Neighbourhood News Update: V&A Opens Net Carbon Zero Structure – Putting Waste To Good Use


What is it?

It is a food and beverage space built entirely from salvaged and recyclable waste materials from other construction projects at the V&A.

What will it be used for?

It is intended primarily as a food retail environment however the structure potentially has multiple uses.

Where is it?

The café is located at the Portswood District, one of the greenest sections of the Waterfront precinct and shares space with a food garden which was established in 2020 and currently supports sustainable urban food programmes, such as Ladles of Love and The Homestead who provide meals to the needy. It also sits across from the newly-built The Ridge office building, the Cape Town  newest 6-star Green Star Design awarded commercial building and home to Deloitte.

What is its size and how will this be utilized?

It has a 100 square metre footprint and is 6 metres in height. The 90m2 ground floor includes a preparation kitchen and deli area as well as indoor restaurant seating space.  A concession area will provide external seating overlooking the gardens. The 25m2 mezzanine level houses an office for the tenant overlooking the restaurant area below as well as dry store shelving.

So, what is so special about it?

The Portswood Café  is a Net Carbon Zero structure. Approximately 19% of carbon that is produced annually around the world is created by the construction industry. This is through the creation of cement and concrete, as well as all the steel and aluminium and glass and everything else that goes into the construction of a building. The Portswood Kiosk has been built using only waste materials harvested from throughout the Waterfront precinct.

When did the process start?

The process started July 2021 with the mining of the materials. Construction started in March 2022 and was completed in the first quarter of 2024.

So the development does not contain any regular construction materials like cement or aluminum?

No. Unless it is perhaps a piece of concrete or aluminium which was broken or discarded during regular construction. But no complete or whole construction materials. It is anticipated that the only “new” material will be waterproofing, glue, sealants, and paint.

What kind of waste are we talking about?

The Café is made from waste gathered from building sites within the V&A precinct and pretty much includes anything and everything which was discarded during the construction process. So mainly construction waste and other kinds of waste such as wine bottles from the waste recovery centre, but not waste in terms of paper or household waste.

Is this the first of its kind?

This is a low-tech, low energy building and certainly the first of its kind in the Waterfront. The project team believes that this demonstration can highlight the role of alternative building methodologies for broader applications and sector development demonstrating circular economy thinking in practice.

About Kevin Kimwelle, architect for Portswood Cafe

Image credit: Samora Chapman/The Gaurdian

The transformation of spaces is what Kevin Kimwelle does for a living. The 43-year-old is a community architect and social innovator who thrives on employing a different approach to design, one incorporating elements of understanding and empathy.

The Nairobi-born and raised architect seeks to use his skills set to understand the needs of communities and to work alongside them to create design solutions.

“Too often architecture and design is a top-down process and buildings are done in isolation or apart from the community,” he says.

He calls this a “superficial” or “surface orientated approach” and says this is a major reason why so many structures built to benefit communities seem so at odds or alien to the very communities it is designed to serve.

Kimwelle is a Professional Associate with Nelson Mandela University (NMU) in Gqeberha which allows him to conduct practice-based Research Development and Innovation (RDI) in real-life built environments. His findings are then incorporated into ongoing research globally.

Kimwelle has most recently been involved in the design and construction of a zero-carbon commercial development at the V&A precinct. It is a perfect example of his approach to design and function – with the added benefit of minimal impact on the environment.

The Portswood Café elicits all number of possible applications for communities across Africa where housing, employment opportunities, circular waste economies and sustainable development all intersect.

So where did it all start for Kimwelle, a finalist in the 2017 Design Indaba’s Most Beautiful Object in South Africa Award (MBOISA), 2018 SAPOA overall winner of the Transformational Award and a 2019 SAIA (South African Institute of Architects) – Eastern Cape Regional Award. As a child growing up in Nairobi, he had two deep loves – an inner creativity for building or assembling things, and music. Classically trained and examined by The Royal British School of Music, many people thought the young man would go on to become a classical pianist.

“I still play but not as much as I should,” he says of his love for the piano. But it was using his hands to create, craft and build that ultimately won over and he ended up studying architecture at the Nairobi Institute of Technology before moving to Port Elizabeth in South Africa in 2004 to do an undergraduate degree in architecture in Nelson Mandela University (then University of Port Elizabeth) before completing his Masters degree in architecture and a Masters  in Developmental Studies (course work).

By the time he finished his Architecture Masters in 2008, South Africa was gearing up to build the stadia which would host the football World Cup in 2010. The architectural firm he was employed by at the time was involved in the design of the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

But the seed of community activism had been planted some years before. It was in 2004 during a backpacking trip home to Kenya and neighbouring countries that Kimwelle’s eyes were opened to the challenges, as well as opportunities that his chosen profession could engage with.

“It was a phenomenal experience to see Africa in its raw state, all bicycles and tuks-tuks,” he recalls.

Travelling from Botswana to Zambia, he reached Lusaka where he saw and experienced the main bus stop undergo a conversion from a transport interchange to an overnight lodge, complete with bedding and small stoves as tons of travelers bedded down for the night.

“It was a real eye-opener for me to see how things connect and how spaces can be utilised.” It was a transformative moment.

A second seminal moment occurred in 2010, post the World Cup glow, when he did an overland trip and found himself in Malawi. “I came across a woman who was pregnant and travelling with a small child and when I asked her she said she was just going around the corner.”

The round corner destination was a two-hour journey by car. “This was real life and it made me stop and pause and ask myself how can I help to transform the lives of people for whom my services as an architect would be unaffordable and inaccessible?”

He went back to university and studied development studies and social architecture. “For me it is important to understand and mobilise communities around common objectives,” he explains. “One has to work with communities, understand their needs and employ a different approach, one built on empathetic design.”

Constructively engaging with and managing communities and other important stakeholders is now an integral part of his design philosophy.

“One cannot build in isolation,” he says. “There has to be an investment in communities, particularly in terms of the time spent with them to understand their needs, but also to help them understand the entire process, including the importance of maintenance, as well as limitations and constraints.” That, he believes, is key to communities taking ownership of and pride in structures erected in their midst.

The African landscape is filled with myriad challenges, but also solutions just waiting to be co-created. Kimwelle is determined to be a part of designing such solutions.