the region means it is desolate around Mill Junction at night. Lapham hopes the energy and laughter of the students strolling through the halls will liven up the city blocks just outside their door.

This vision of a revitalised Johannesburg is rooted in nostalgia for the city of yesteryear; it was a place of vibrant cafés, boutiques and architecturally unique buildings. Lapham hopes the community of students at Mill Junction will draw in entrepreneurs to provide these shopping experiences. “Put simply, we want to build a village where everyone shares common goals and aspirations.”

Inner city Johannesburg is not the place of popular imagination where there be monsters. People like Lapham and Aarons and the students they are drawing in are the advance guard revitalising an urban space deserving of life. “In 10 years all those myths will be dispelled as people come back to shop, relax and enjoy this rich architectural history of Johannesburg. Hopefully the energy of these students will help the regeneration begin.”