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 it’s 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 we 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 Center integrates both, at the same time. 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 22cm thick freestanding concrete shell rising up to 36m 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

Engineering description derived from structural report done by AURECON

This seven storey building project forms part of the new Sol Plaatje University central campus precinct, a multipurpose media centre and library, envisaged as the signature building on campus.

Structural Engineer Interview:

The structural steelwork related engineering consists of the following aspects :

1.An external continuous concrete envelope that encapsulates the whole building, that is primarily free-standing. Ranging to heights of between 12m and 30m above ground level and only 220mm thick. This concrete envelope is raised 2,4 m off the ground level with eccentric steel stilt supports.

2.The two lift structures comprise a structural steel frame, independent of the lateral stability.

3.The building frame does not obtain its lateral stability from a conventional uninterrupted RC shear wall system or lift core structures, but rather through a combination of:

a. Sway-frame action from the flat-slab and columns accounts for 50% of lateral stability system in both directions above level 1.

b. North-south shear wall action by the western façade wall down to level 1 and transferred through diaphragm action through the floor plate to the back of house shear wall grouping.

c. East-west strut-and-tie action via the two multi-story transfer trusses down to level 1 and then transferred through diaphragm action through the floor plate to the in- plan eccentrically located back of house shear wall grouping that is offset by a steel A-brace to the north elevation façade wall.

4.Hanging concrete staircases to the west façade wall elevation with special tension ties, embedded key boxes and coupler connections to provide support from the façade wall interface due to no column supports.

5.Internal steel staircases hanging from roof beams via hot-rolled steel elements.

6.Structural Steel Sub-frame to Curtain Wall.

Additional information about the use of steel in the building

Although the primary mass of the building consists of a concrete shell, it was always envisaged that this would need to be supported by steel to allow the mass to float lightly and enable visual connectivity from the ground floor to the campus on all four sides.  Throughout the structural design of the building, steel was used to contrast against the heaviness of the concrete shell and enable almost impossible transfer of structural loads and bracing across the void between the floor plates and the shell to the ground. The attached images show these drak painted steel props, columns and A-frame braces.  Likewise the eccentric load of the external concrete stairs are hung from the external envelope and structure behind with very light steel elements.  Internally the vertical circulation located in the void consists of steel suspended staircases and steel framed lift shafts with steel mesh cladding.

Contract Director Interview:

The design of the connections between the concrete and steel were complex and highly detailed to ensure the bonding of the concrete to the steel cast-in items.  To maximise the feeling of lightness the steel sizes had to be limited and the detailing and implementation of the welds was therefore very critical.  There was a great level of co-ordination between the steel and the concrete during the construction of the building.  It was a highly collaborative process between the professional team and the contractors to enable optimum resolution of technical aspects as well as implementational challenges.  In turn the contractor had a strong relationship with the steel manufacturer and installer, with whom they had previously worked.  All contracts were undertaken under the NEC suite.

Site Manager Interview:

In addition to the structural steelwork the project uses customised expanded metal panels for sun-shading to the large opening on the north façade as well as to the courtyard roof; the pitch of the openings being carefully worked out to provide solar protection as well as optimum day-lighting.  Expanded mesh was also used to clad large [5,4m high] bespoke steel framed acoustic in-filled sliding doors to provide flexible arrangements around the in-formal auditorium as well as smaller scaled privacy and acoustic screens in the flexible study areas. 

Architect Interview:

Completion date of steelwork Around May 2017 [Structural Steel]
Completion date of full project December 2017
Structural profiles used UC H-SECTION CHS PFC DETAN RODS  
Nominator Designworkshop
Client/ Developer Sol Plaatje University
Architect Designworkshop
Structural Engineer Aurecon
Quantity Surveyor KDM
Project Manager Aecom
Main Contractor M&D
Steelwork Contractor Mawele Metal Works
Steel Erector Mawele Metal Works
Corrosion Protection
Mawele Metal Works to advise
Corrosion Protection
Paintwork Contractor
Mawele Metal Works to advise


If you were a part of this project, and your company details are incorrect or missing – please notify the SAISC so that the error can be corrected.