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Architecture without Boundaries

March 7, 2014

Designing for the bush requires a focus on sustainability and taking cues from nature itself. In this Q&A, architect Niël Crafford discusses his role in helping to bring the Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory to life.

Niël, your firm works principally in rural areas, what attracts you to working in wild places?

Man cannot improve on or compete with nature; the best we can hope to do is make the most of what nature has to offer and limit the damage we cause. Designing in wild places make it possible, even imperative, to think out of the box. As an architect and a nature lover, this is a tall order, and enough to keep one busy for a lifetime!


The majority of your work has been eco-tourism focused. How does designing for scientists differ from designing for tourists?

Any building that an architect designs, be it a house or a hotel, requires functional planning. Room sizes, where they are located in relation to each other and the site, orientation, all those things. The creative inspiration of what the building is going to look like, should be based on sound planning. As for your question, the answer most probably comes down to one being a high-tech working environment while the other is an escape from the usual workplace to as natural an experience as one can offer the visitors.


Photo: Niël Crafford


You are an advocate for placing ecology as the highest priority in your architecture. How does the EOW Lab’s design interact with the unique characteristics of the site?

First of all, Gorongosa is a hot place. In summer, the temperature seldom drops below 20 degrees Celsius at nighttime; often daytime temperatures soar above 40 degrees C. So one of the biggest challenges was keeping the scientists cool enough to conduct their research.


In hot humid climates such as Gorongosa, the only natural way of cooling down is through wind movement. The buildings were all designed to maximize natural airflow using cross ventilation. Furthermore, solar stack ventilation (whereby roof sheets are designed in such a way that they act as chimneys, assisting the rising hot air in escaping from the building) draws in cool air from underneath the building – a strategy not dissimilar to how termites construct their mounds. 


Gorongosa can also get very wet. So we raised the floors of all the buildings approximately 500mm above the ground to mitigate against the possibility of flood waters reaching the site in the rainy season.


You have a reputation for immersing yourself in indigenous principles and methods of construction. Did this knowledge influence the design of the EOW Lab?

I normally find out how local people build their buildings and what materials they use. In this instance, that sort of construction would have been less than ideal since labs need to be dust and insect free - a condition not normally found in thatched buildings! What influenced the choice of building system the most was speed of erection – there is a limited window of opportunity in which the materials have to be brought to site and assembled, before the next rainy season.


Your passion for sustainable design is reflected in many of the EOW Lab’s green features; which is your favorite and why?

The building system in itself rates high on the sustainability ladder, in that it could be removed from site, leaving no impact and be used somewhere else. At the end of its lifespan, the materials are mostly reusable. My favorite is the solar stack that was designed to assist hot air escaping from the highest point of the building. A void without any insulation is created above the palm tree ceiling planks, which then warms up because of solar heat gain and “sucks” the air from the building.


Phases II & III are already in the works. What exciting developments can we look forward to in the future?

Before any detail was designed, a Master Plan of the whole Biodiversity Research Centre was done and approved. The first phase (Scientific Services and some accommodation units) is nearing completion. Next phases will include a Media Centre, where the work done by visiting scientists can be filmed and showcased to interested parties. Furthermore, researchers labs, collection room, library and meeting rooms will be provided, together with additional accommodation units. A social complex with a small gym, communal kitchen and dining room and inside/outside lounge viewing onto a boma will be also be built.


Is there anything else you’d like to share about the EOW Lab’s design?

To me, the unique way in which the Gorongosa Restoration Project visualized the Centre is what will make it a world first : sharing the incredible richness of Gorongosa’s biodiversity with all the people that will contribute towards making it a sustainable conservation area – the community, visitors to the Park, government bodies and the world at large.


Niël Crafford is one half of the fraternal, multi-award winning architectural firm Crafford & Crafford ( He is an Architectural graduate from the University of Pretoria and has been actively involved in the development and planning of tourism destinations throughout Southern Africa for more than two decades.

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