Taking a Lesson from Green School South Africa
Chris Bakker – Director
Theuna Stoltz – Associate
In 2021, GASS Architecture Studios completed a world-class feat – the creation of the third Green School globally. Having first come to life in Bali and then extending to New Zealand, the forward-thinking educational network found itself another place to call home: South Africa. As sites where a community is fostered for a sustainable future, the Green Schools are an initiative grounded in environmental integrity, empathy, and responsibility. We caught up with the GASS Team to harvest the methods, concepts, and ethos that went into making this remarkable project a reality.
What excited you as a team the most about the opportunity to design the Green School South Africa?
Green School South Africa started off as a competition scheme; the clients selected five local architects to submit a concept proposal, which in itself was already exciting.
From the onset of design development, up to this day, there has not been a dull moment – designing and constructing a regenerative schooling campus from natural and locally-sourced materials (complying with the Living Building Standards), sculpting organic architecture, and creating learning spaces that ignite a sense of wonder in adults and children alike. The journey of becoming part of the Green School family and to see the impact that the campus has on everyday lives, is life changing, and something we are really proud of and which excited us from the start.
What inspires you about the Living Building Challenge (LBC) that you incorporated in the project, and were there any specific difficulties that arose because of the location and land when following the program?
The LBC is setting new benchmarks for ‘green’ buildings. Preventing harm is a good first step. However, let’s be visionary and take things much further. Human beings are creative, capable of adding complexity and beauty to the natural environment, improving people’s happiness and health, and bringing joy to processes of learning. This is the vision behind Green School South Africa’s (GSSA’s) aim to achieve a LBC compliance, the world’s most stringent ‘green’ building accreditation, which requires that buildings should not only be sustainable but also ‘regenerative’.
This means they must produce more energy than they use; consume less water than the site naturally receives; increase rather than reduce the biodiversity and beauty on site; and be healthy − providing plenty of natural light, fresh air, food, a close connection to nature, and a sense of community. They must also incorporate ‘biophilic design’, which takes into account the human love of and need for nature, into every step of the design and building process.
The LBC compliance has brought huge challenges at every turn of the design and building process. Nonetheless, it is resulting in new benchmarks for green building in Africa, and a school that is both beautiful and inspiring. The LBC compliant projects are evaluated against several ‘petals’ which include place, water, energy, materials, health and happiness, and equity and beauty.
The most challenging part was the LBC Red List, a tool for building product transformation. It documents the ‘worst in class’ materials, chemicals, and elements known to pose serious risks to human health and the environment, prohibiting the use of harmful and toxic chemicals during the construction process and after.
Carbon consumption is one of the most important issues in the ‘energy’ petal. LBC requires that embodied carbon should be calculated from the start of construction through to the operation of the building. This includes the process of manufacturing the materials, how they are transported, and over what distance.
‘We’ve calculated the embodied carbon for all materials, and the school is doing very well compared to the average building,’ said Fabio Venturi, director of Terramanzi Group – the sustainable design consultancy responsible for all of the tracking on the project. ‘There are not many educational facilities that have done these calculations, but we know that the average commercial development uses 1000-2000 kg/m² and halfway through the construction process, the school was at only about 254 kg/m².’
In South Africa and Africa, we do not have access to products that have already been vetted and received a Declared Label, which required each of the products and materials used on site to be dissected and understood in terms of their ingredient lists and manufacturing processes, to ensure it meets the requirements as set out by the LBC. To comply with this, we used natural construction materials which included rammed earth, clay, wood, locally manufactured bricks, and drastically reduced quantities of cement, giving preference to lime-only plaster and predominantly lime-based floor screeds. Many of these were acquired locally, satisfying another LBC requirement. Some items, such as doors, were found in salvage yards.
Were there any existing projects at the time that provided you with helpful ideas or inspiration during the design process?
Green School South Africa forms part of the larger Green School Family; the first ever Green School was built in Bali. Just after we were awarded with the contract, we went to Bali to visit the school to better understand the Green School ethos and how they arranged and constructed the campus.
Which of the materials and practices used in this project do you think could be implemented more in future South African builds in order to improve sustainability in the industry?
- The use of sustainable, environmentally friendly, and locally sourced materials and products Local craftmanship
- Passive design principles
- The ‘petals’ as set out by the LBC
- Biophilic design Stop the use of products that contain harmful chemicals
Once you completed the project, did your approach and thinking about sustainability in architecture shift or evolve?
Due to the stringent requirements of the LBC, the Green School design and building team was forced to work closely with local manufacturers and suppliers, to find ways to substitute all products containing red-list items. Many new products had to be developed. One such product included a water-based steel treatment system to replace the steel treatments containing VOCs.
For GASS, the selection of materials holds the utmost significance. Natural materials and textures have always been a key characteristic in our designs, because it creates a sense of place, defines the character of a building, and can significantly impact the functionality, sustainability, and overall design of a space. At GASS we carefully consider the selection and use of materials and textures to achieve the intended design goals and create spaces that are both beautiful and functional.
Since working on the Green School, we have been focussing a lot more on our understanding of materials
and the products that we specify and what ingredients get used to create certain products. And now after having worked closely with specialists, manufacturers, and suppliers in the field, and knowing that we can challenge the formulations, we strive to use not only natural materials and finishes, but also products that do not contain harmful materials.
What do you think is the most interesting latest innovation(s) in sustainable architecture that you’ve seen circling lately?
- Regenerative Buildings
- Biophilic Design
- Adaptive Reuse
- Smart Building Systems
- Natural Materials
- Transformation of textile waste into building materials like the bricks from fab-brick