Nestled in amongst a small indigenous forest, the new University of Cape Town School of Education building has been uniquely designed around local ecology to minimise impact with its footprint, making for an incredible learning space with connection to nature.

Words Nicole Cameron IMAGES Waheed Parker

Project nutshell

Project date: Construction completed April 2022
Green Star rating: 4-Star Green Star PEB v1 Design
Location: University of Cape Town (UCT), Cape Town
Type of building: Public & Education Building

“The identified site was an established ‘mini forest’, with several trees of significance,” says Waheed Parker, of Jacobs Parker Architecture. “A study was undertaken to determine the type, location and condition of each tree on site, and trees which could be relocated on campus were identified to create a space where a building could be inserted in between the remaining trees.” Parker says that by situating the building between mature trees, the building feels connected to the surrounding natural context.

The spaces on the ground floor provide visual access to the established trees on site, and the inhabitants of the upper floors are situated between the canopies of these trees. The upper floors also have sweeping views of the cricket oval, Upper Campus and the mountains to the west, and Lower Campus and the Cape Flats to the east.

“The intention was for the building to recede into the background by respecting the unique grain and scale of the Middle Campus environment, as well as the location, geometry and vegetation of the specific site,” Jacobs Parker’s Faizel Jacobs explains. “The distillation of this idea manifests itself in the form of a building which is ‘quiet’, sensitive, and respectful of its context, feeling ‘as if it has always been there.’ That said, it is by no means timid, and holds its own in terms of its form and its urban contribution.”


The resulting design offers a user experience which engages the site holistically and integrates the building with the landscape. As tenants can view the existing forest from communal areas, many of which are designed as group working or informal gathering spaces, a highly activated environment is created, in which it is easy to orientate oneself. The staff room feels private and discreet, without feeling “tucked away” or losing its connection with nature, while the programmes on the upper levels feel as if they’re suspended in the canopies of trees, a feeling which is largely created by the careful articulation of glazing in the façades, to admit, frame or obscure views from outside.

This connection to nature and external views is a very important green building feature that improves the wellbeing of individuals in the building, both from a positive psychological perspective connecting with nature, as well as reducing eye-strain and headaches by allowing individuals to change their focus from internal objects and screens to external objects.

A benefit which occupants will experience is the excellent light penetration.

“Another benefit which occupants will experience includes the building’s excellent natural light penetration, owing to its narrow footprint,” says Francois Retief of Sow and Reap, the green building consultant for the project. “Blinds, shading and performance glazing have been used to mitigate glare and unwanted heat gain, so there is a good balance of daylight and warmth in the space. Openable windows allow for natural ventilation, while additional fresh air is also added and ‘tempered’ during hot or cold conditions to achieve a comfortable yet energy-efficient environment.”

Manfred Braune, director: environmental sustainability, UCT, says that occupants also benefit from the fact that most of the floors in the circulation space are a polished concrete, which is a finish that does not emit any Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). It is also a very lowmaintenance finish that will last for many years. “Then there’s the fact that the building has a UCT Food & Connect store in it, which is really convenient and means that occupants don’t need to drive away from the building for a coffee or lunchtime snack. Surrounding buildings can also enjoy this benefit and will see many staff and students walking to this building for a coffee or snack. This is an important green building feature, because short vehicle trips have higher emissions where the petrol/diesel engine can burn cleaner on longer trips.”

The spaces on the ground floor provide visual access to the established trees on site.

The location of the building is very central in itself in that it is within walking distance to both the main road, and the surrounding campus. Public transport options such as the UCT Shuttle Bus offer further connectivity. The fact that the main circulation staircase is located in a very central and visible location with the elevator less visible, is also a positive health benefit to occupants, as it encourages more use of the staircase. It also consumes less energy.

In addition to the cafeteria, staff facilities, office accommodation, meeting rooms and spaces for hot desking, the building comprises of a 250-seat raked lecture hall, seminar spaces, a computer laboratory, social learning spaces, a graduate research commons and a wet laboratory.

In terms of energy consumption, the base building is targeting 100 kWh/m²/year, which is an improvement of almost 40% compared to the national standard for this building type, which will equate to approximately R315 000 saving per annum compared to standard design. This is mostly achieved through the harnessing of daylight and natural ventilation. One of the essential design elements for the office spaces has been converting one of the four windows into a solid insulated panel that can also be opened. Although lecture theatres will still be equipped with heating and cooling systems, occupancy sensors will ensure they are deactivated once the rooms are empty.

The School of Education’s (SoE) targeted water consumption is 550kl per year. This is an improvement of more than 70% on typical sites of this type. This is largely due to the fact that the landscaping has been specifically designed to avoid irrigation with potable water. “We’ve taken a very conscious approach of retaining the existing landscape where possible and planting to match that landscape,” says Retief. “While some watering may be necessary during the first few months, once fully established, the locally appropriate plants used on site should no longer require regular irrigation.” In addition, instead of directing all rainfall into the storm-water system, the building’s gutters and downpipes have been designed to transport it back into the surrounding landscape to replenish the cut-off supply of groundwater which previously fed the trees on the lower end of the site.

Although lecture theatres will still be equipped with heating and cooling systems, occupancy sensors will ensure they are deactivated once the rooms are empty

This water-wise approach continues inside the building where the most efficient and practical fixtures have been chosen for toilets and taps. “Water submeters are also in place so you can get data if you need it on where water is being used as well as to detect leaks,” says Braune.

Reducing potable water consumption and energy consumption are two critical areas that UCT is currently focusing on in terms of its environmental sustainability strategy. Braune says that balancing land use and ecology, such as in the case of the SoE, is also a priority, as is the mandate to create healthy environments for staff and students through maximising fresh air, removing indoor pollutants and pathogens, and optimising daylight and external views.

“The university is aiming to become a net zero energy/ carbon, water and waste-to-landfill campus by 2050 or sooner and is in the process of developing detailed plans and feasibility studies of how it will achieve this and by when this is possible, at what capital cost. This exercise of developing the feasibility and plans for this will take a few years, bearing in mind the complexity of the university across five different campuses with a transient community of about 28 000 students annually. This will require small incremental shifts every year to transform such a large institution – but in some rare instances we might see big shifts where leap frogging and major technological advances are possible at low cost,” says Braune.

Education buildings are extremely important in the green building movement.

While there are sometimes misconceptions around the costs of green buildings, the SoE project has cost only marginally more than a regular building would have. He adds: “On this project, it ended up being only about 1.5% more expensive than a non-green building, which shows how achievable a Green Star rated green building actually is.”
While attaining a Green Star certification is a major feat, the real challenge lies in sustaining it. Once the building is in use, UCT will monitor energy and water consumption, with these statistics being displayed on a big screen in the foyer in order to create awareness.

“Education buildings are extremely important in the green building movement. They offer not only a conducive learning environment, but in themselves become a learning resource and example on how to address the major environmental concerns we face,” Retief concludes.