Simple design and exceptional innovations earn the Woolworths Communications Park distribution centre well-deserved praise. And it’s future fit, too


When designing a warehouse, what are the finer engineering points to consider? How about the joints in the floor? For Woolworths’ R300 million Communications Park distribution centre in Montague Gardens, Cape Town, this type of attention to detail was typical. The facility incorporates the very new-to-Africa technology of Cosinus Slide joints between the massive concrete flooring slabs of the warehouse platform. The joints reduce noise and impact in the warehouse for the 1.5 ton forklift trucks and the 3.5 ton high-lift trucks.

‘The way we think about things is that there is a guy – perhaps a forklift driver – who spends eight to 10 hours of his life there every day. So how do you make sure that the environment makes staff feel like they want to work there,’ says Michael-John Newham, head of Woolworths logistics development. These curvy, high-tech joints also reduce the need for maintenance, which is seen as an inconvenient operational expense that is ultimately passed on to the end-user, the Woolworths customer – as savings made in the procurement and distribution of the products ultimately lead to savings for the consumers. The distribution centre opened in May this year and has a 4-star Green Star rating from the Green Building Council of South Africa.

‘Woolworths is setting a precedent in this regard, and there are now a few distribution centres owned by other companies that are following in their footsteps,’ says Stephen Atkinson of R&L Architects in Cape Town. ‘Funnily enough, we achieved the 4-star rating quite easily by incorporating some clever design elements.’ The build was for a brand-new, additional distribution centre for mainly ambient products, for Woolworths’ Western Cape operations and is located opposite another Woolworths distribution centre that stores cold-chain products for the group. The new distribution centre also includes an 18°C panelled ‘chocolate box’ section for storing chocolates.

The site previously belonged to Telkom and had 1980s-style concrete buildings that basically housed that company’s workshops for vehicle repairs, alongside a few management offices.

The breaking of ground started in late 2016 and construction began in January 2017. It concluded in December 2017, with the last few alterations on the ventilation and other systems being completed within the subsequent few months. The build received a lot of points on the Green-Star rating for reusing suitable old building material from the original site, instead of it being directed to landfill. While the asbestos roofing and piping sheets were safely removed from the site, the original buildings were recycled.

‘A vast proportion of the demolition that happened equated into the recycling of that material,’ says Atkinson. ‘All the topsoil was recycled for the landscaping – we did not need to bring in any extra. And all the building rubble was finely crushed up to form an aggregate and used as fill for the platform on which the warehouse stands.’ A lot of fill was needed to bring the ground level of the predominantly flat site – where the high-level trucks come in – up to the level where the forklift trucks are offloading. The entire 32 000 m2 warehouse has been raised by an average 1.35m, and a lot of the fill under the building, propping up the warehouse, is made up of the old Telkom buildings. Remaining auxiliary buildings, including the office spaces as well as the towers and gate house, comprise about 4 000 m2.

‘In essence, it is not a fancy building. It’s really basic… It’s a warehouse; a distribution centre comprising a steel structure, cladding and a concrete floor. But we sought from the onset to make good decisions on normal stuff, and we have created a phenomenal building,’ says Newham. The building was also designed to be ‘future fit’, he adds.

‘We asked ourselves how do we make it last? How do we ensure our long-term maintenance is a lifespan cost? We’d rather pay a little bit of a premium and use the right solution to start off with, and get a 10- to 15-year lifespan.

‘The thinking going in, so we as a retailer stay sustainable, has been critical and the value – of quality – we portray as a company is keenly seen in this environment. And it’s not just about the infrastructure, but also about the people – from our own staff right up to our customers. It’s about natural light in the warehouse, offices and the canteen, the flow, the look-and-feel… So there is some really smart engineering that has gone into this, which makes business sense for Woolworths but also for the environment – and, ultimately, for the end-user, our customer.’

According to Newham, while the warehouse is currently being used for Woolworths’ FMCG long-life grocery items at ambient temperature (except for the 18°C ‘chocolate box’ with its 12.2m-high ceiling), the company plans within the next seven years to convert the building, by panelling it out into a cooled environment, with internal temperatures of 0°C to 5°C, for perishable products.

‘This facility has been designed to be ready for such a conversion. The concrete platform, for example, will be able to accommodate the difference in temperature,’ says Newham. ‘Six percent of the total cost of the build was spent on future flexibility so the building has the right things in place so that in future we can change it to fit a different supply-chain model.’

Newham adds that really smart engineering has gone into ensuring that the building is done at a business-sensitive cost but, at the same time, is as future-proof as possible. ‘On other sites, we previously used interlockers on our roadways and speccing areas. But with the movement involved and the fact that groundwater level is very shallow, we found that after a few years it became more of a 4×4 track.

‘So in this instance, we went for a concrete hard-stand on the 33 330 m2 around the facility, the equivalent of 4.7 soccer fields,’ he says. ‘This has worked out phenomenally and the civil engineers and contractors have done a really great job, incorporating smart engineering to make it a very cost-effective site. We had a bit of rain recently and there was no pooling.’

The HVAC system is mechanical, so there are no opening windows within the office space. Less pressure is placed on the system, meaning it is more economical, requiring less external energy to run. Fresh make-up air is delivered every two hours through the air con. In addition, the north-facing windows on the office building are smaller than other windows to reduce the heat load. The ‘choc box’ is situated on the southern side of the building, meaning it is largely hidden from the sun from a radiation perspective.

All the paint and carpets used in the office area are Green-Star rated. The paint itself has a very low VOC and, over time, releases very few noxious gases. Another aspect that has earned the building green points is the simple act of hanging blinds.

While there are no windows that can be opened within the office space, the architects supplied a lot of open spaces, including some that are more labour-related, such as the ‘smoking sheds’, where staff can sit and pause, eat their lunch and have a cigarette in a nicely landscaped area. Of course, says Atkinson, ‘the landscaping would have been nicer if it wasn’t for the drought’.

The management terrace upstairs also offers access to fresh air and light. ‘Management can come out onto the terrace and actually see what’s happening, what trucks are here, and so on,’ says Atkinson.

The site borders a residential area, and to reduce the industrial noise impact on surrounding neighbours, Woolworths constructed a 380m-long, 6.4m-high acoustic wall 3m within the boundary of the site.

Designed by R&L Architects in conjunction with Mackenzie Hoy Consulting Acoustics Engineers, the sound wall has been proven through sonic readings to negate the noise of the trucks driving around the site – or at least to reduce the sound to permissible levels.

‘Woolworths wants to do the right thing environmentally and our neighbours are part of our environment,’ says Newham. Just another example of attention to detail.


R&L Architects

CKR Consulting Engineers

MDSA Project Management


Sow & Reap

Stefanutti Stocks


Insite Landscape Architects


By Sarah Taylor
Images: Jotham van Tonder/HMimages

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