It’s past eight when we arrive at the boom gates of the Green School of South Africa. The drive took us past Mbekweni—translated as a ‘place of respect’ in isiXhosa—a township hidden next to the R45 highway on the eastern edge of Paarl in the Western Cape province.
Contrasting the surroundings of the bamboo-praised Green School of Bali, the South African campus, which opened its doors in February 2021, is encapsulated by the northward-flowing Berg River and some of the oldest and historically affluent winelands in Paarl, forming part of the Drakenstein Municipality.
Unsure of what to expect, we are greeted by a security guard and a range of luxury cars in the parking lot.
The building’s curved brown exterior, combined with its tall and elegantly framed glass windows, allows us to glimpse into the earthy, minimally decorated interior where lights dangle from the ceiling. One would hardly think it’s a place where children are found, however, considering the time, most classes are in session.
Inside the waiting area, a lonely eye-catching brown sofa and rustic weave rug fill the hollow impersonal space. While curiously observing the details of the interior design, we are approached by a familiar face donned in an olive-green long-sleeved top, blue jeans, and sandals befitting for a tour of the school grounds.
FROM BALI TO PAARL
“. . . imagine going to school in the middle of the jungle.”
These were the words of Andrea Hofmeyr (37) in a 2016 travelogue she shared with us, recalling what would now be a vivid memory of the first time she set foot at the Green School of Bali.
Unlike the bustling streets and concrete buildings in her hometown Johannesburg, Hofmeyr, who is a studied architect, remembers the mesmerizing bamboo-style campus and how it had been a dream come true to visit the Green School with her husband Lloyd.
In a “fast-paced and ever-changing world”, the two describe themselves as people looking for novel ways of educating themselves, which led them at the time to take a leap of faith by applying to be a part of the Bali campus in 2016.
“Imagine that you are able to design, engineer, and build sustainable structures from available local materials. You are encouraged to get involved with your local community and drive initiatives that make a difference in lives other than your own.”
BAMBOO PARADISE: Andrea and Lloyd Hofmeyr at the Green School of Bali.
While this application was unsuccessful, the architect did not stop at the chance of being a part of the future-thinking community;not long after coming back from south-east Asia, she heard that the founders of the now established Green School of South Africa in Paarl, Herman and Alba Brandt, were looking for interior architects in 2017.
Although her architect firm only (?) received the contract for interior fit-outs, this would be the onset of a journey and commitment towards green building and a world of construction challenges she realised needed an amass of problem-solving skills.
BUILDING A GREEN SCHOOL IN SOUTH AFRICA
Statistically, over 4% of the world’s total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is caused by cement production, the third-ranking man-made producer of CO2 after transport and energy generation. Green building largely involves reducing the volume of clinker, which is the main toxic ingredient in cement, and promoting the use of blends that contain clay, clinker and limestone to reduce emissions.
Hofmeyrwho now works at the school’s project office says the first sustainability problem was building a school in a country that is accustomed to bricks and cement, something which is expected because both these materials are morbidly cheaper than eco-friendly materials.
“The thing about going green is that everything costs at least three times the price.”
The professional team put themselves to the test: they would follow a process of acquiring a Living Building Challenge Certification which, the architect says, meant every building needed to give back to the environment and the community more than it would ‘take away’.
“We can’t really measure [the sustainability] but from a certification point of view it’s the only one in Africa,” she says.
Placing her hands on the cold body of the reception building, Hofmeyr explains that the walls were plastered with a special sand plaster instead of normal cement plaster: “Cement is a chemical we preferred not to use. When it reaches into the earth it causes toxic effects,” she explains.
The floors of the campus are made up of epoxy, a type of flooring usually found in a factory. In the case of the school, the manufacturing process was altered to exclude the harmful chemicals found in traditional epoxy.
"We had to look at chemical lists of products to see that certain chemicals were excluded.”
The school has a number of other facilities such as a kitchen, which sources some of its produce from the garden, and a recycling system, which derives its water from the Berg River that runs past the campus.
With permission from the municipality, the water is pumped from the river; because the site is on a slight slope towards the river, water and runoff are pumped back into the river from the land.
“We tried as much as possible to keep whatever we had on-site and build-out of that, and that's what gave rise to the architecture.”
The school’s co-founder Alba Brandt says the reason why the school was opened was to educate for sustainability considering the planetary boundaries imposed on humanity and how severe they can be and how quickly and drastically things can change. The initial intake saw 120 pupils enrolled, with a school community of about 500 people.
“How do you prepare kids for a job in 2030?How will the world change and what is it that kids will need to thrive in it and not just have a job and make ends meet and grind through life,” Brandt says in an interview with SABC, adding that all industries will have to adapt over the next 50 years.
The impact of building a school that is both physically and educationally different has positive psychological effects on children, particularly those who come from traditional schools. Andrea Hofmeyr says parents have gone as far as saying: “I have my child back.”
The curriculum is careful not to fear-monger or raise a generation of conspirators.
“We call it the ‘stages of environmental readiness’: You don’t show a first grader conspiracy and you don’t show them that whales are being killed or that the oceans are full of plastic because that causes anxiety; we do it in stages,” Hofmeyr says.
The school, which is part of the award-winning green municipality of Drakenstein, is based in a country that still needs to push for greater strides to include lower-income and economically disadvantaged persons in the move towards, and the decision-making processes of sustainability and an inclusive ‘green future’.
Hofmeyr says the school hopes to integrate a bursary system for underprivileged children from the township in the near future.