The home of the Skukuza Science Leadership Initiative, the SSLI Campus, is a training and research facility that furthers the transfer of knowledge and science skills to students, technicians and professionals from South Africa and beyond. And the new Science Centre takes lessons to a higher level.

The new Skukuza Science Centre on the SSLI Campus, a partnership between the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), the Nsasani Trust, and the Scientific Services division of SANParks in the Kruger National Park (KNP), is a flagship project with two primary goals. The first is to enhance scientific experiential learning opportunities and provide a platform for academic exchange in the field; and the second is to demonstrate to managers, tourists and students the feasibility of low-impact living by showcasing the ways in which sustainable design and facilities management can reduce the environmental impact of daily living.

The project originated when OTS, a US-based non-profit, established a field study programme in 2003 for undergraduate students to come to grips with savanna ecology and conservation, and to improve their practical skills through experiential learning in nature. As the programme provided opportunities primarily for international students, in 2010 Laurence Kruger and Karen Vickers of the OTS established the Nsasani Trust to make this higher learning available to South Africans.

The SSLI partnership subsequently developed between the OTS, Nsasani and SANParks Scientific Services with the aim of bridging the gap between disadvantaged communities, tertiary education and the biodiversity sector.

A suitable site

In 2011, SANParks Scientific Services at the KNP offered the use of land that had previously been the “My Acre of Africa” site. Derek Visagie, senior manager: civil and building at KNP, says this site was ideal for the new centre as it was a brownfield site and would form part of the training facilities that OTS had already been using.

Funding was sourced from OTS and SANParks for the new building, comprising a lecture theatre, library, laboratory and supporting facilities. A request for expressions of interest went out in 2011, and the contract was awarded to a joint venture between Nicholas Whitcutt Architects and Kevin Mitchell Architect.

About two hectares in size, the site is adjacent to the Skukuza back-up generator on the road leading to the Skukuza staff village. Already serviced with water and electricity, and with good access, the site contained several existing buildings and structures, including two four-bedroomed houses, four wooden cabins, various carports and storage sheds.

Response to the brief

Kruger says it was with the engagement of SANParks Scientific Services that the idea of a cradle-to-cradle approach could be entertained from the outset of the project. The intention was to ensure that lessons from the construction of the building as well as its sustainable life processes are kept alive and passed on, to ensure that the project has continued ecological meaning.

The brief included student accommodation for 30; catering and dining facilities for 50; a science centre comprising a lecture theatre for 50, dry lab for 24, and library for 30; staff accommodation for full-time staff members and visiting lecturers; and supporting services such as a laundry, reception, offices, hot desks, staff meeting spaces, and ablutions.

Evolving design

Architect Nicholas Whitcutt explains: “The concept proposal for the masterplan was to establish a clear threshold demarcating access to reception, the canteen and Science Centre within a public radius, limiting vehicles to this interface, with the more private functions of student and staff accommodation located towards the periphery of the site.

Architect Kevin Mitchell says the design concept was very much informed by the context, with an emphasis on a green, low-tech approach.

The first public experience of the centre is of a sloping landscape created by a planted roof that starts at natural ground level. Both interior and exterior spaces are located under this overarching, insulative roof structure. Below, a micro-climate is created by a water feature providing evaporation and cooling, and the roof, trees and planted screens provide shade.

The southern side is heavily buffered against the sound of the on-site generator by a massive curved wall built from rubble sourced from the demolitions on site.

A great deal of attention was paid to the design of the work spaces following four workshops held with SSLI students. In the lecture theatre, the drivers were acoustics and sightlines, natural ventilation, light levels and the mitigation of glare – in short, human comfort. Various spaces were accommodated in the library for different types of working and studying, with areas that are quieter and more introspective, and spaces that allow for discussion and interaction. In the laboratory, ventilation was particularly important, together with a system of specially designed work tables and racks of trays.

Sustainability features

Due to low annual rainfall, the site remains connected to the existing water supply, but demand on this system is reduced by harvesting rainwater from the centre’s roof. The three tanks used for rainwater storage double as chill-out areas with seating at the base of each.

A multi-hybrid solar photovoltaic (PV) system was designed to ensure uninterrupted power supply to essential equipment in the event of an outage. This works as a combined island and grid-tied system, and consists of 24 PV panels and 24 batteries.

A cold room off the laboratory is a plant-operated humidity-controlled space for lab storage, with the plant powered by the solar PV system. LED lighting is used wherever possible.

The north wall of the library is a trombe wall, which is manually operated to adjust airflow and temperature depending on the time of day and year.

The site is serviced for water-borne sewage, which is treated in Skukuza via oxidation tanks and a reed bed system. Additionally, Enviro Loo waterless composting toilets were installed in the Science Centre, and all wastewater from basins drains to a soak-away system or to existing plants.

A unique feature of the project is the planted roof, which functions as a research tool, housing experimental “plots” in planter trays that are exposed to varying water conditions in “rainout shelters”.

A learning process

As funding for the Science Centre was sourced separately from SANParks and the OTS, two separate procurement and contractual processes had to be followed. This resulted in the appointment of one contractor for the roof structure, library and laboratory, and a second contractor for the lecture theatre, roof covering, water feature and landscaping.

“The process had to be carefully managed,” comments Visagie. “The team was well organised and worked well together, and the architects had a representative on site at all times to assist the contractor during construction.”

Kruger agrees: “The whole process spoke to the philosophy of leadership and holistic education. It’s been a highly collaborative project between the clients, professional team, builders, students and architects. Everything was treated as a learning exercise, in a highly participatory process. The building tells the story of the organic construction process and the work that will be conducted in these spaces – and the finished product is breathtaking.”

By Karen Eicker

See earthworks magazine issue 40 October-November 2017 for the full feature.