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Architecture that speaks a natural language

Published at: 16 April 2015

The 100 000m2 Alexander Forbes building designed by Paragon Architects in Sandton’s central business district was the winner of the AfriSam-SAIA Award for Sustainable Architecture for 2014 in the built environment category and continues to be an iconic example of innovative, environmentally-conscious design. But what is all the fuss over?

The building - situated at 115 West street, opposite the Sandton Gautrain station – was also awarded a GBCSA Four Star Green Star design rating in 2014 but aside from its many accolades the design has been widely commended by the 2500 employees the structure houses for considering their well-being during the design phase.

As a result, employees say their “productivity has improved”, they come to work “happier” than they were previously, while others say “work does not seem like work at all”.

Dobie Smith, a financial advisor at Alexander Forbes, has been with the company for eight years. To him the design of the building and its sheer size has freed up his work, “I am in love with the buildings architecture, which is something I have not seen. Because I work with numbers and people and the company’s finances, the comforting lighting allows me to work unhindered. You can put in the hours without knowing, that’s how comfortable you can get,” Smith said.

Harmonisation

The adjudicators were impressed by the fact that the structure was not adapted to suit climatic conditions, but rather that climate informed the design as a “Natural harmonisation.” Many of the architectural elements were generated from the influence of the sun.

The architects considered the location, climate, and size of the building, and thus its response to solar conditions became critical - the role of louvres, skylights, glazing and scallops assisting with light whilst reducing the impact of heat.

Staff welfare was also of prime importance, and substantial interaction was conducted with Alexander Forbes employees in mind  to ensure that spaces were included in the building to satisfy social and cultural capital in their workplace.

Although this building has been confirmed as a GBCSA Four Star Green Star ‘as built’ project, the principles embraced extend beyond mere box-ticking. Agreement was undertaken at an early stage between the Developer, the Tenant and Architect to exploit the financial capital that would be required to satisfy its sustainable performance. The building is a manifestation of the built capital acquired during its design and construction.

People upliftment

Staff facilities are impressive with an understanding of contemporary life, especially for women and married employees and the ramifications it has on children. As a result a crèche, gymnasium and health facilities have all been included in the building.

Place making performance

The design of the building is heavily influenced by its positioning. The main façade faces northwest, the most difficult to mitigate, considering the path of the sun. The use of louvers dictated the elevated treatment which communicates powerfully with the street. On the northeast and southwest elevations, the form mutates into scallops which scoop the morning and afternoon sun into the building. The southeast façade has its apertures reduced in size to decrease energy loss and gain.

At street level itself, the building edge is softened with xeriscaping (often referred to as zero-scaping or xeroscaping) and the planting of indigenous trees and plants.

An opportunity perhaps missed is the absence of social interaction between the street and the building, that could perhaps include lifestyle activities.

Evolutionary paradigm

The accommodation impact was designed to reduce any negative impact on water, energy and waste. Reduced power consumption, reuse of water and recycling initiatives have contributed to reduce energy consumption by 40%, water consumption by 70% and waste generation by 50%.


Because of the large workforce, the building also has a didactic role in informing employees on possible contributions that can be made to sustainable architecture at home. Significant efforts have been made to reduce paper use and draw attention to recycling efforts. The building has been occupied for two years and its performance is monitored to confirm claims and provide an insight into sustainable commercial design in the future.


In awarding the AfriSam-SAIA Award for Sustainable Architecture for 2014, it is hoped that this building will provide a beacon of inspiration not only as a place to work but also a worthwhile contribution to the urban fabric and human experience.

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