In 2017, Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA) awarded a world-leading 6-Star Green Star – Existing Building Performance (EBP) rating to V&A Waterfront Holdings’ The Watershed. This year – in the new-normal post-pandemic context – this operational efficiency rating was repeated, and The Watershed maintained its rating. As a refitted existing building, moving up from 77 to 78 points, it’s firmly cemented its place as a world leader. The V&A Waterfront has now set its sights on net zero for existing and new buildings by 2030 to 2035, ahead of the 2050 target set by the City of Cape Town.
Wolff Architects reconfigured the old industrial Blue Shed building at the V&A Waterfront in 2014. Retaining much of the warehouse’s original structure and materials, the vision for this new space – The Watershed – was quite different and highly innovative. The architects not only repurposed the building, but redirected the flow of the entire precinct too.
The back story
The Blue Shed had always been a clumsy physical obstacle, circumnavigated by pedestrians moving between the Two Oceans Aquarium and the rest of the V&A. The architects opened both ends of the Shed, thereby creating ‘an inside street’ through the building. The Watershed’s open-ended structure now forms a natural thoroughfare between the aquarium and the V&A. This accomplishment flipped its purpose from a market into a very specific local retail experience, channelling the clientele past vendors en route to their destination – including the City Sightseeing Red Tour Bus start point.
There were to be two elements to the building: the ground floor ‘street’ known as The Watershed, designed for SMME retail, and on floors one and two, a co-working office space or incubator for start-up businesses and new ventures, plus a wellness centre.
And then there was light
The Watershed design aligned closely with Wolff Architects’ and V&A Waterfront Holdings’ clear ethos around sustainability. The volume of materials, features and finishes retained meant fewer materials were required. The design retained the original timber warehouse floor, and the windows on the south-east side were refurbished. The old corrugated sheeting in the gables was replaced with new translucent sheeting, which allowed natural light into the space and opened up views of the harbour and Table Mountain. A 100m-long skylight contributed to the introduction of natural light.
The first floor was created by suspending a 50x50m gridded steel floor from the Blue Shed’s original gantry crane. With no columns needed, the wide-open space below was full of possibilities for everything from exhibitions to live entertainment.
The design of this essentially covered open-air space took advantage of natural daylight. The opened ends of the building facilitated cross-ventilation and minimised heat gain, reducing the need for mechanical ventilation (fans) and air conditioning. The air quality, too, was excellent. The subsequently high daylight levels achieved – together with the skylight – meant less artificial light was required. Energy-efficient fluorescent and LED lighting was installed, which draws less energy and lasts longer, thereby reducing the frequency of maintenance.
Water consumption was significantly reduced by the installation of water-efficient fittings. From taps to toilets, they are designed to be low flow/low flush, hence waterless urinals and handwashing basins with on-off sensors.
Post construction, François Retief of Sow & Reap was appointed as the green consultant. He talked about the additional elements contributing to sustainability: “The Watershed is an excellent example of passive design in a commercial retail context, and the proof is in the pudding, which is what the Green Star Existing Building Rating sets out to demonstrate. Being naturally ventilated with excellent daylight, the building performs well in terms of air quality, lighting quality and energy efficiency.”
“The installation of a 300kWp solar panel plant generates enough energy to supply much of the building’s needs and even feeds into the V&A network – it uses less than half the energy of a similar retail centre of its scale.”
More recently, to improve tenant thermal comfort during winter in particular, fireproof glass louvre windows were installed at each end of the shed; so too, roller doors offer protection from the elements.
The vision of The Watershed was to create a dynamic and supportive retail platform for SMMEs producing local product, sourcing local product, and creating product from recycled and upcycled materials – waste seen as a commodity – and it was strongly focused on female empowerment. Over and above the SMME tenant criteria, the V&A seeks tenants who are aligned to, in particular, the sustainability ethos of the V&A and they are all signatories to the Green Lease. Currently, The Watershed has 153 subletting tenants selling a vast selection of products ranging from ceramics, textiles and furniture to fashion and jewellery.
The mix is bright and bold, and a highly appealing local drawcard for both local and international visitors.
Upstairs, the incubator – Workshop 17 – is a commercial, business-orientated space with an amphitheatre, hot-desking, working lounges, a work café, and breakout and conferencing facilities for start-up businesses and new ventures, conducive to business collaboration. There are between 150 and 193 tenants.
Referencing the GBCSA Innovation credits, Retief highlighted the V&A’s strong focus on SMME and local crafter support that consistently goes into The Watershed, and the inestimable value of this in terms of a creating a sustainable and inclusive economy: “In addition, we included a motivation around [the] COVID [outbreak] and the assistance that the Waterfront gave to all these SMMEs throughout this period.”
Sustainability education, awareness and surveys
Mareli Cloete is a senior manager at the V&A Waterfront. Her focus is on environmental sustainability, utilities, and health and safety. She works extensively on the rating of existing buildings within the Waterfront, and their operational efficiency. “Utilities come very much into play from a sustainability point of view, because it’s about analysing consumption patterns and trends, and driving down consumption,” says Cloete. Regular audits are conducted to review indoor environment quality, transport trends and other sustainability factors.
Cloete considers tenant education and awareness around energy and water to be a key factor in changing behaviour: “We have various monitoring systems and a metrics indicator dashboard by which we can tracks our tenants’ consumption and behaviour patterns. The systems are very granular, so we are able to track and monitor The Watershed’s consumption over any given period. Education involves quarterly tenant forum meetings with discussion around sustainability features and projects, which we, as landlords, have implemented across the property. We field a large number of tenant queries about how they can reduce water and energy consumption.” She also pointed out the V&A’s strong focus on reducing single-use plastics as signatory to the SA Plastics Pact, with a purpose to reduce single-use plastics by 2025.
For Cloete, one of the superb aspects of the building is its on-the-doorstep access to amenities such as public transport: “Upwards of 80% of tenants and 87% of visitors use alternative transport over single-occupant driving. Alternatives include public transport, carpooling, cycling and walking. There are safe pedestrian pathways and bicycle/motorcycle parking areas around the building. The MyCiTi bus stop is directly outside the building.”
The sustainability of the entire V&A Waterfront is stringently managed, from recycling to green cleaning and green tenant criteria. Innovation is high on the list, and there’s an ongoing conversation about and exploration of new green best-practice initiatives.
For Retief, constant surveying forms an important source of information in the EBP tool, highlighting how users – tenants and visitors – experience the building, as well as its operational efficiency. With that information, the landlord is able to introduce meaningful interventions for the benefit of all.