A proposed water research centre in South Africa received a Next Generational Gold award at the Regional Holcim Awards 2014 Africa Middle East for its innovative biomimicry in design and function.

Architect Jurie Swart’s research project is enough to take the breath away: a proposed water research centre that challenges architectural boundaries. Designed for the Fika Patso Dam, and submitted to the University of the Orange Free State, this self-sustaining research centre will boast “architecture [that] mimics mechanisms at work in nature”, says Swart.

“Green and creative architecture seem to be evolving on different trajectories,” says Holcim Foundation jurist Daniel Irurah. “Creative architecture is threatened when design teams focus too narrowly on green and sustainable architecture. However, Swart’s project serves to demonstrate ways in which the two could co-exist.”

Spatial reawakening

Constructed in 1986, the Fika Patso Dam is an industrial and domestic water source for Phuthaditjhaba (formerly QwaQwa) and its surrounding eastern Free State communities. But the dam’s construction has changed the receiving environment dramatically.

“The virgin landscape became submerged, changing the genius loci and leaving it in a state of no-man’s land,” says Swart, who wants to change this lost environmental and spatial connection by “re- activating the site to an awakened space”.

“Architectural structures are sustainable when created in symbiosis with nature,” he says. Plant and animal skins, which are able to regulate temperature, breathe and stretch, inspired Swart to question why a building should not have the same capability. This informed the building function.

For inspiration, Swart looked to the water strider, an insect known for its unique ability to adapt to a changing environment. Strong yet flexible, the insect distributes its body weight in order to walk over water surfaces. Surface tension between the water strider and water molecules allows the creature to move and float. “The principles of how the water strider stays afloat gave the design of the research centre the same movement characteristics,” says Swart.

Finding water solutions

Swart’s envisioned function for the centre is “alternative water quality and supply research, including water exploration”. Components will include an ecological and chemical laboratory, auditorium and exhibition space, staff and operational amenities. These components will be developed from existing pillars forming the dam’s framework.

Two further research components include an aquaculture facility and constructed wetlands. Both will be hosted on floating platforms. “The wetlands create a filtered water ecosystem for aquatic life and an exploratory purpose… perhaps contributing to natural water purification solutions that could be taken to a greater level,” says Swart.

The roof will open and close, depending on the rainfall, which is seasonal. “The counterweight roof system with concrete weights will be connected to the water level,” says Swart. “As the dam’s water level fluctuates, the movement of the water level will force the floating platforms up or down, and the roof responds accordingly. Through the large platforms’ surface tension, the structure is forced up or down.”

This mimics the skin’s temperature regulation function and means that the building itself is organic. “The design is not a fixed structure,” he says. “It can move and adapt.” The structure’s skin will remain open during dry winters when the dam level drops by 20%. An open structure and winter sun angle of 40 degrees will maximise solar heat gain, optimising the internal environment. In summer, a full dam will keep the structure closed, ensuring the interior doesn’t get too hot.

“Introducing architecture inevitably creates a new landscape… regardless of the architectural character,” says Swart. It is important that the “place not only generates the architecture, but that the architecture activates the space”.

While still a conceptual concept. Swart believes that the Piko Patso Water Research Centre “is very possible”. Irurah emphasises the importance of this research project to “remind the architecture-discipline and fraternity of its roots, with a role to inspire”.

Holcim Awards www.holcimfoundation.org/Projects/bio-mimicry

Jurie Swart jurieswart@ymail.com

University of the Free State www.ufs.ac.za