• Design for life

    Jabulile Nhlapo, a mechanical engineer associate at WSP in Africa, on current built-environment solutions that consider future communities too

    Design for life

    Engineering design for the sustainable built environment in Africa has never before presented a bigger blank canvas than currently, and two persistent challenges – urbanisation and lack of infrastructure – have been contributors. This is according to Jabulile Nhlapo, a mechanical engineer associate at WSP in Africa, the company that provides a comprehensive range of professional services to the built environment.

    ‘The opportunities and challenges we face are aligned,’ she says. ‘On the one hand, Africa has incredible resources that can be tapped into more effectively – be that minerals, oil, energy or food production. Yet we lack the ability to improve trade between regions and thereby become more self-sustaining. The potential to increase domestic resources is also constrained by the lack of good infrastructure that is in turn compounded by urbanisation.

    ‘However, what this presents is a clean slate for us to work from, because in most of Africa we don’t have to deal with legacy systems that could frustrate the process of sustainable built environments,’ according to Nhlapo. ‘It also leaves us in a great position to embrace innovations and implement the latest technologies that account for the unique African landscape.’

    One such technology is building information modelling (BIM), considered one of the hottest developments in the built environment. It has taken 3D to extraordinarily higher levels by digitalising every aspect of construction before ‘the shovel hits the ground’, she says.

    ‘Essentially BIM is a collaboration tool that co-ordinates and manages design and construction between the different teams involved in a project. The result is a digitalised version of an integrated building – presenting how it will look, function and behave – which has innumerable benefits during the engineering process.’

    And for clients too, as WSP in Africa has discovered in using BIM 360, the latest version that its global operations have been expounding in Europe and the US.

    ‘We leverage off WSP’s global experience so that we can present more efficient and, importantly, improved sustainable developments for our continental clients.’

    Sustainability is considered key to Africa’s development but when the word is associated with construction or the built environment, there are assumptions that this relates only to green principles incorporated into building projects.

    Sustainability, however, isn’t only about introducing ‘green technologies’ or creating carbon-neutral operations – it has greater significance and impact because it focuses on endurance and value.

    Nhlapo argues that sustainability is misunderstood from many perspectives. ‘People think it’s expensive. In reality, what sustainability is – particularly for built-environment professionals such as those at WSP – is providing solutions that meet challenges today but are applicable to future communities.

    ‘Consider that buildings are a life-time investment. So by designing more sustainably we improve the economic circumstances of those affected by it, be that the individuals who occupy the space and their relative cost-of-living expenses, or the owners who need to manage the resources the structure requires.’

    In this context, the continent challenges built professionals with even broader sustainable motivations, not least of which is respecting typically African landscapes.

    ‘To preserve Africanism, WSP professionals are very people-centric. We focus on what makes people comfortable in a space; what it takes to work better; multi-use; and the culture, traditions and local behaviours, for example,’ she says.

    This is the major reason why WSP, despite having offices in six major cities across South Africa, prefers to partner with local entities rather than operate satellite branches around the continent. ‘Our people are very mobile up into the continent, and we trust our collaborations to produce quality work and enable the roll-out of African strategies,’ according to Nhlapo.

    ‘I’ve worked with Boogertman and Bosch East Africa specifically, though WSP has several trusted partners on the continent. Such relationships, along with being able to leverage off the learnings of our global peers, enable a truly African spirit in sustainability.

    ‘For example, most recently I was involved in the development of a school in East Africa. It’s a unique design that embraces the entire local environment, from the use of locally sourced stone cladding for the facades and other natural products, to honouring the greenery on the site. This school is a great testament to how WSP works across borders effectively and efficiently – we are motivated to adopt and adapt designs that present an African feel, something that WSP’s multidisciplinary approach responds well to.

    ‘Design professionals have the privilege of conceptualising an idea and seeing it come to life, but this is not achieved in isolation. Producing great solutions at WSP comes from being collaborative, either through our partnerships with other continental professionals, or within our own internal network,’ she says.

    With practically every engineering and built professional discipline under one roof at WSP, further enhanced by cloud technology and its related storage pertinent to BIM, clients are exposed to improved efficiencies in communication, reaction times and cost savings – now and into the future.

    By Kerry Dimmer