The South African National Blood Service recently opened their new regional headquarters in Mount Edgecombe, KwaZulu-Natal.

Words Melinda Hardisty Images by Graham Carruthers


Showcasing the new SANBS building in KwaZulu-Natal

Mount Edgecombe, KwaZulu-Natal
Type of building:
Head Office (including laboratories and public facilities)
Green Star rating:
5-Star Green Star Design Rating and targeting a 5-Star Green Star As-Built Rating (Public & Education Building V1)
Project dates:
Completed in June 2021
Project size:
8 068m²

Alongside laboratories and offices, the South African National Blood Service (SANBS) houses their flagship donor centre and their first “Journey of Blood” educational exhibition which showcases the importance of blood and the processes involved between donation and transfusion. It aims to raise awareness of blood transfusion in order to increase the donor pool and eventually supply enough blood for the province’s own requirements.

Brief and site

SANBS required new premises to serve as a provincial headquarters. They needed to include offices, new testing and processing laboratories, a large blood donation centre, as well as their first “Journey of Blood” educational exhibit.
In 2019, SANBS established a “Greening Task Team” to set up an interactive dashboard to increase awareness of environmental sustainability issues at every level of the company. The team highlighted areas of focus to mitigate environmental impact across operations. These client values drove the requirements for a Green Star rated building.
A site with an existing warehouse structure was acquired. Originally built as a temporary casino and then used as a call centre, the building was a featureless shell with a large, dark, open area surrounded by cellular offices along the edges. The envelope was a suitable size to accommodate the required functions, but it needed significant work to create the welcoming and inspiring destination for donors, and the high-tech centre for scientific research that SANBS required. Architects, SVA International, and interior designer, El Wood, set about transforming the space.

Coordinating services in an existing building, where there were now strict requirements for certain areas to be kept sterile, was no easy task.

A labyrinth, as opposed to a maze, has no dead ends or forked paths but follows a meandering but purposeful path to a goal. It is used here for team building and thoughtful problem solving.

Programme and facilities

Existing parking areas and entrances on two sides of the building helped to divide the new programme into a staff area with its own access and parking on the side, and a public-facing section at the front. New cladding and canopies on the front façade invite donors and visitors into the facility. The reception area leads into the donor centre on one side and a restaurant, for visitors and staff, on the other. A public stairway ascends to the “Journey of Blood” route on the upper level.

The staff entrance leads first into the office component, and then to the laboratories beyond. There is also a 288-seat auditorium for education and training that is accessible to staff from the offices, or to the public from the upper level. Both office and laboratory components have connections to an external landscaped area for team-building or relaxation. Lightwells punch through the existing roof to bring daylight into the offices and laboratories through planted atria.

Left: Rooflights over planted atrium spaces create lightwells and a link to nature. Top right: Offices feel airy and naturally lit, with visual links to (and through) the planted atria. Middle left: Laboratories have a visual connection to nature through the atrium lightwells. Bottom right: Bright splashes of red, and playful blood drop motifs lift the grey meeting room spaces.

The “Journey of Blood” traverses a high-level walkway overlooking five of the main laboratory areas and has interactive information screens along the route. Blood samples can be seen moving between the donor centre and the testing stations in the laboratories in transparent pneumatic tubes, allowing visitors to visually follow the journey through the different stages. Donors, regulators, scholars, and students can view all the laboratories through glass, enabling a close-up view of all the processes involved with the studying and processing of blood and its components. This unique destination “highlights the operating philosophy at SANBS, which is underpinned by a focus on long-term sustainability, risk mitigation and a value-based culture centred on donors, staff and patients,” says SANBS CEO, Ravi Reddy.

Design challenges

“Coordinating services in an existing building, where there were now strict requirements for certain areas to be kept sterile, was no easy task,” says SVA’s Richard de Klerk. Water pipes were not allowed in ceiling voids and, despite a raised floor being inherited from the casino design, services were not allowed to be housed within that zone either. Drainage pipes had to be cast into concrete. Electrical and mechanical services dropped from above and a maintenance catwalk was installed in the ceiling void to negate maintenance access from laboratories. As fire suppression sprinklers could not be installed in sterile areas, two hour fire-rated zones had to be created, requiring the installation of fire curtains where there were glazed panels in fire-rated walls.

The extensive use of glazing to divide spaces, to allow for visibility and natural light, had other implications as well. Some of the panels needed to be extremely high, especially where there were overhead viewing areas. This necessitated a secondary support structure, which also had to be carefully coordinated around the existing structural elements. The use of glazing extensively adds to user comfort by including natural light, outside views, and a general feeling of openness internally, however the reflective surfaces severely hamper acoustics. Specialised acoustic glass was specified between the viewing walkways and the laboratories, and various acoustic treatments on other surfaces were incorporated to mitigate the effects of the glass.

Materiality and mood

The face-brick and metal sheeting of the original building shell was retained, but the external façades were modulated and softened. Contemporary, charcoal-coloured aluminium clad boxes frame the main entrance and the donor centre and restaurant windows on either side, juxtaposing the existing face-brick. A glass canopy juts over the walkway in front of the entrance and restaurant.

The staff entrance repeats the charcoal greys and warm red brick of the public entrance but here climbing plants break the expanse of brickwork. Soft and hard landscaping extends to the staff teambuilding area at the back of the building, where an amphitheatre rings a labyrinth of pavers spiralling through planted beds, with a solitary tree at its centre.
The pristine white laboratories are divided by full-height glazed shopfronts, allowing a visual connection throughout the area while maintaining the required variances in temperature and pressure. The black framing of the shopfronts and joinery breaks the stark brightness, and planted greenery in the lightwells provides a visual link to nature.

Left: The restaurant, for public and staff, adds warm timber hues and bronze shades to the colour palette. Right: A glass canopy shelters the walkway outside the restaurant.

The offices are largely open-plan, with functions grouped to assist with economic air-conditioning. The lightwells also provide daylight and a connection to the outside in these spaces. The colour palette is largely grey and white with some timber furniture finishes and red highlights. The red references the SANBS logo, a derivation of a red blood droplet. A stylised droplet motif is repeated on privacy screens, acoustic boards, and wall art throughout the project.
Slightly warmer colours were used in the restaurant interiors, with vinyl “timber” planks and bronze pendant lights breaking the grey tones.

Sustainable features

Solar power supplements most of the overall power requirements of the building’s electricity requirements by PV panels on carports. The requirements for electrical lighting during the day are significantly reduced by natural daylighting from rooflights and windows. Natural ventilation is used wherever possible. Where natural light and ventilation is not feasible, like in laboratories, glazed walls divide spaces to allow the temperature and light levels to be strictly controlled. Harvested rainwater supplies all the ablution facilities and water-saving fixtures reduce consumption as well.

The public reception welcomes visitors to the donor centre to the left, or up the stairs to the ‘Journey of Blood’.

Biophilic design, which recognises humans’ innate need to connect with nature, is becoming an increasingly popular concept in relation to green design. In this building, the physical and visual links between inside and outside, including several planted atrium spaces internally, facilitate that connection between office or laboratory occupants and the natural world beyond.

The result is a warehouse “upcycled” into a high-tech building that is both environmentally sustainable and human-centric, a space that is high-performing and comfortable to be in.