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Keeping urban design local


View of the timber clad hostel blocks against the mountain ridge, Bela-Bela, South Africa (Photo by Tristan McLaren)


Founded in 2012, Local Studio is an architecture firm with its roots in social infrastructure and affordable housing projects. The practice was founded by Thomas Chapman and currently employs 15 full-time staff, conducting projects across the African continent.

The company entered the market in an interesting time in South Africa when, in places like Johannesburg, there was a lot of funding allocated to non-profit organisations to do social infrastructure projects like schools and community centres.

By 2015, Local Studio had started to define the work it was doing and specialised heavily in lightweight steel construction and utilising alternative construction technologies to create living spaces from old industrial buildings.

Socially Beneficial

As the political climate in South Africa changed so did the government’s direction and funding dried up for social infrastructure projects. “Since then, we found ourselves pivoting and doing a lot more work with affordable housing developers,” says Thomas Chapman, Founder, and Director at Local Studio. “Today, affordable housing projects are our main focus and we have a very diverse portfolio in this field.”

As advocates for better quality architecture and design, Local Studio is also perfectly positioned to bring its expertise into a commercial environment.

When it comes to affordable housing, Chapman says 'We are also trying to affect an urban agenda so that the developers we work with also take on the responsibility to ensure that their buildings improve the spaces it occupies. This means incorporating public assets and ground floor retail space for these developments.'

Dorm Room Interior (Photo by Tristan McLaren)

Out with the old in with the new

When it comes to reusing old infrastructure there are several obstacles that sets this type of project apart from a new build, says Chapman. “With conversions like this, the old industrial and office buildings we work with are not suited for residential use. These buildings often have deep floor plates and high floor-to-ceiling spaces – things that would make nice apartments but make it awfully expensive to convert to residential spaces.

One of the big challenges with reusing these old buildings is figuring out how to make efficient use of the available space while ensuring natural light and ventilation remain a priority.

Service coordination is also a tricky one because you must retrofit services, adds Chapman. “Only about 5% of the projects we’ve done had a nice service duct that we can just tap into when we convert to apartments.”

There is strong competition within the affordable housing space and the biggest measure of success is the occupancy rate of development. Chapman says apartments that fill up the fastest are those that hover in price between R3,000 and R4,000 per month. These micro units range in size from 17sqm to 18sqm and goes up modularly from there.

View of the communal library in the north hostel block (Photo by Natasha Laurent)

The Limpopo Project

Local Studio recently completed a R15 Million project in Limpopo that converted an old lodge and wedding venue into a training hostel, accommodating over 120 students. The project was commissioned by a global Non-Profit Organization focussed on advocacy training for youth.

Although this project seems like a far cry from the urban developments that Local Studio specialised in, both share the same requirement of using existing facilities and working within a very tight budget to create low-cost communal spaces. By applying learnings from urban developments, Local Studio was able to create an environment that encourages interaction and learning amongst the students. Design choices like walkways with benches were key to ensuring social interaction.

There are two hostel buildings that are made up of 14 pods of eight students each. There are bunk beds with each student being afforded a level of privacy by way of screen walls and subtle lighting elements. Each bed also has its own openable window for improved ventilation, creating an irregular array of windows on three of the building facades. Each hostel building has a communal space on the ground floor, one being a library and the other an art centre.

“We built the structure using lightweight concrete blocks which seem like an odd choice, but we opted for them due to their thermal and acoustic properties. Rhinowood cladding is also something that they incorporated on the building’s façade to ensure cooler temperatures inside each structure.

One of the biggest challenges that Local Studio faces were the transport of materials to this rural venue but Chapman says it was a very smooth project overall. “We had a great client who trusted us and didn’t really question any of the radical design ideas we had. We did not encounter nearly as many challenges as what we normally face with inner-city projects,” he adds.

The new hostel blocks and existing infrastructure from above. Local Studio

Projects that matter

Some of these incredible spaces which show just how effective the reuse of old infrastructure can be, they include the Braamfontein Gate conversion of the old Total Oil Company headquarters in Johannesburg. This affordable housing project consisted of 400 residential units, a rooftop event space, retail units, and other activity spaces.

Another is the Lutheran Church Outreach Foundation Community Centre in Hillbrow, one of the first new social infrastructure projects since the 1970s. The project converted a staggered rooftop of an unfinished community hall, built as part of the German Consulate built in the same era.

The Westbury Pedestrian Bridge project was established to make a very busy intersection safe for pedestrians and school children. With this design, Local Studio tried to combine a bridge and a public recreational space to encourage usage and general safety. This project comprises a pedestrian bridge with access to a BRT station, an amphitheater and a park.

Analogue to digital workflow

The Local Studio kicks off each project with an environmental survey of the building and surroundings. Then the real work starts as the team back at the office starts drawing by hand. “There are a lot of hand sketches that begin the process, but we soon jump to 3D modelling where we use Revit and a few other programs to bring our sketches to life.

Although Local Studio is a firm believer in the efficiency that comes with using Revit and BIM, other players within the industry are often set in their ways using older techniques and sticking with hand drawings on their projects. When this is the case, we jump onto AutoCAD to get the job done, says Chapman.

Sadly, without using the best technology, there is a bigger chance for problems to creep in. Chapman says they’ve had some technical challenges on site where they were not able to model the wet services proposal and then end up with huge clashes within the structure because engineers are not Revit compliant.

For Local Studio, the risks are just too high not to run a workflow with the correct Autodesk software. Based just on the time saving alone, Chapman says to use Revit and BIM as a core part of their workflow. So much so that Local Studio has started to mandate that project stakeholders use Revit and are BIM compliant to ensure the success of the project in a timeous manner. In instances where everyone on the project was Revit-compliant, we've seen time-savings of between 30 and 40%.

Revitalising old inner-city infrastructure or building landmarks that serve a purpose for the communities around it is more about doing good than it is about making profits. These projects offer a glimpse into the heads and hearts of the people at Local Studio, they want to make a real difference in South Africa, and they are doing so brick by brick.

Timber cladding at dusk. © Tristan McLaren

Value added support from their Autodesk partner

Architectural expertise complimented with intelligent, logical design software and technologies, bring data and accuracy together in a project. Local Studio partnered with Modena Design Centres to streamline solutions that worked best for them. Modena has over 20 years of experience in supplying Autodesk solutions to South Africa, provided software implementation and support to the Local Studio design team.

“It is important to understand the Local Studio’s current environment, as well as their vision for the future in order to have a greater understanding of their deliverables to their clients. Local Studio contacted Modena to assist them with Revit licenses for their designers. By understanding their company needs and requirements, we were able to provide them with solutions that are beneficial to the business. Modena’s implementation services ensured that the technology was integrated seamlessly, and we will continue to provide them with our support.” says Dominique Jordaan, Strategic Account Manager for Modena AEC.

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