UNISA Innovating an Institution

Centrally located on major public transport routes (taxi and train), UNISA Parow is accessible to the wider student community. The building provides contact and examination facilities for these students. Located within a light industrial urban context, the previous UNISA facilities consisted of a combination of new educational and converted industrial buildings. The increase in student numbers and subsequent burden on the facilities had forced UNISA to rent nearby factory space, resulting in a sprawling, incoherent and disparate campus.

A decision was made to assimilate all these needs back onto the main campus by adding a significant extension of 15 new classrooms, 4 exam halls and additional administration facilities to the existing building. The aim of the master plan was to imbue a sense of dignity and pride back into the campus through formation of a celebrated entrance with a renewed sensitivity to human scale, an improved relationship between campus and street, and the promotion of pedestrian space, social space and safety with the design of a tree-lined pedestrian street containing essential public seating benches and lighting to facilitate safety and after-hour use of the building.

A student forecourt was created with cooling trees, water features and seating to encourage mutual study, social interaction and relaxation. Spatially, the most significant added element, and the one which transforms the general ambience of the place, is the double volume entrance space and internal student square, attached to the existing main circulation and constituting a new communal core to the institution. It forms an L-shape, which embraces a new small sunny courtyard on the inner edge.

Distance learning students are now able to experience a sense of campus life previously unintegrated into distance learning facilities. Where previously the campus was inwardly focused and merely functional with limited opportunity for engagement, the social spaces are now the welcoming gesture and integral part of the functioning of the building.

Once commissioned, the Architects tasked the team with designing a building that was environmentally responsible and context specific. Sustainable design was an integral part of the design ethos of the building. Energy conservation, material selection, natural lighting and ventilation and the conservation and recycling of natural resources consistently informed every aspect of the building from inception to detail resolution.Decisions were made during the early stages of the design that actively contributed to the reduction in mechanical heating and cooling systems. Integral to the design are the large ventilation chimneys which ventilate the building naturally and serve to illuminate the deeper areas of the classrooms.

Designing for flexibility to meet the ever-changing needs of the client is a critical feature of sustainable design. Steel framing and the use of the innovative Cobiax void former in the concrete slabs enabled flexible, unbroken and highly adaptable teaching spaces. With a significant weight reduction of up to 35%, that of a standard flat slab, there was a significant decrease in the number of columns required with uninterrupted spans of 10 x 20m which could be demarcated into teaching spaces and examination halls with ease.

Water is collected from the roofs into large tanks and re-used for the toilets. Storm-water is collected and water fed back into the Cape Flats Aquifer after filtration through the retention pond. Natural ventilation is used in all the spaces. Indigenous trees provide shade to the exterior whilst those in the student forum condition the air and remove indoor pollutants. Refuse is recycled in allocated bins. Existing vibracrete slabs were polished and converted into seating in the forecourt and student pause areas. The use of passive design solutions in the orientation of the building along an East-West axis provided an easily controlled North and South elevation. This has had a significant impact on the comfort of the building at no additional cost to the client.

The Architects tasked themselves with sourcing local materials within the Western Cape where possible, by supporting local materials and industry, providing local employment and reducing the necessity of transporting the materials over long distances. Simple and recyclable materials were given preference. Laser cut South African pine ceilings and De Hoop red bricks from a Stellenbosch quarry were selected. This philosophy followed through to the furniture, which was designed and procured locally. A series of mosaic artworks with provoking quotations, symbols and ideas was incorporated throughout the building. This project was undertaken by Artist Lovell Friedman, who guided a team of previously unemployed people, using a combination of striking black and white recycled tiles; reminiscent of the South African tradition of Linocuts; in the formal areas and coloured tiles in the more public areas. It is hoped that the mosaic silhouettes of different faces will become symbols of individual identities within the university and the quotes serve as a vehicle to engage ideas and facilitate imaginative thought processes.

"This is a building that manifests all the essential qualities of good architecture, transforming the oppressive, utilitarian nature of the existing buildings and offering restored pride and dignity to its occupants". Mary Ann Constable, Journal of the South African Institute of Architects, Issue 65 January/February 2014 ?At the new UNISA Cape Town Campus, the staff and student experience has been greatly improved. Especially noted is the benefit of the additional responsiveness of the building to social engagement and environmental considerations that contribute on a level beyond the programme requirements.

The incorporation of the original artworks and the recycling of materials into the unexpected continue to surprise and delight. Environmentally the building is much more comfortable and the running costs significantly reduced. In the long term we expect further savings as natural low maintenance materials have been chosen which will improve with age and require much less maintenance." Priti Vassan Makan - Client