Maverick Citizen: Eastern Cape
Students design portable ‘township crèche’ in university first for South Africa
Under the guidance of their lecturer, architecture students at the Nelson Mandela University built a unique, portable crèche for children in the Walmer township in Port Elizabeth.
For the past 15 years, Glenda Brunette, known in Walmer township as Mamtshawe, has been looking after crèches and soup kitchens. The motto of her NGO is: ‘Every child counts’. But Crèche 13, as it is known, was always a heavy burden on her heart. More than 30 children were squeezed into the corrugated iron, windowless shack housing the crèche, with babies wrapped up in blankets having to sleep on the ground. Then a university lecturer who had a project in mind for his second-year architectural students came to their rescue.
To build a crèche in Airport Valley, part of Port Elizabeth’s Walmer township, was always going to be a tall order. The municipality requires that all structures be portable should the area, currently an informal settlement, be developed. There was no money – so it had to be cheap. And the existing stand was small without reticulated water.
The shack that had been built on the site was no longer stable. Its roof was sagging and it had no floor. The children had to sit or lie on blankets.
Nelson Mandela University architecture lecturer John Andrews said he started discussing the option of building the creche with Brunette at the start of 2019. Apart from providing a safe place for the children, he said they also wanted the new crèche to fit in with the architecture of the community.
This was the brief Andrews gave to his second-year architecture students: Build a place where the children can be safe and space for the community to come together over the weekends – and do it within a year.
“It was the first time a project on this scale was done at a South African university,” he said. “Definitely a big first for Nelson Mandela University.”
Students were divided into teams and models for several designs were constructed for the crèche’s owner, and community members to make a final decision.
Andrews and his students then had to do the fund-raising for the construction material and construct the building on campus before transporting it to Airport Valley.
“We used off-the-shelf timber and other materials to get it done. We had to keep within the budget,” he said.
“We had a year from conception to getting it done,” he said. “The construction was very challenging as there were several health and safety regulations that had to be followed,” he said.
Instead of glass, the team opted to use poly-carbon sheeting for the windows. “It is a cost issue, but also a construction issue. Glass is heavy and these sheets are light. It is very durable.” The crèche also has unique skylights to improve ventilation and light.
The crèche had to be moved by truck and crane to the site with access restricted to a very narrow dust road. “And the power lines that are all over that area gave me nightmares,” Andrews laughed. “It took us four days to move the building. I am very happy that all went according to plan.”
Andrews added that the project was also very significant on a different level. In a paper he wrote on the crèche project, he quoted Adam Hopfner from Yale Architecture who said that design/build is “not just learning how to swing a hammer, or how something sits on something else, but there’s a real interest in being citizens of a larger community … We’re not just trying to help a community, but we’re trying to deconstruct students’ privilege. We’re trying to get them to be better citizens, better community advocates and to understand the complexity of urban areas.”
“I think the students who really got involved were changed by this project. Especially in that last week and a half when we were finalising the project in Airport Valley. A lot of things really came home to us during that time,” he said.
When construction wrapped up, the community held a ceremony for the handing over of the keys. “There was a dance group and a band. It was a wonderful day,” Andrews said. He added that the building was also designed as a multi-purpose space for the community and he was delighted to hear that it is already being used as a church on Sundays.
Nonbulelo Zweni, who runs the crèche, said it was started by her mother 20 years ago and it was amazing to finally have a beautiful building where they can look after the children. There are 35 children currently attending the crèche aged one to five.
“I like the big space we have now,” she said. “I have a kitchen where we can cook and a store room. It is nice to have windows. The parents were so excited when they saw it. The children also love it,” she said.
Brunette said that she was delighted by the outcome and that it was in line with everything that the Walmer Angel Project is about. “This is making me so happy,” she said.
It is the second crèche in the township she managed to have redesigned and built by donors. “I have a new plan now. We need a place where abused children can go if things are really bad at home – a safe place for them,” she said. MC
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