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Students build innovative sustainable school in South African community

building site
Provided/Andrew Fu '14
Cornell University Sustainable Design team students work on the early childhood development center they designed and built in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Provided/Andrew Fu '14
The early childhood development center will serve 80 children a year and provide teacher training for future centers in Cosmo City, a new housing development in Johannesburg.
interior view
Provided/Andrew Fu '14
An interior view of the Cornell-designed school in Cosmo City.

Over the summer, a team of 31 students built a 6,000-square-foot early childhood development center in Cosmo City, a new mixed-housing development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD) -- formerly the Cornell University Solar Decathlon team -- orchestrated the outreach project, Schoolhouse South Africa, from research to design to construction. The result is the first such facility in Cosmo City, a community of 12,500 dwellings.

With classrooms, indoor and outdoor play areas, and interactive spaces for group learning, creative play and social development, the center will serve 80 students a year and double as a teacher training facility. It has been designated by the executive mayor of Johannesburg as a Center of Excellence and is the forerunner for several schools to follow.

The community is "very excited" and "very proud," said project director Barry Beagen '11, who studied civil and environmental engineering at Cornell.

"When we walk around the city, mothers will come up to ask how they can enroll their children or how they can work in the school to teach, to cook or to help," he said.

Schoolhouse South Africa is aligned with a national South African initiative to improve early childhood education. Project partners include Education Africa, a nonprofit organization working to reduce poverty through education; Play with a Purpose, an early childhood education program; Basil Read Developments; and the city of Johannesburg.

CUSD is a student-led initiative promoting projects that have long-term effects and incorporate an interdisciplinary understanding of sustainability.

CUSD collaborated with a second-year architecture studio to design the building for zero environmental impact. No electricity is needed for heating and cooling the solar-passive building, and high-performance windows and glazing provide natural ventilation and insulation. An earthbag wall system uses sand -- taken directly from the excavation of the building's foundation -- as insulation and thermal mass.

A ceremonial groundbreaking for the school was held July 9, and Parks Tau, executive mayor of Johannesburg, attended the opening ceremony Aug. 10.

The mayor's visit gave the project "a very high endorsement, which is rare," Beagen said. "He was impressed that we were using local building technologies such as the earthbag system developed in Cape Town. In his speech, he aligned our project with the city's overall vision for livable cities and resource sustainability."

The schoolhouse project began during the spring 2010 semester. During the 2010-11 academic year, students surveyed the community's needs and cataloged existing and potential sustainable construction practices in South Africa. They then created a comprehensive atlas of their research to inform the center's design. The atlas is available in the Mann, Carpenter and Fine Arts libraries on campus.

The CUSD student team led the construction effort, hiring local laborers from Cosmo City.

"[The workers] have also contributed immensely to this project," Beagen said. "In turn, they have learned new skills and even leadership as we work together as a team alongside the students. Their experience can also translate to future employment prospects."

Benefits for the CUSD team were many, Beagen said.

"Apart from learning how to work in a professional environment with an extremely tight schedule," he said, "we learned construction management skills, carpentry, organizing suppliers, managing sponsors, organizing events such as the groundbreaking," marketing and other skills.

"Most importantly we have learned how to take on responsibilities in real life," Beagen said. CUSD participants "have a new sense of responsibility for society knowing that their skills and education can directly contribute to development. [Our lives] have no doubt been changed with this experience."