Sustainable Architecture: Green School South Africa

WORDS Graham Wood PHOTOS Courtesy of GASS Architecture Studios


A school in the Drakenstein Valley, designed to educate for sustainability, is also a benchmark in regenerative architecture.

Fabio Venturi of the Terramanzi Group, the sustainable design consultants for the recently opened Green School South Africa (GSSA) outside Paarl in the Drakenstein Valley, believes that the campus might be “the greenest school on the planet”. Because the school is on track to be the first Living Building Challenge (LBC) certified project in Africa, he explains, it has to be compliant with the world’s “most rigorous certification system”.

To be awarded LBC certification, Fabio says, “You have to demonstrate that [the buildings are] regenerative“ – which, in the simplest terms, means “you’re basically putting in more than you’re taking out”. This is architecture that actually heals the environment rather than merely doing less damage: it generates energy, purifies waste, recycles resources and restores biodiversity.

The architecture is all the more significant for its being a place of learning. GSSA is the third Green School in a growing international network. The first was launched in Bali in 2008 to, as its promotional material puts it, “educate for sustainability, through community-integrated, entrepreneurial learning, in a wall-less, natural environment”. It is education grounded in an immersive relationship with nature, designed to inspire a new generation of creative, innovative, entrepreneurial thinkers.

Green School South Africa
Classrooms at the Green School South Africa are arranged in an asymmetrical cluster around central courtyards and gardens, reflecting patterns found in nature. The rounded walls are inspired by nearby landmarks, such as Paarl Rock.

One of Fabio’s favourite quotes, which he has included in various presentations, sums up the idea: “If our education does not prevent us from destroying our environment, then no matter what qualifications we may have, it is insufficient and irrelevant.” The same goes for the architecture.

The campus was designed by GASS Architecture Studios, with landscaping by Danie Steenkamp of DDS Projects, and with close involvement from Fabio and other consultants. Fabio points out that the LBC dovetailed perfectly with the school’s values. Its biophilic approach, he says, is predicated on “the innate need of humans to connect
to nature”. “You mimic forms from nature, structurally and visually,” he says, from the quality of the light and air to the materials, colours and textures, and the inclusion of plants and wildlife – all of which creates a multisensory experience that brings people and nature together.

Green School South Africa
The buildings are low-slung, with deep overhangs that provide sheltered decks for children to be close to nature.

Architects Wessel van Dyk, Chris Bakker and Theuna Stoltz explain that the arrangement of the buildings and their rounded forms were inspired by the shapes of the Paarl Rock boulders in relation to the valley the school
is in, drawing “from the macro-context and applying it to the micro-context”. The buildings also function like petals or the segments of a fruit, the parts in service of the whole. Their orientation and overhangs make for passive energy saving, and low-slung forms immerse the classrooms in the landscape, creating courtyards and in-between spaces that knit together structures and surroundings.

Tiny details were scaled up, too. A curled, drying leaf the team found, which had part of its vein-like structure exposed, became the inspiration for the way the buildings dematerialise in the transition from inside to outdoors. The classrooms and other buildings are woven together with paths like “ribbons” as Chris puts it, rather than direct axes, so that navigating the campus becomes the architectural embodiment of a “process of discovery” akin to learning itself.

Green School South Africa
The kitchen, where vegetables from the garden are transformed into sustenance, is visible from the dining area.

Vernacular references are drawn into elements of the design as well, especially via the biophilic introduction of water through low werf walls and “leiwater channels”, which reinterpret aspects of the area’s architectural heritage. Salvaged teak doors from nearby demolished buildings further root the new structures in the history of the area.

The GSSA’s carbon footprint has been reduced by using local materials and techniques such as rammed earth construction. Of course, there’s plenty of state- of-the-art tech, and much of it has been made visible as a teaching resource. So, too, have the food gardens, which supply the school kitchen and make the regenerative cycle at the heart of the campus’s functioning both immersive and tangible. The vegetable cuttings go to the compost heaps, which in turn nourish the soil and help grow the produce. (The school also helps recycle waste from the broader community, in a further demonstration of the regenerative potential of development.)

The ripple effects go still further. The LBC is incredibly strict regarding not just building materials, but also the ingredients that make up those materials, as well as the manufacturing processes used to make them. Some local suppliers went so far as to create special new sustainable products for the GSSA project, such as the wax-sealed timber and the epoxies used for the kitchen and bathroom floors. It seems that we could all learn a thing or two from this school campus.

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