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Photos: Paris Brummer and Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika.

The Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking Afrika at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is the leader in design-led thinking on the continent. Africa’s first d-school was founded in Cape Town in 2015, with seed funding and IP support from Hasso Plattner Foundation; and was temporarily located at the UCT Graduate School of Business campus at the V&A Waterfront. The d-school’s sponsor, Hasso Plattner Foundation (HPF), has funded the new HPI d-school building located on UCT’s middle campus in Rondebosch, which will play a strategic role as part of UCT’s 2030 vision.

For a quick overview of this article, click the video.

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Goal: empowerment for real world problems

The purpose of the school is to empower all people with a design-thinking mindset to be able to create human-centred solutions in a continuously changing environment. At the d-school, they teach people how to reframe, rethink and resolve real-world problems. Students learn about “design thinking”, a globally recognised approach and a mindset to solving complex problems from a human-centred perspective.

The first d-school in Africa

UCT’s vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, says the university is honoured to be amongst only two other institutions – Stanford University in the United States of America and Potsdam University in Germany – to have a d-school.

The conceptual visualisation of the project utilised the d-school’s design-thinking approach to solving problems – incorporating five stages: Empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test. Considerations included scalability and flexibility of spaces to enable use by different group sizes and accommodate future programme adjustments. All these were taken into consideration as to how it will engage with the site.

Collaborated design process

The building design co-creation process was collaborative and inclusive with all parties involved. Jonathan Ray of KMH Architects explains that through workshops, the architects, students and faculty members could create a brief to be part of the design process which guided the design approach. The design embodies rich experience and possibility, unparalleled anywhere else at the university.

The d-school is targeting a six-star Green Star rating from the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) and is aiming to be the first six-star rated Green Star academic building in Africa.

Update: The d-school is still in pursuit of the six-star Green Star certificate from the GBCSA. The building tuning process is approximately 12 months and only commences three months after the practical completion, which was achieved on 18 August 2022.

The new building

The four-storey HPI d-school building, with a project size of 5 500m², is the new home to the Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking Afrika at UCT. After a site was chosen, the design for a new building was commissioned through an invited competition, with the winners being KMH Architects in Cape Town.

The site

The triangular site is relatively small, with an 8,5m cross fall between the highest and lowest points, allowing a four-level building with basement parking and three floors above accommodating teaching, administration and related functions.

The concrete framed structure is covered by a large-span steel lattice shell and glass roof, which was partly derived by abstracting the geometry of the site. It creates large, column-free volumes, allowing maximum spatial flexibility. The current layout requirements can be accommodated and, as the school’s programme evolves over time, internal changes can be easily implemented.

Materiality: TABS

Thermo-Active Building Systems (TABS) is a sustainable design feature, allowing thermal comfort within the building by harnessing the power of its materials’ thermal mass. Warmed or cooled water is run through pipes cast into the concrete slabs. The water changes the concrete’s temperature enough to radiate heat or cool the building.

A delicate balance is integrated into having enough natural lighting and external views, and also to reduce artificial lighting and creating too much heat gain and glare in a building. The design blends fritted glass over the atrium space, helping to reduce solar heat and glare but still providing adequate daylight in all spaces. The facades include specialised solar glass and passive shading elements.

Aesthetics and acoustics

The building features large open-plan spaces to accommodate the teaching and working methods at the school, where flexible teaching spaces, flexible studios and collaborative spaces are needed. Polished concrete floors provide robust, hard-wearing surfaces. Engineered-timber floors are used in the quieter reflection spaces and open-plan offices, softening the aesthetics and aiding with acoustics. Noise and reverberation can be an issue in especially large spaces with smooth, solid finishes. This was managed by using vertical, suspended acoustic baffles.

The issue: The triangular site is relatively small, with an 8,5m cross fall between the highest and lowest points.

The solution: The four-storey concrete framed structure is covered by a large-span steel lattice shell and glass roof, which was partly derived by abstracting the geometry of the site.


    • UCT’s sustainability goals place emphasis on becoming more self-sufficient in terms of power production. Studies have been done on the campuses to assess the most technically and financially viable locations to incorporate solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, with the d-school being the first to have a PV system on its roof.
    • Roof space is limited with the atrium glazing, so a 63,5kW peak grid-tied system was incorporated and will assist in reducing its reliance on the grid. A cloud-based monitoring system allows remote tracking. The data is linked to a smart TV in the d-school building, promoting awareness of energy use among the building’s users.
    • Rainwater is harvested to supplement the water supply, with water-saving devices and electronic flushes fitted to all sanitaryware.
    • Low-energy light fittings, and the TABS system for temperature control, reduce electricity usage.

Vision 2030

UCT’s “Vision 2030” is meeting certain sustainability goals across its campuses. These goals include a minimum requirement of a four-star Green Star certification for all new buildings.

It is an important element of UCT’s learning process as to how the institution could get to its goal of being net-zero carbon by 2050. To align with Hasso Plattner Foundation’s values, the project is more ambitious in its green building objectives.

For more information on the d-school, click on the following link: The Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika – YouTube

Architectural package sub-contractors

    • Aluminium – Aluplan
    • Sandstone Cladding – Marble Classic
    • Structural Steelwork – Mazor
    • ACM and sunscreens – First Africa Holdings
    • Gabions – Gabion Structures
    • Polished Concrete – 180 Degrees
    • Partitions and Ceilings – CeilWall
    • Lighting and Façade Lighting Design – Bellco
    • Sectional overhead façade doors – Tightfit
    • WC partitions and whiteboard – Façade Projects  
    • Balustrades – Abelia metalwork
    • Roof – Leaf Structures
    • Structural Steel – Mazor
    • Lighting – Bellco Electrical
    • Paint – Midas internal and Marmoran outside
    • Timber floors – Oggie
    • Acoustic baffles – Ecophon

Full acknowledgment and thanks go to https://dschoolafrika.org/, www.news.uct.ac.za/, www.designcities.net/ , www.kmh.co.za and https://positive-impact.africa/ for the information in this editorial.

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