The South African transport engineering industry currently faces challenges including a lack of civil engineers, limited training and a shortage of training and testing facilities compared with other countries. Engineering 4.0, a civil engineering research and laboratory facility at the University of Pretoria, completed in March 2020, was built to help address these challenges and impresses as architectural design.
Top training and testing areas
The project consists of a training laboratory, road materials reference laboratory, concrete research laboratory, timber and structural member facility, an accelerated pavement testing facility and an active traffic track.
It also has a small reception area and auditorium, with next phases of the development focused on expansion of the laboratory to other civil engineering disciplines.
ARC Architects were the lead architects of Engineering 4.0 and the project is a collaborative effort between SANRAL, the University of Pretoria and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). ARC Architects have a longstanding relationship with the University of Pretoria a portfolio of various buildings at the university, such as the Aula, Engineering 3 and Mining Study Centre.
According to Wynand Steyn, head of the Civil Engineering Department at UP, research and laboratory facility needed a simplified structure to house a complex programme and the vision was to provide an internationally renowned platform for academic and job training support. The design of this project, which began in June 2019, is uniquely different because it provides major interaction between the inside and outside of the building, which is something not typically found in a research and laboratory facility.
Linking engineering to nature
The design links research and testing that happens inside the building to the understanding that all civil infrastructure placed in nature needs to be balanced with its location. The interaction between the internal laboratories and natural forest around the facility make it different to a standard civil engineering laboratory that typically cuts out most natural light and views.
Engineering 4.0 has an impressive external open-view design, allowing students to be constantly reminded of the work being conducted inside the laboratories, even when they are socialising outside. The open-view design encourages discussion and learning and keeps the link to nature, where users inside can see their outside surroundings.
A large volume of the concrete and steel shell of the building creates a warehouse-type space that is adaptable for future purposes; and is currently divided into two large laboratories and four smaller laboratories. Steel columns are used on the ends of the elongated structure with cladding and the structure is not just a rectangular shaped box, but has features to make it look like more than a large open volume from the outside.
All external walls are in a tilt-up design because of weak soil conditions and because extensive foundations would have been needed if normal brick-type walls were used. Tilt-up construction is cost-effective, low maintenance, fire resistant, allows for shorter building times and enables students to see the results at close range.
Educating by showcasing examples
Features to enhance education aspects inside the building include a glass-floored section of thick reinforced concrete floor displaying reinforcement inside concrete, as well as open roof structures showing trusses and supports.
Other features include the open heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system showing intricacies of the system, an ablution section displaying the complexities of ablution facilities and floor inlays relevant to civil engineering sciences.
The glass foyer frame is made up of H- and I-beams creating a linear and radial grid that intersects through a forest area, creating a relationship between the interior space and surrounding environment. H-beams emphasise the rotation of each column along the radial walkway, while horizontal I-beams create continuity between the vertical and horizontal elements and connections between the two.
The layout of the reception area is well suited to serving the different laboratories and testing areas, and channels different stakeholders from technicians to external parties or students to the different parts of the facility successfully. Through the layout, the road materials reference laboratory can be operated as a sterile space where only dedicated staff and materials can enter, without influences from students.
Providing opportunities to experiment
The first facility is a training laboratory, with dedicated laboratory stations in a layout that allows each technician to independently conduct testing and to be certified. The second facility is the road materials reference laboratory, where learners will conduct duplicate testing of road building materials for South Africa and where comparative testing between South African, Southern African, African and international laboratories can be done.
The third facility is a large concrete research laboratory with material preparation areas and curing rooms that have a range of temperature and humidity levels for treating concrete samples in environmental conditions found throughout Southern Africa. He says this laboratory has a 300m² strong floor, which consists of 900mm deep reinforced concrete with a compressive strength of 80+ MPa used to conduct large-scale tests on concrete samples to determine failure criteria.
Outside areas bringing theory to life
The fourth indoor facility is a timber and structural member facility where properties of sections of engineered timber and steel structures can be evaluated. Outside the building there is an accelerated pavement testing facility, where pavement structures can be tested to destruction using devices, and there is an active traffic lane on the adjacent highway, where the response of road pavements to real traffic can be determined.
A storm-water retention model was used for storm-water design, with a lined primary pond allowing storm-water reduction of a 1:50 year flood, serving as a sediment trap with water plants treating water to enhance water quality. An unlined secondary pond covered by natural grassland attenuates overflow from the primary pond when flooding occurs, preventing unnecessary water being discarded and replenishing the natural groundwater table.
This functional, durable, aesthetically-pleasing building is a space for the training of engineers and technicians, where students can evaluate material properties, test conditions of road pavement structures and compare it to real traffic and environment responses. It provides a holistic approach to engineering sciences and should allow future civil engineers to understand materials and designs better, serving us with more sustainable and cost-effective road networks.