The Africa Centre is a multi-disciplinary research facility working with population health issues in rural KwaZulu-Natal. When we completed their new 2,700m2 field office in 2002 the project was considered ground-breaking in many ways and especially for its acknowledgement of local context; extensive use of skills and materials drawn from the region; and participatory approach to the design and construction processes.
After an absence of 12 years we were appointed by the new Director of the Africa Centre in 2014 to revisit the project. Our brief from him was to provide additional accommodation and to give the buildings a substantial makeover aligning them with his new vision for the Centre and its position in a 21st Century global research community.
During our absence the Centre had expanded its operations to employ a permanent staff of 400 people plus a regular influx of visiting scientists from abroad. The buildings and their infrastructure had been worked hard over this period and yet received little maintenance so the entire complex was in need of some serious attention.
In addition to the restoration and rejuvenation of the existing building infrastructure and a complete reorganization of many of the internal spaces, we created new spaces to accommodate the IT support team, additional storage and meeting rooms and a new ablution block. Where possible we recycled elements from the old buildings into the new, for example the storage facility was made from existing shipping containers combined with poles, windows and doors salvaged from the renovations, thereby reducing costs and the amount of construction waste.
The look of the building was transformed with a toned-down colour scheme, new floor and ceiling finishes, LED lighting and custom-made furniture. We worked closely with the Africa Centre staff and local furniture company Raw Studios to provide modular units tailored to each space and use. Beyond the office furniture requirements they also made innovative meeting ‘pods’, new auditorium counter tops and lounge and canteen furniture.