Lapalala Wilderness School


Paving the way for a sustainable future with Local Studio.

Size: 5500 m²

Completed: 2022

Location: Vaalwater, Limpopo, South Africa

The Lapalala Wilderness School is inspiring a new generation of environmentally-conscious youth. The eco-marvel stands as a showcase of the potential that lies within sustainable design – boasting an array of self-sustaining features and achieving a commendable net-zero carbon rating. Beyond its architectural accomplishments, the school also serves as a dynamic hub for environmental education, empowering students to become active guardians of our planet.

LWS Sean Gibson Arrival Plaza 2


Into the Wild

Situated within the Waterberg region of South Africa, the Lapalala Wilderness reserve encompasses approximately 48 000 hectares of pristine land. Recognised as a UNESCO biosphere reserve, this privately-owned wildlife sanctuary was established in 1981 by renowned conservationists Clive Walker and Dale Parker. Since 1985, the original school, which found its home in a humble farmhouse within the reserve, has offered education programmes to visiting schools with a focus on biodiversity and conservation education.

Recently, the Lapalala Wilderness School underwent a relocation just beyond the southern border of the reserve in an area of rehabilitated bushveld along the banks of the Palala River. This decision was prompted by the introduction of predator species to the Lapalala Wilderness reserve, necessitating the expansion and enhancement of the school’s infrastructure and facilities. The new location was chosen to accommodate the growing needs of the school and to provide improved school and accommodation amenities.

During the Cultural Heritage Impact Assessment of the site, evidence of an Iron Age Settlement was discovered. This incredible archaeological finding, along with other Iron Age Settlements and rock art sites scattered throughout the Lapalala Wilderness reserve, showcases the rich historical significance of the area.

LWS Dirk Jacobs Overview


An Untraditional Education

The brief called for the development of new infrastructure for an established environmental education programme that had relocated from its previous site within the Lapalala Wilderness reserve to a neighbouring property alongside the Palala River. This ambitious building programme encompassed the creation of educational, dining, and administration facilities, as well as short-term residential accommodations for students and long-term residential spaces for teachers and staff.

The newly built off-grid school has achieved an impressive net-zero carbon rating, and every year, the school hosts approximately 3000 students between the ages of 10 and 18, primarily from local communities in the Waterberg region. These students engage in week-long programmes focused on environmental awareness and conservation.

Right from the project’s inception, the core concept of going off grid was an integral part of the school’s vision. With a curriculum centred around conservation, ecology, and the safeguarding of wildlife and natural resources, it was crucial for the campus to embody these principles in its design and construction.

Setting itself apart from traditional educational settings, the Lapalala Wilderness School embraces a design that seamlessly integrates indoor and outdoor spaces. The educational, dining, and administration buildings are thoughtfully arranged around inviting courtyard areas, extending the learning environment into the surrounding natural beauty. These outdoor breakout spaces provide comfortable and shaded settings for teaching, offering sweeping vistas of the captivating bushveld landscape. Upon arrival, visitors are greeted by the Arrival Plaza, an inviting steel and timber pergola that guides them towards the enchanting Boma. Nestled amidst the library and offices, the Boma serves as a storytelling and stargazing space, where students gather around a crackling fire at night. Another remarkable feature is the Amphitheatre, the primary teaching space that seamlessly spills out from the library, dining hall, and auditorium. Covered by another pergola, it doubles as an informal gathering spot and an inspiring outdoor presentation area.

These dynamic outdoor spaces not only meet educational needs but also exemplify Local Studio’s enduring commitment to pioneering innovative public spaces in rural communities across South Africa.

The school’s dormitory blocks, accommodating up to 128 visiting students and 8 teachers, are connected by a continuous walkway canopy crafted from resilient hardwood timber. At the heart of this arrangement lies the Bush Plaza, an educational indigenous garden and play space. Employing passive heating and cooling techniques, the single-story buildings are thoughtfully clustered to optimise cross ventilation and orientation, ensuring a comfortable and energy-efficient learning environment.

02 LWS Floor Plan


Transport, Water, & Energy

The team faced significant challenges on the new school site as it was initially devoid of municipal supply or basic services. Nonetheless, they were determined to provide a safe and accessible learning environment. To make this a reality, the team persisted until it was possible to secure safe transportation for students, with access to the site achieved by extending the municipal road network. This ensured that the buses carrying scholars could navigate the route securely, fostering a smooth and reliable journey.

Meeting the crucial need for water supply, the team implemented two boreholes, and to embrace renewable energy practices, a thermodynamic solar hot water heating system was installed. Additionally, responsible wastewater management was prioritised, making use of a subsurface wastewater recycling plant to treat and reuse grey and black water. The school also generates all its electricity through a solar plant – a cutting-edge facility that utilises solar energy to power the campus, reducing reliance on conventional energy sources. To ensure uninterrupted power supply, a backup generator stands ready as a contingency measure, guaranteeing a seamless transition in case of unforeseen circumstances.

LWS Sean Gibson Solar Plant


A Considerate Selection

The project stands out for its thoughtful selection of materials. The context-driven materiality combines rammed earth, rock, and timber with concrete and masonry structures. Notably, the iron-rich soil sourced from on-site excavations takes centre stage in the construction of rammed earth walls, serving as an invaluable teaching tool for sustainable practices.

The outdoor courtyard and educational spaces feature clay brick pavers in the same striking red hues, creating a visually cohesive environment. To create a harmonious balance, the pergolas incorporate temperature regulating and are adorned with indigenous trees and plants to provide welcomed shade and further soften the outdoor spaces.

Within the school’s interiors, meticulous attention to detail is evident in the finishing palette with sealed laminated rafters, exposed plywood ceilings, and polished concrete floors, tinged with a subtle pink hue derived from the aggregate sourced from on-site excavations. Local Studio played a pivotal role in overseeing all furnishings and interiors, including custom-designed furniture pieces in collaboration with a group of South African designers. The selection of hardwood and steel furniture was purposefully curated to be maintained by the school’s workshop staff, fostering a sense of self-sustainability within the institution.

These conscientious design choices and collaborations highlight the Lapalala Wilderness School and the team’s commitment to environmental responsibility, creating a space that seamlessly integrates with its surroundings while embracing sustainability at every level. As part of a movement of eco-conscious educational institutions, this addition is one which honours the environment on every level, encouraging the same in its students.

LWS Sean Gibson Dorms
LWS Sean Gibson Interior Reception


Architect and Principal Agent: Local Studio 

Quantity Surveyor: Aestumo Avium

Structural Engineer: The Structural Workshop

Civil Engineer: Earthworkshop

Main Contractor: Mike Buyskes Construction

Civil and Plumbing Works: MLM-Ben’s

Electrical Works: Bosveld Elektries

Landscaper: Gordon Kershaw

Photographers: Dirk Jacobs and Sean Gibson 8. Student Dormitories & Bush Plaza

LWS Dirk Jacobs Detail Walkways

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