By Mike Rassman and Kuba Granicki, two of the partners at Architects of Justice
“Put a man in a cardboard box and the man grows up in a cardboard box. But put a man in a well-designed environment, and the man thrives.”
A person’s surroundings play a big role in his/her overall well-being and development. For example, employees are more productive in well-thought-out buildings, just as children learn better in a properly built school. And this is the value that we as architects bring to the table. We are problem solvers who understand the full system and can therefore design well-thought-out spaces that benefit both the client and the users.

An architect’s role in commercial work
We believe that architects should strive to bring value to clients, far beyond just putting the building together and walking away afterwards. Key to this is figuring out how to bring benefit to a developer’s project from an architectural point of view as well as staying mindful of functionality, finance and of course maintenance going forward.

As architects we don’t just hang things from the ceilings without thinking about the dust that will accumulate on top, we appreciate the practicality of things, but at the same time we try to bring magic and sparkle to a project – not just to satisfy our own ego’s, not to satisfy our own ego’s, but to bring something special to the end-user. Because even when designing an industrial or commercial space, we need to think about the person who will end up working there, the mother or the father who will spend a big portion of their day in that environment.

Keep in mind that even though annual maintenance, facility management and cost savings are top of mind for developers, they ultimately want a lettable building that can compete with others in the market. Especially considering that tenants are becoming smarter and are increasingly requesting energy-efficient buildings and more sustainable office environments, it is becoming harder to deliver a better building at a lower price – there has to be something unique to the building which sets it apart from others.

Mjejane Luxury Bush Lodge, on the banks of the Crocodile River.

Tailoring needs to woo tenants
This is another area where architects can assist. Visual communication is something that crosses boundaries, something anyone can understand. And when clients have options, they need something special.

For developers who are used to building to specification, this is a very progressive stance – to tailor a building according to a potential tenant’s requirements and image, and offering that extra value-add.

But what if it is an existing building?

Fitting out an existing, spec-type building for a specific client comes with its own challenges. We have done fit-outs where it is difficult to get the partitions in exactly the right spot in relation to the windows. But this experience has made us very conscious of how we lay out facades when doing new buildings, so that there are various options for dividing a space. Even when we are doing buildings for tenants with a ten-year lease, we stay mindful that after that period, another tenant may come in with different requirements.

And applying these skills is not about making the building prettier or more expensive, instead it is about making the building more functional and usable, extending the lifespan of the space. Architects should exert a certain kind of logic in order to maximise the usability and flexibility of a building, whether it is a specialised space or an interchangeable office. In the commercial space it is really about understanding workflow and then spatial planning.

Sustainability – it’s a given
The same kind of architectural logic informs when it comes to sustainability. When the “green buzz” started in South Africa, as architects we didn’t quite understand the big fuss, because during our studies, we were taught that sustainability is just the result of good design, not something extra, therefore sustainable design should always be the first principle.

The mere practicalities of proper orientation and layout of a building potentially make a huge difference in terms of thermal performance, without the need to spend a lot of extra money. For example, by finding a way to orientate a large glass facade to the north side of the building instead of the west, negates the need for expensive louvres or air-conditioning to compensate for the heat gain inside the building.

However, where it does start to affect the budget, is when the client insists on an entire glass facade all around the building. To put it into context, the build cost on one of the recently completed buildings in Sandton, which features an expansive glass facade, was about R30 000/m², while on one of the office buildings we did where the glass facades were placed strategically, the build cost was about R11 000/m², which is about a third of the cost.

Also, in the early 2000s, Tuscan style houses were very popular, but if one looks at the number of air-conditioning systems that were installed, it is evident that the climate wasn’t properly considered. Compare this to older houses with a porch and long overhang – these heritage homes were smartly designed to suit the climate. In later years, the availability of technology made it possible to counter “bad” design, but this is coming at an increasing cost.

It is the role of the architect to find the balance between the client’s vision and the quality of the space in order to produce the best value-for-money design.

Micro SEED libraries, an initiative spearheaded by the MAL foundation and supported by several non-profit organisations.

Adapt for the better
In South Africa, architecture is very much a response to people’s behaviour and needs. As the average citizen becomes more and more aware of the importance to manage resources such as water and electricity, they become more open to alternative technologies and we can see a shift coming.

In one instance, for example, the client wanted a solar solution, but didn’t have the budget for battery packs. However, he installed the solar panels, which provided power during work hours and significantly brought down the electricity bill. These savings enabled the client to put in batteries a year later.

Another client declined water harvesting tanks, but after his water was cut off for three days, he changed his mind.

It sometimes takes time to realise the benefits and the environmental impact on South Africans has pushed this awareness, something that legislation would not be able to do on its own. It is 2018, so one shouldn’t just be considering “green” solutions like this – they are the only option.

Giving back
Lastly, architecture is also about helping society and giving back where we can – becoming involved in social projects. And because the partners at Architects of Justice feel very strongly about education, this is where we spend our efforts. For example, we have developed a library design that is a repeatable prototype which can easily be rolled out in different locations. And what better way to utilise staff at times when business is a bit slow?

We are architects and we design buildings, but once you get beyond the structures, you start learning about society, people, culture and different needs.

And this is why our profession exists: We are problem solvers, here to build a better world.

Architects of Justice
Tel: 011 974 9584

Caption main image: Architects of Justice partners, Kuba Granicki, Mike Rassmann and Alessio Lacovig.

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