Thanda Early Childhood Development Centre

The Thanda early childhood development centre was born out of sheer necessity. In 2014, the members of this committed community-based after school care organisation, in the rural community of Mtwalume, in the Umzumbe municipality of KwaZulu Natal, heard about preschool age children that, due to socioeconomic circumstances, were attending local primary schools.

They were sitting in class, wearing nappies, crying most of the day, not getting the attention appropriate for their age and disrupting the other learners. Members of Thanda, in consultation with one of the local schools and the children’s parents and guardians (as many of the children are orphans), decided to act and began looking after the children daily.

In the first year ten children were accommodated in the best way possible in a former consulting office of 2mx3m at Thanda’s after school facility. Despite this not being ideal it was an improvement on the previous situation as the children were safe, learning at an appropriate level, sleeping, playing and getting fed daily. Word spread amongst the local community and the following year the number of children that needed to be accommodated increased dramatically. Space quickly became a challenge and the importance having a proper facility for these children became more apparent.

The Thanda team felt a need to address this problem and as 90% of brain development takes place before the age of five, they wanted to be involved with nurturing these young children in order to give them the best possible start in life. A needs analysis was conducted in the area, which found that there were no Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres or programmes anywhere nearby and from this the Thanda Early Childhood Development programme was born.

Around the same time, Beiersdorf Consumer Products (Pty) Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Beiersdorf AG, one of the leading companies in the field of skin care globally and owners of various household brands including Nivea®, had put out a call for funding an organization with existing Early Childhood Development (ECD) and Youth Development programmes. Thanda was one of hundreds of organizations who responded and after a country-wide search, were identified as the ideal implementation partner. In December 2015 Mags Shapiro, a Social Investment Specialist contracted by Beiersdorf, contacted AOJ as a potential architecture firm that had previously completed successful projects of similar nature, and after another selection process they were appointed to work on the project.

Having a basic understanding of the client’s requirements, it was essential for AOJ to visit the site and get a handle on the context. The local landscape is mostly covered in sugarcane that is predominantly farmed by one company that brings in cheaper labour from the Eastern Cape. Dirt roads cut the hillsides, defining property edges, and connecting the very scattered buildings dominated by Rondavels and other even simpler type buildings made from, cement block walls, corrugated sheeting, and simple pitch roofs, “Essentially an architecture of need in a natural landscape that can leave most in awe of its beauty” says Alessio Lacovig.

The predominantly natural sub-tropical climate of the site, the needs of the local community and the idea of challenging the architectural vernacular were the primary drivers in the design response for the Early Childhood Development centre.

In a place where most daily activities happen outside and where children have a strong connection to nature, it was essential for the buildings to be more background rather than foreground.

The steeply sloping site, the requirements for child friendly spaces and the budget, dictated a scheme made up by a set of a repeated building typology, small and simple to build. These were radially set out along the hillside, helping to encompass daily activities and reinforce the sense of safety which the Thanda ECD centre brings to its users and community. This linear arrangement further ensures that no building obstructs the views for users in the other community centre buildings.

The Early Childhood Development centre is made up of three classroom buildings, housing two classrooms each, an ablution block, a ramp element, and outdoor playground spaces. These were arranged on the site in such a way as to create a strong relationship to the existing buildings and activities at Thanda and essentially completes the community centre that, now in addition to the ECD centre, consists of a resource centre, library, arts centre, administration offices and various structures related to a very successful organic farming initiative.

The rectangular classroom modules are the most interesting components of the scheme. Built on concrete bases, four fin walls run in the short direction of each of the buildings with timber doors in the long direction. These doors open fully to facilitate free movement of users, provide excellent cross ventilation, and allow an abundance of indirect natural light to flood the interior. This mostly transparent envelope reduces the visual obstruction of the buildings within the landscape and provides framed views of the hillsides surrounding Thanda.

The roofs, inspired by work from renowned architect Francis Kéré, complete these buildings and work like parasol umbrellas covering the classrooms below. These visually striking structures are economically constructed and were manufactured completely on site. They create canopies overhanging the classrooms below by 2 meters in all directions, providing shade and reducing unwanted solar heat gain as well as glare within the classrooms, all the while offering large catchment areas for rainwater harvesting. These upper roof lines are elevated away from the insulated classroom envelopes below to facilitate air flow over the classrooms for passive cooling, reduce heat transfer to the interiors from above and also reduce the risk of moisture and humidity build up prevalent in roof voids in such climates.

The Thanda community centre is a place that was founded on sustainable principals, and this ethos is evident in the way that all those involved care for the centre and support it. It is a place run effectively and efficiently by people who care about making a positive change in their world and certainly an example that the international community can learn from. The Architecture of the Thanda Early Childhood Development centre stands as part testament of this commitment to making an impact and inspiring others to strive for something better.

• Award- AfriSam-SAIA Sustainable Design Award 2019/2020 (Award Entry Video) • Special Mention / Commendation Award - SAIA-KZN Awards for Architecture 2021
• SAIA-KZN Journal – Volume 46 - 2 / 2021
Nyangwini, Kwazulu Natal