Under the shade of a far-reaching canopy, community takes shape in Tubatse. A raised roof inspired by climate appropriate design has become a prominent feature in the landscape – a catalyst for development, growth, and community pride.

The Child Aid Tubatse (CAT) community centre near Burgersfort has become a landmark in the rural landscape. It is unlike any other structure in the area, yet uses recognisable building materials to create functional and spacious forms. The floating roof structure with its generous overhangs, the bright colours contrasting the deep rich rust of the soil, the horseshoe footprint, and the triangular repetitive geometry of the columns, draw the community inside to take shelter from the sun, to engage and participate. It is an umbrella for the community, shielding from the heat, and the rain, and unifying at the same time.

A year and a half after completion and occupation, the centre is in full swing. The project, designed by Dustin Tusnovics of SpaceMatters Architecture and Urbanism in partnership with Humana Austria and its local office, Humana South Africa, is an active hub for the community of Tubatse. It serves as a training centre, conference centre, auditorium, youth centre, and daily as a playground, preschool, kindergarten, and food garden. Sustainability is inherent in its design, its programme, and its community outreach.

Along with HIV/Aids awareness and support programs, Humana’s work centres on outreach; activating and training communities to create vegetable gardens, to conserve soil, and to farm without reliance on heavy machinery. One of the goals for the construction of the centre was for seasoned builders to work alongside a volunteer crew teaching and transferring skills toward sustainable lifestyles and future employment. The design of the centre was intended to be simple enough for inexperienced labourers to construct.

Local builders were sourced as skilled labourers for the construction, but the lack of adequate onsite project management and specialised skills quickly became a problem. After a supplier and consultant of sandbag construction went bankrupt leaving the team with half finished walls, Niels Matthiesen, country director for Humana SA, approached a training academy for builders in Durban. Vernon Hendricks, Construction Resource Development Centre project manager, came on board with trainee experts from their programme. Local community members were trained onsite, received certificates of completion, and played an essential role in the creation of their community centre.


“My main concern in design is to do something totally sustainable in a logical manner, not technological,” Tusnovics says of his inherent approach to design.

A small building next to a large shady tree at the project site was already in use by CAT as an office. A natural extension of the office had become the ‘outdoor room’ under the tree, where meetings and gatherings spontaneously occurred. This established pattern of use sparked the idea to incorporate the building into the new project and to expand the covered and protected area.

The primary design gesture was to provide shade; within that, shelters for the programmatic elements took shape. The existing office was refurbished and exterior walls raised to match the new structure. New walls were to be built out of sandbags to reduce the impact of fossil fuels used in the firing of bricks. Sandbag construction requires thicker walls at the base or additional supports, such as buttresses, for two-storey walls or more. As two of the buildings – the hall and the library – are two-storeyed, after the loss of their sandbag contractor and due to a slipping schedule, the decision was made to complete the remainder of the project with brick walls. The one-story kitchen and the new office walls are built from sandbags.

Corrugated metal roofs are a common element in African townships and landscapes. However, the metal absorbs the heat and transfers it to the spaces below, causing them to become intolerably hot. At CAT, the large raised roof structure, the overhanging canopy, the window sizes and placements, all work together to block the sun and to provide a sensible and cost-effective solution to cooling.

The clip-lock metal roof was raised 700mm on a lightweight truss system, providing a passageway for airflow over the ceilings below. It was designed to run parallel to the existing slope of the land, but raised to protect, unify, capture water runoff, and breezes. The zigzag roof shapes over the higher capacity hall function as light collectors, and as open air vents expelling hot air. The rooms have cross ventilation traveling through and over them for cooling. The individually enclosed and separated spaces under the roof canopy create dynamic space for movement and pause out of the reach of the elements.

The roof height permits winter sun to enter the spaces for early morning warmth while the generous overhangs protect the building from the harsh mid-day sun in the summer. Tusnovics reduced the reliance on artificial lighting by providing ample natural light. The main window openings face east, the openings on the library face south, with filtered light from screens.

Gum poles support the floating roof truss system and provide compelling patterning to the building. Viewed in perspective with their repetitive play against the cool green backdrop of the walls, the gum poles evoke a stand of trees. The scale of the arcade corridors wrapping around the courtyard is human and accessible. The lightweight steel trusses replicate the patterning of the diagonal columns. The structure breaks down into smaller and lighter elements as it stretches higher.


The ripples of the project reach far into the community, and the prominent design attracts partnerships. CAT has partnered with local schools, businesses, and universities. The centre has become a source of pride for the surrounding area and for the users themselves.

“The design is holistic and uplifting; it is one unique piece of art. Users love the design and I personally do not get tired explaining to people visiting for the first time, the ecological inspiration and the low-cost sandbag technique that was tried. The colours bloom out bright and beautifully from afar, uplifting ones eagerness to be inside the premises,” says Humana People to People CAT Project Leader, Nondumiso Khethwa.


By Louise Lakier

For the full article, see earthworks magazine Issue 30, February-March 2016.