Making school cool (and green)

It’s a truly astonishing sight.

In the middle of nowhere, in a blanket of rain on a mountain road in the deep rural Vhembe district of Limpopo, a strikingly modern African structure of brick and stone rises above the landscape.

Then again, it’s probably no more remarkable than the sight that greets visitors in the remote Phokeng district of North West.

There, set against a mountain in a former wetland, a great metal net rests on columns above a meeting area between buildings.

Light filters down like sun through leaves.

These are two of South Africa’s pioneering new green architecture projects and they’re both schools – Vele Secondary School by East Coast Architects and Lebone II College by Activate Architects with Afritects.

Judges at the Afrisam-SAIA Award for Sustainable Architecture this week couldn’t choose between them, so they jointly received this year’s prize for design that rejuvenates the planet while uplifting people.

Both have reconsidered the learning environment based on communal wisdom and student needs.

Both harvest rainwater and solar energy, re-establish indigenous plant life and grow their own food.

Lebone, with a hostel and a farm, is designed to emulate an African village.

Vele is designed as a natural science laboratory. Both were created as models for future schools.

But whereas Lebone was developed by the platinum-rich Bafokeng royals with a healthy budget, Vele in Limpopo was built at the cost of a normal government school.

Two mamas sit resting beside huge black cooking pots as we pull into the Vele school grounds.

Rocks are embedded in concrete along the driveway, with bricks stacked in traditional patterns.

Unbelievably, the roofs of the corridors double as sky gardens of indigenous plants, with a pathway to walk along.

Through the windows, students are huddled over exam papers. Absenteeism is down since the new school was built here.

One of the reasons is that the classrooms have regulated temperatures.

They are insulated and placed at an angle to capture the sun in winter while deflecting it in summer.

Despite a grand stone tower housing a library and computer centre, it is a tree that is the centrepiece of the school’s design.

“It’s called The Teaching Tree,” says a confident 17-year-old Blessing Ndou, our guide for the afternoon.

She was one of the pupils given a camera by the architects to document her journey to school from Tshixwadza, where she lives.

They consulted broadly with the community and their core client – the students.

They wanted to know about dangers en route and special places in the landscape to mine for inspiration. The photos were exhibited to raise funds.

Blessing hugs the gnarled, majestic old tree and flashes the photographer her brightest smile.

“I would hold meetings under that tree,” says principal Samuel Makhado later.

Born and raised in nearby Gogogo Village, he took up headmaster duty here in 1990. This year was the first time he had an office.

“For special guests, I would not use the tree, we would sit in my car. We used the tree mainly for classes because of overcrowding.”

There were 90 to a class in an aging structure built by the community from the cheapest available materials.

And, in fact, the community built this school, too – using local stonemasons, bricklayers and plumbers, many of whom received skills training.

Makhado is a gentleman who believes culture must be preserved but change must be embraced.

He places an emphasis on maths, science and technology, and there is pride in his voice when he speaks about the school’s science labs.

They’re the only ones in the district and neighbouring schools use them on Saturdays.

A tour of the laboratories, though, reveals store-rooms stocked with equipment that teachers here are not yet trained to use.

Even in the rain, it’s easy to view a project like this through tinted shades.

But, as a partnership between the Limpopo education department – which paid for the structure and provides the syllabus – and corporate sponsors like Oprah’s Angel Network – which paid for the architects and experts, and sponsored equipment – Vele suffers the problems of any government school.

“Seven of us must share a maths textbook,” says Blessing, “and we live far apart.”

More than one class we go to has no teacher present.

The bulk of the pupils are not particularly concerned about the environmental sustainability aspect of their new grounds.

“That’s a big part of the plan now, training the teachers,” says Claire Brown of the Creating Schools Trust, which represents the private funders.

She happens to be at the school, meeting the principal.

“People build dream projects like this and leave,” she tells us, “all along we budgeted to follow up once the facilities are in place.

It’s an ongoing process, transforming a school. Buildings don’t pass matric, learners do.”

» View a slideshow of pictures of the winning schools here.

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