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Landmark Sol Plaatje University Library and Student Resources Building wins prestigious Fulton Award

Sol Plaatje University Library Building. Photo credits to designworkshop

Sol Plaatje University Library and Student Resources Building. Photo credits to designworkshop

20 June 2017 - The striking, origami-like roof of the Sol Plaatje University Library and Student Resources Building in Kimberley, Northern Cape, is both out of the ordinary but perfectly blended with surrounded buildings.

The engineering prowess involved in bringing this bold and original project to life pushed the boundaries of architectural and engineering design, requiring very high expectations from the concrete used to perform not only as a structural but also as an aesthetic material.

Fittingly, the Sol Plaatje University Library Building was announced as the winner of the 2017 Fulton Concrete Award in the ‘Buildings more than 3-Storeys’ category. The project also received a commendation in the ‘Architectural Concrete’ category at the prestigious biennial event which recognises excellence and innovation in the use of concrete. The Fulton Awards are widely considered as the ‘Oscars’ of the South African concrete industry.

The Sol Plaatje University Library Building went up against other notable award entries. Aurecon provided structural, civil, electrical, fire and wet services design for the project that started in May 2014 and is expected to be completed in December 2017.

“I would like to thank our client, the Sol Plaatje University, for giving the architect the brief of designing something amazing; Murray & Dickson Construction for submitting the project for an award as well as the entire project team who helped us bring this vision to life. Winning this award, especially considering all of the impressive nominees in the list, is a testament to what can be achieved when visionaries and problem solvers are aligned within a single project team,” says Heinrich Stander, Aurecon Structural Engineer and Technical Director.

The Library is draped in a continuous concrete shell, which takes on a strong angular diamond-like shape. Each roof corner of the building is at a different level, which corresponds with the neighbouring building tying the overall precinct together as the focal point of the central campus. The diamond shape of the building is reminiscent of the diamond mining history of the city.

Designing a floating concrete façade for a diamond-shaped building

One of the key structural elements of the project is the library’s floating façade. The integrated external skin of the building blends the walls with an origami-like roof which is functionally, structurally and technically independent from its inner building core.

“The floating façade walls are a unique feat of this project. The slenderness, finish of the material, eccentric steel supports and the precision that the number of cast-in elements needed, required considerable research and out-of-the-box thinking from our team,” says Stander.

“One of the major challenges with the floating concrete façade was the precision needed in execution. The contractor was brought on board during the design process, which allowed various design options to be assessed and improved from a constructability perspective. The stakes were high for everyone, and the project team had to ensure that the eventual approach followed would work on the first attempt. Repair of any mistake would have damaged the off-shutter concrete aesthetics, especially when the goal was to deliver a façade that had a highly refined, consistently silky, off-steel surface finish,” says Stander.

Designing a solution from scratch

The in-situ monolithic wall that the team designed was an ideal fit for the architectural intent and structural design.

“One of the concerns with this option was the shrinkage related movement of the concrete façade that could have led to undesirable cracking if poorly approached. To reduce this effect from a design perspective, we specified low shrinkage strain performance concrete with stringent curing practices and incorporated 90-day delayed zones in strategic positions over the height of the façade walls and sloping roofs,” explains Stander.

A large sample wall and sloping roof section were constructed, to test and ensure that the geometry, design, proposed construction joint preparation and material placement techniques would work. Also tested were the curing strategy, formwork panel alignment, tie-through hole options, material workability and vibration techniques to ensure proper compaction and surface finishing. After constructing the sample wall successfully, it was broken down to investigate the compaction of the material around the complex steel column shear connectors and reinforcement detailing throughout. The rigorous testing and success achieved with the sample wall established confidence in the various approaches.

“We knew that do-overs would not be possible once we started constructing the façade; so we had to make sure that the technical solutions we were proposing would work on the constructed building, with little room for failure. The results are exactly what we set out to achieve, and I am very pleased with the final façade,” says Stander.

Another important structural element on the project was the use of A-frames over the auditorium. This enabled the design team to omit two columns without using bulky transfer beams in the space, which provided better aesthetics and enabled cost savings as the floor-to-floor height of the space didn’t have to increase, as a consequence.

“This landmark library and student resources building provides a highly visible and sculptural presence to the central campus precinct linking it to the surrounding Kimberley inner city regeneration project. It is truly a worthy winner of the 2017 Fulton Award in the ‘Buildings more than Three Storeys’ category,” concludes Stander.

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