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Seven Fountains Primary School
Kokstad, KwaZulu-Natal

Client:Oprah's Angel Network
2010SAIA Award of Merit
2010SAIA Award for Excellence


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30°31'37.64" S 29°26'03.84" E Alt: 1351m

Award Citation

This project arose out of a unique combination of a painful past, an existing cohesive school community, and external funding, leading the architects from the start to secure a high degree of community involvement in the processes of design, decision-making, construction and use. A 70-year old rural school on a farm named Seven Fountains, a few kilometres from Kokstad, had been partially demolished and cleared of more than 400 pupils by the farmer because he had failed to get the funding he sought. The teachers and pupils had crammed themselves into an abandoned hostel in the recently constructed nearby 'RDP' township of Shayamoya, where their numbers had grown to 900. The plight of the school came to the attention of Oprah's Angel Network, who decided to fund it. A complementary ingredient was the support of the KZN Department of Education. It would be responsible for the operation of the school on completion, and was eager to encourage a new prototype of a truly community-based approach to school-building in rural areas. The agreed objective, then, was to move away from the one-size-fits-all practice of parachuting blueprint-based structures into rural areas - instead it was to allow for the architecturally guided emergence of a school organically connected to the community that built it and which it serves.

To ensure replicability of the project in other underdeveloped rural areas, the following prerequisites were established:

  • The standard departmental Schedule of Accommodation would apply
  • Enrolment would be capped at 1000 Grade R to Grade 7 primary school learners
  • The budget for construction would be capped at the cost of building a standard departmental primary school.
The funding from the donor was therefore not a top-up to state funding to permit innovative embellishment. Rather, as a private donation, it enabled innovative departure from the formalised departmental building rulebook, so permitting a school to evolve that would be deeply rooted in and 'owned' by the community.

The process began with a series of creative workshops. Members of the community were brought together under the guidance of professionals with experience in the area of innovative and participatory rural construction technology. The architects reported that the workshops served to flesh out design proposals (educators), foster positive relationships (learners), and create a transparent design and construct environment (parents and broader community).

The choice of materials for the site was informed by a skills and materials audit conducted at an early stage within the township. Local people were trained to make and lay bricks using material from the neighbourhood, as well as to use poles and wood from trees grown in the region. The community's involvement and ownership is embedded in the buildings. This is most acutely demonstrated in the double-storey mud-brick construction that stands as a focal landmark for the school. It was built of materials produced on site by local workers. The walls were erected by a team of women using traditional technology. The Township is home to a largely impoverished and unemployed community. The campus is laid out so that several of the facilities are accessible to this general community after hours (sports fields, computer room, library, adult education rooms and potable water resources, enabling the school to serve as a community hub).

Buildings secure the perimeter of the site and a hierarchy of courtyards is established within with discreet play areas for learners of different age groups, all with visual surveillance from the dispersed offices of the educators. The broader community access facilities through a series of pathways and gates without compromising school security.

Climatic conditions are harsh in Kokstad, with cold winters and hot summers. Passive and low-energy design strategies were employed to create comfortable learning environments that could be sustained through the seasons with minimal dependence on costly and damaging energy sources. They included: north orientation; natural ventilation and lighting; covered verandas on south; light shelves/sun control; insulation and thermal mass; window sizing and low-embodied energy materials (local where possible). Active techniques included: photovoltaic external lighting; solar water heaters; windmill water pumps; rainwater harvesting, storage and pumping for toilet-flushing and vegetable gardens; borehole for potable water; reed-bed filtration to reduce silt; and monitoring of electricity and water use and thermal performance. Both learners and educators have from the start been actively engaged in understanding and controlling the processes of electricity and water use. A demonstration panel of water reticulation processes, coupled with appropriate posters in the classrooms and the visibility of water storage and energy-producing mechanisms throughout the building, combine to give an intense ecological awareness to all the users of the school. The 'green' factor thus not only creates a benign environment in an under-resourced region faced with a fierce climate, but does so in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner. Furthermore it functions directly as an instrument of on-the-spot pedagogy. This reinforces the school community's sense of ownership and control not only of the school premises but of knowledge itself.

The visit of the panel to the school proved to be disturbing in the best sense of the term. It compelled the panel to familiarise itself with a new architectural logic. This was revealed not through compatibility with formal, iconic principles of studio design. Rather, it emerged from an examination of the manner in which different levels of voice were incorporated at various stages in the design and construction process. Control of decision-making was spread amongst different stakeholders with different degrees of technical skill. The inclusive process accommodated these different levels of skill: while the architect of one level of the building, more fluid and varied responses were permitted at other levels. In the words of Hamdi, this represented a contrast between emergence and planning, between places that happen and happen to work, and places that are designed and don't. In the panel's view this school represents an outstanding example of a new, inclusive and successful form of architectural expression and merits an award of excellence.

All truncated references not fully cited below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.

Writings about this entry

South African Institute of Architects. 2010. Awards : South African Institute of Architects. Awards for Excellence, Awards of Merit, Regional Awards for Architecture 2009/2010. Cape Town: Picasso for SAIA. pg 18-21, 48-49, 90