Elkanah House

Crafting commitment

By Debi Schuiling, with Nic Border and Fiona de Villiers

Elkanah House in Cape Town is a privately owned, co-educational, independent school founded in 1997 by Bob and Debi Schuiling and Diane Payne.

At Elkanah (which means ‘God’s creation’), our mission is to develop young men and women with unassuming self-confidence and the ability to use their creative gifts appropriately. Our motto – ‘Carpe Diem’ (meaning ‘Seize the Day’) encourages our students to make the best use of their opportunities, and reinforces our belief in the importance of commitment.

Our 1 300 students are accommodated on four campuses – two preparatory, one senior primary and a high school – each one separate but in close proximity to the others. This allows us the advantage of working in intimate environments, where attention can be given to making the environment homely and relaxed, while permitting personal involvement in the progress of each child. Most importantly, this is a school where Christian family values are followed and upheld.

An environmental policy in place

From the start, the emphasis on sustainable development was a core element of our ethos. As a relatively new and fast-growing school, Elkanah House turned the idea of sustainability into an environmental policy to guide our expansion. The policy informs the design of all new buildings and refurbishments: they must be created without adverse environmental impact; must contribute to a productive, creative and healthy environment; and must promote sound environmental management practices, such as resource conservation and waste minimisation.

These principles came to the fore when we contracted Nic Border Architects to create our new high school campus in 2005. The site would form an integral part of the new suburb of Sunningdale, being developed by Garden Cities.1

Situated in the windswept, sand dune environment of Cape Town’s west coast, the buildings had to reflect our well-known welcoming and nurturing environment, while responding to the unique characteristics of the west coast in terms of climate and unique social conditions. We envisioned a multifunctional facility that would comply with the Elkanah signature aesthetic and would be adaptable, economical, innovative and environmentally responsible.

Breaking away to be sustainable Nic Border shared our commitment to break away from the traditional concept of private school ownership, where access is restricted to users and staff, and use is restricted to that of school activities. Working closely with other stakeholders, we wanted to make the school the heart of the community, and the community an integral part of the school.

Our brief to Border therefore expressed a desire for multifunctional buildings – classrooms become youth clubs and adult education spaces; computer labs are used for adult training courses and night classes; the school café is outsourced for conference and restaurant functions; the avenue, school courtyards and covered terraces become market stalls during the monthly schoolyard market, which provides young entrepreneurs training; and the theatre becomes the town hall, lecture facility, community centre, youth centre and place of worship.

Passive design means active rewards

The brief was also uncompromising when it came to sustainable construction. Passive building design is the green building industry international standard. Windows, walls and floors are made to collect, store and distribute solar energy in the form of heat in the winter, and to reject solar heat in the summer.

In the Western Cape, this means incorporating a northerly orientation wherever possible, to benefit from the sun’s light and heat in winter. At Elkanah, extensive use of verandas and overhangs provide shade – particularly on the west and east facades during summer – and excessive solar gain is reduced by overhangs, reduced window sizing, deep reveals and shading devices. The ventilation system in the theatre uses ‘displacement ventilation’: stale, hot air is dispersed outwards through highlevel roof extractors, and fresh air flows in through grilles below the auditorium seats. The information technology centre was designed with south orientation providing good natural light while reducing glare and heat gain, and in the main hall, the use of daylight has been maximised via windows at a high level, while avoiding heat gain or glare. Throughout, light-coloured roof sheeting reflects sunlight to reduce heat gain.

Saving for the future Saving – whether it be water, materials or energy – is another fundamental aspect of sustainable campus management and planning as our school expands. Solar panels (photovoltaic cells) mounted on the roof of the high school provide electrical energy to the classrooms. Due to budgetary constraints, only eight panels were fitted, but our long-term goal is to make the campus completely grid-free. Hot water for the showers in our change rooms is produced using solar water heaters. Lowenergy bulbs have been installed in all of our offices and classrooms, while movement sensors turn lights on or off as people enter or exit a room.

Water-saving fittings have been added to basin taps, shower heads and toilets, and the ‘barrier’ waterless urinals don’t require any water at all for flushing. Instead, waste passes through a one-way plastic valve that, when closed, prevents odours from being emitted into the washroom. This can save approximately 72 000 litres of water per year per urinal!

Care has been taken to select materials that meet a range of sustainability criteria, such as renewable sources, recycled content, low embodied energy, non-toxic, and reduced pollution in manufacture. The hardwoods used all over our high school – Australian jarrah and Tasmanian oak – are from certified sustainably managed forests; the paint used (Envirotouch) is made primarily from renewable materials rather than fossil fuels and produces no harmful emissions; the thermal insulation (Isotherm) installed in the roof is made from recycled plastic bottles, is not harmful to indoor air quality and is completely recyclable; and the use of cement, which has a high embodied energy, has been reduced where possible.

In short, every effort has been made to create an enduring, inclusive and welcoming environment; a safe haven. Building clusters form wind-protected, sunny courtyards; thick walls allow windows to become seats, work spaces or display areas. Columns become tapered buttresses, and form brightly tiled gargoyles for storm water run-off. Classrooms are larger than the norm, and include breakaway areas under lean-to roofs – which, in turn, flow onto covered terraces that provide exterior teaching opportunities.

Our commitment to sustainability extends beyond our buildings. We recognise that we are dependent on our planet for all our natural resources and that responsibility for them starts at home and at school. Our herb and vegetable gardens teach the children how to make practical use of plants. Our indigenous, wild gardens attract abundant birdlife such as wild ducks, hadedas and seagulls, while the kiewiets have found a new haven for breeding at the high school.

Waste not, want not We are currently busy with a formal implementation of an environmental management plan (EMP) to mitigate environmental impact through measures such as site management to reduce pollution and soil erosion, recycling of waste, health and safety, empowerment and ‘green’ procurement. All new development incorporates measures to promote water and energy efficiency, to avoid the unnecessary use of hazardous materials and to prevent damage to either public or ecosystem health. Over the course of the school year, we seize many moments and turn them into celebrations and learning opportunities through various events such as World Water Day, World Environment Day, Green Belt and Beach Clean-ups, Waste-free Lunch Week, National Electricity Safety Week, Spring Day and Arbour Day. Elkanah pupils from Grade 9 to matric are required to contribute their time towards the Blaauwberg Conservation Area (BCA) and offer at least one Saturday of their year to the BCA outreach programme. This mainly involves removing alien Port Jackson species, while occasionally, some new elusive species are discovered.

Elkanah has kept its word when it comes to making sustainability part of everyday life. Our recycling initiative has grown so much that it now includes Du Noon2, a township community on the outskirts of Table View. Recyclable waste can be dropped at our campuses, and every week we collect an average of 7 000 kg.

Timely recognition

A few months ago, we were entered into national power provider Eskom’s annual ETA awards for energy efficiency in the category Energy Champion – Community. At the gala event, Elkanah House was awarded second prize overall in this category for all our efforts to conserve energy, sustain the environment and impact the community.

References:

1. Garden Cities creates integrated suburbs in Cape Town. See http://www.gardencities.co.za/index.htm.

2. As a spin-off of its own successful recycling drive, and in conjunction with non-profit organisation Beyond Education, Elkanah House has set up a swop shop in Du Noon. A central point for the collection of recyclable materials has been established, and local residents are incentivised to collect and exchange waste for much-needed items such as food, clothing, shoes, sporting equipment, etc. (Source: http://www.beyonded.org/about-us/).

Filed Under: Spring 2012

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