Peace in an old tobacco factory

- Calm, funky and bathed in pools of productive light

On the southern tip of Africa, South Africa’s Green Building Council (GBCSA) designed an office where it can live its values: an old tobacco factory converted into the nation’s greenest workplace. This is the base from which GBCSA plans to change working life across the country. First impressions are important. At the new offices of South Africa’s Green Building Council (GBCSA), the overwhelming impression is of calm and productivity.


An energetic Brian Wilkinson bounces up to help, fresh from test-driving an electric car. He’s the chief executive officer and an evangelist for workplace change.

“Going green in the office is not just about the environment,” he explains. “It also saves money and makes people more productive.” The organisation can measure it in sick days and performance. “The single biggest business benefit is in more productive staff.”

Human comfort showroom

Every element of the office was designed around human comfort with low environmental impact.

Lights glow warmly where required, the chairs are ergonomic, and staff are encouraged to walk or ride to work. This is a compelling showroom for leak detection systems, occupancy sensors, energy-efficient heating and a non-toxic environment.

Africa’s greenest workspace

The GBCSA office is located in the enormous 70,000 m2 Black River Park in suburban Cape Town, with commanding views over Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak, part of the Table Mountain World Heritage Site.

As a condition of its lease, it encouraged the whole office park to go green. Today, it claims to be Africa’s greenest workspace, a major selling point for new tenants. Solar panels on the roof generate an impressive 1.2 MW, and downstairs are a world-class recycling facility and eco-friendly gardens. All buildings have performance glass and balcony overhangs to reduce heat and shield sunlight.

Before its rebirth, the building started life as a tobacco factory and then served as a paint factory and a biotech lab. Now it is a monument to smart recycling. The old goods lift is a welcoming library, reclaimed wood has evolved into a sculpture, old car tyres serve as chairs. The carpets are made from old fishing nets.

Prototypes pushing the boundaries

GBCSA persuaded the industry’s suppliers to use its new office as a demo model, a blank canvas on which suppliers could test new ideas.

 “Everybody pushed the boundaries,” Brian Wilkinson enthuses. “Now we’ve got a place that is stimulating, quirky and visually exciting. It’s a much happier, healthier and more exciting place to work now. This is an environment conducive to high productivity and high profit.”

Cape Town is a harsh environment, explains technical manager Jenni Lombard. The city sits at the tip of the continent, between the Indian and Atlantic oceans, with a mountain range running through it. “That makes for a lot of extreme weather. It’s hot and bright in summer, cold and dark in winter, and very windy and wet.”

Yet the office is always comfortable and bathed in pools of productive natural light, thanks to extensive modelling of natural light and thermal performance. When the sun’s glare is too intense, sensors shut the blinds, which are designed to reflect light and absorb heat.

Sound advice

The team members all comment on the unusual meditative calm of the open-plan office, the result of carefully placed acoustic panels on ceilings and walls. “Open-plan usually has terrible acoustics, with noise flying around,” says Jenni Lombard. “We planned this place to be companionable yet quiet.”

Adjustable space

The design provides enormous flexibility, with a large central area which can be curtained off as meeting rooms, or used as a lounge or presentation space.

“Not everyone does their best work behind a desk,” says technical executive Manfred Braun, “so we included different spaces for working, relaxing, thinking and collaborating.”

Green for people

One of the organisation’s main drivers is people, Jenni Lombard notes. “Our definition of green buildings revolves around people, and our focus is on indoor environmental quality (IEQ). That means air quality, temperature, lighting, noise and plants – all human stuff.”

The staff reckon their air has 150% more oxygen than most offices, thanks to flourishing indoor walls of local plants such as the pork bush and mother-in-law’s tongue, chosen to produce maximum oxygen, absorb CO2, and suck volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the air.

“It’s a great space,” says Lesley Sibanda, 29, from the technical team. “I got really disturbed by phone calls in our cramped old office, but here I can really concentrate. I used to work from home a lot but now I enjoy being at work.”

Sibanda says the design facilitates collaboration. “We have the best of open-plan and private; we can engage with people, or find a private space to be alone. I now work in a much happier frame of mind.”

As acting chief financial officer, Pardon Mutasa, 31, says he is always aware of the cost of a more efficient building. “But we’re not just saving money; having more oxygen in the building keeps our brains working harder. People are more relaxed, more sociable, and the open plan gives us a cross-pollination of different characters.”

Inspiring better buildings

The Green Building Council of South Africa is an independent, membership-based, non-profit organisation that promotes, encourages and facilitates green building practices in the South African property and construction industry. It ensures buildings are designed, built and operated in an environmentally sustainable way. The council sees green buildings as a way to use resources efficiently while creating healthier and more productive environments for people and communities. It provides tools, training, knowledge, connections and networks to promote green building practices across the country.

GBCSA is one of over 100 members of the World Green Building Council. It developed the Green Star SA rating system and is the official certification body for Green Star SA projects.


Products used to create a good sound environment in the Green Building Council South Africa office:


Text: Jonathon Rees

Photographer: Rodger Bosch


 This article is from the magazine ECO for Sustainable Design - Office edition. If you enjoyed it and want more similar articles, read the full magazine online or download it to your iPad or Android tablet for a more interactive experience.