In 2014, Sol Plaatje University (SPU) opened its doors as the first new University in South Africa’s democratic era. Strategically close to the Square Kilometre Array Telescope (SKA), its initial intake of 135 students is expected to grow to 7 500 within its first 10 years.

Located in Kimberley’s Inner City, a progressive Urban Design Framework seamlessly incorporates existing civic, public and education stock with new purpose-built university buildings, positioning tertiary education as an integrated part of Inner City life. Perhaps even its heart.

Designworkshop was successful in a two-stage architectural competition towards conceptualising and delivering a Student Resource Centre as the functional and physical centrepiece of university life, including library, teaching, study, and social space. The key question the architects explored was what this emerging typology could optimally be and enable in the South African reality of a globally integrated world. Ancient images of knowledge-sharing are of people gathered around elders, thought leaders and gurus, in Public Space. Depending on where and when, this could be by the side of a river, under a tree, in a public square or on a street-side.

This is learning and knowledge generation in a social setting. Within society and indistinguishable from it, learning is enabled by the practical and perceived reality of life as it’s experienced, often on a platform of traditional cultural practice. When information was recorded in writing, the emblematic image of learning is often the quiet study table surrounded by books. This is the dissemination of accumulated knowledge, most commonly recorded outside of the direct experience and as a more linear and one-directional transmission abstract from specific cultural settings. The ‘neutrality’ of science. The SPU Library and Resource Centre integrates both. It’s a social place where people make themselves available to wide-ranging incidental and planned interchange in the course of daily life, both in physical space and online, with and without books, collectively and in solitude, directed and enabled by mentors or among themselves. It is at the same time a tree, the side of a river, a public square, and a street.

Centred on a raked public forum, the ground floor is an extension of Kimberley’s pavements, paths, squares and gardens. It’s a public space sheltered from the cyclical hot and cold extremes of the arid climate. Ascending from public to private, each additional floor is another ‘public square’ accessed from its perimeter to enable 3-dimensional exploration of a continuous knowledge-scape.

Solid grass-reinforced moulded mud forms typify South Africa’s interior vernacular ‘brakdak’ construction. The library scales this heritage up into a 22 cm thick freestanding concrete shell rising up to 36 m high and lifted off the ground to reveal a single hollowed-out volume ascending upward to its highest point overlooking University Square. The inverse of Kimberley’s iconic Big Hole diamond mine, the building is a distinctive sculptured object, arising from the endless horizontality like a ‘koppie’, ‘brakdak’ house, or mine shaft.

In a single material, concrete is structure, enclosure, climatic attenuator, flexible use-enabler, extended tradition, and noble experience. In everyday university life, the building is a refuge, a 24-hour winter lounge and summer verandah. In a world of scarce resources, it is highly energy efficient, allowing in the right amount of natural light with significantly mitigated heat-gain or loss, the internal temperature further moderated by hot and cold water pipes embedded into concrete floors.

In the city, it’s a landmark of democratic learning, social and cultural exchange, and a generator of economic potential which always comes from empowered knowledge and ideas.

The role of lighting

Accommodating social, library, study, research and administration functions, Designworkshop’s approach to lighting was threefold. First, to satisfy functional requirements for each of these activities in a zoned, cost-effective, durable, daylight responsive, and otherwise energy efficient way. Second, to use lighting to reveal the primary qualities of the building at night – for the five huge openings in the concrete walls to glow, themselves like city-scale light fittings – and for the totally transparent ground floor to be like daylight to welcome 24/7 study and illuminate the surrounding pedestrian routes. Third, to illuminate the form of the building as a sculptural object marking the university in the urban landscape.

Natural light

From the outside, the project is only a concrete shell with just the five openings to let light in. Natural light therefore became a primary influence on the project’s functionality, efficiency, experience and aesthetic. To allow the right amount of natural light deep into the footprints and mitigate heat-gain or loss, only one opening was positioned per orientation according to its exposure, and one high up overlooking University Square, the primary open space for the campus. These were positioned and sized with project sustainability consultants, PJ Carew Consulting. Further to this, narrow skylights let in limited light through the roof into the upper level where perimeter light is lower.

Key to deep light penetration is the 2,5 m gap between the concrete shell and the floor slabs. This allows natural light that would otherwise only benefit one level to benefit the level above and below. PJ Carew Consulting and Aurecon applied GBCSA principles with regards to daylight savings, including the use of occupancy sensors, photocells and timers. In addition to this, care was taken that no lighting illuminates the atmosphere to ensure there is no light pollution.

Lighting requirements

The ground floor 24/7 study space:

Part of the brief was for the ground floor to operate 24/7 after the library on the upper levels had closed for the night. It was therefore critical to provide sufficient lighting levels in this area at all times of the day. Fluorescent T-bay fittings were utilised to achieve the required illumination levels.

The courtyard:

As an extension of the ground floor study area and the University Square, Regent double-sided Europa post mounted fittings provided connection to the public lighting elsewhere on the university precinct, and sufficient lighting to allow the secure courtyard to be utilised as an extension of the indoor study area on summer evenings.

Circulation area between floors:

Here, floodlights placed on the columns light the inside face of the concrete to create a more gently lit area to transition between the study and reading areas. Surface cylindrical LED fittings with downward illumination are located along the edge of each floor, and in the ablution areas, functional lighting was required.

Upper floor study space:

Open, flexible floor plates on the upper levels are lit with suspended LED fittings positioned amongst suspended acoustic baffles to create amply lit and acoustically comfortable environments within which to discuss, work, read and study.

A successful lighting design

“The lighting assisted in making the building comfortable and functional, thereby enabling it to be an inviting and usable extension of every day campus facilities,” said Janine Beauchamp from Designworkshop. The use of 4000 Kelvin (cool white) throughout the building ensures the light source assists in increasing concentration and productivity.

“Aurecon played a vital role as the electrical engineer on this project, ensuring that the required lighting levels and energy efficiency were achieved within the constraints of the budget,” she concluded.


ACHITECT: Designworkshop:

CONTRACTOR: Murray & Dickson:


ENVIRONMENTAL: PJ Carew Consulting:


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