By Michelle Kirk
Unity College (Special Needs Education) is a non-profit organisation that caters specifically for young people between the ages of six and 20 years with various learning and cognitive difficulties.
Many of these young people were born with genetic syndromes, are on the autism disorder spectrum or are victims of physical trauma.
With its innovative curriculum, Unity College develops its pupils academically and also offers a host of additional therapies to ensure that education remains holistic and pertinent to the needs of the individual.
In the 25 years of Unity College’s existence, the school has been located at various sites. From humble beginnings at Temple Shalom in Louis Botha Avenue in Johannesburg, with 27 pupils and five teachers, the school progressed to a new site on Cedar Road in the Fourways area in Johannesburg. This patchwork of rented buildings, sheds and storerooms has been home for the ensuing years.
As time progressed and funds were raised, Unity College was plagued by bureaucratic red tape that prevented it from developing and occupying a piece of land that the school had purchased. The steady rise in building and development costs meant that when the school was served with a notice to vacate the premises, there was a drastic shortfall in funds available for development by conventional means.
Desperate times call for innovative thinking! As a WESSA Eco-School,1 we decided to investigate alternative and environmentally friendly building methods. After numerous consultations and evaluations, it was decided to opt for a system using high insulation values and eco-conscious production processes.
Aruba to the rescue
The Aruba Eco Building System is an insulated concrete form (ICF) construction method using permanent polystyrene formwork, comprising interlocking modular expanded polystyrene (EPS) modules filled with concrete. EPS is an environmentally safe, green initiative. It will not decay, is vermin-proof and has very low water absorption properties. It is flame retardant and has the advantage of excellent thermal insulation and acoustic properties. Unity College adopted the system in an effort to eventually become carbon neutral. It also allowed us to work within a very reasonable budget and to a tight schedule. Eight new classrooms, complete with toilet facilities, were erected in eight weeks, covering an area of 640 m2. The average per square metre worked out in the region of R2 500.
The majority of the ancillary construction work was carried out using recycled materials from Unity’s previous site. Paving was uplifted and relaid and many of the doors, electrical fittings and hard landscaping features were reused. The retention of the natural ground covers and grasses will also contribute to future water conservation.
Learn from us
Embarking on a project like this meant that our school community (academic staff, administrative staff and ancillary staff ) faced a host of challenges, a few of which we would like to share with other schools:
• Be flexible, both in mindset and practical application. This will help you cope when what you had planned for two months ago has either not materialised or has happened at the most inopportune time.
• Understand that necessity is the mother of invention. When our funds were under pressure, we were amazed by our ability to create expensive resources from everyday materials. We certainly will be looking at budgeting in a different light from now on!
• Digging deep’ produces results that outlast the discomfort of long hours and physical toil. It’s about the sense of ownership and achievement one experiences as a project nears completion.
• Schools are ever-changing organisms that always demand further development, refinement and adaptation. As we look to the future, we realise this campus will not be completely finished in our lifetimes.
• Plan like a tortoise – work like a hare. Research city council requirements and address these before submitting any applications. This might seem tedious, but it really eliminates the need for any resubmissions.
• There’s gold to be mined from rubble. Especially on a tight budget!
• Shop around. Innovation and savings often go hand in hand. Traditional building methods are often more costly and take longer to complete.
As we celebrate our 25th anniversary this year, we feel better prepared to position ourselves at the forefront of eco- and sustainable education for the next 25 years.
Category: Summer 2015