Ethics in Architecture: Chapter Two


by Arthur Barker

In this, the second chapter on ethics in architecture, I will focus on how architects can act ethically through their respect for built heritage, by firstly minimising their impact on the environment and secondly by the creation of inspiring human centred places and spaces. 

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The new Military Health Base Depot building in Thaba Tshwane by Jeremie Malan Architects CC with Impendulo Design Architects © Arthur Barker, 2015.

The Pretoria Institute of Architects' (PIA) bi-annual awards function was held in August this year. Among a number of award categories, six Awards of Excellence were made, five of which were for private residences. Jeremie Malan Architects CC with Impendulo Design Architects received the only Award of Excellence in Public Architecture for their 2013 Military Health Base Depot (MHBD) in Thaba Tshwane. The project also received the 2015 PIA award for Outstanding Project of the year in the category of public building. The awards citation below highlights a number of ethical standpoints taken by the architects.

"In an era concerned with the negative effects of limited resources and decreasing heritage, the architects have breathed new life into the old bones of an existing military property in Thaba Tshwane. An innovative adaptive reuse heritage strategy has been adopted to provide a sensitively designed heritage core and respectful renovations of extant fabric. This core provides a focussed spatial hierarchy within the various complexes and mediates the requirements of military functions and other activities"1 © Arthur Barker, 2015.


Dimensional representation of the depot © Malan, 2015.

The Military Health Base Depot brief

The architects were appointed by Public Works Department to provide a new storage and dispatch depot for the South African Military Health Service. At the time, the MHBD was operating from a number of dislocated sites and operations which needed to be consolidated. Malan motivated the use of another more centrally located site which was littered with a range of building typologies including "railway station" forms and Bellman type airplane hangars that predated WWII2. The client wanted to demolish most of these structures and to replace them with a sprawling superblock, not unlike Woolworths warehouses. Malan spent a lot of time developing the brief with the client and managed to reduce the size, construction time and cost of the project. This process was facilitated by the good relationship Malan had already developed with the client during his design of the award winning 2008 National Library, in the Pretoria CBD. Through his careful consideration of the brief and phasing proposals, Malan saved the client over R30 million in rental costs on other sites as well as approximately R500 million in project costs.

From Left: Site plan showing new buildings in red and existing in grey. Demolition plan showing fabric to be removed in red. Malan © 2015.

Place, space and history

Malan explains that a sense of place is, for him, most important in any project. When he first visited the site he was enamoured by the genius loci of the oldest and most central part of the site. A heritage practitioner, Mauritz Naude,  determined that the value of the precinct lay not only in the existing fabric, but more importantly, in a sense of place created by the buildings. Malan persuaded the client to retain the core area, demonstrating a resilient approach to the making of architecture while accommodating  new functions within existing buildings to create a sense of historical familiarity. 

001Heritage Core BEFORE AFTER

Top: Site as presented to the architects. Bottom: The restored hangar and platform type building either side of existing road. © Malan, 2015. 

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The repurposing of an extant hangar into a covered parade ground fronting the new conference centre © Arthur Barker 2015


The value, and noble intentions, of the rather clichéd term sustainability has lately become lost in a quagmire of "paper-thin" aesthetic responses or layers of "green" paint as Prof. Rodney Harber3 has noted. Malan (2015)  explains that sustainability is something that all architects should be doing and he feels that he has always been "green". His first consideration is the location of any building and its broader accessibility, factors which motivated the final choice of the MHBD site. Thereafter he considers the location of buildings on a site to minimise impact through limiting the building footprint. Climatic orientation and the minimisation of site works are also important considerations. The MHBD has been independently assessed to have achieved the equivalent of 4-star Green Building rating but, according to Malan it took a lot of work to get the right specifications for materials and processes. Hangars that had to be removed were carefully dismantled, and reconstructed as government warehouses in Ga-Rankuwa in the North West Province. Demolished brick and concrete were used as landfill while site works were kept to a minimum through carefully planned level changes. New buildings mirrored the materiality of extant fabric through the use of red brick while the existing steel prefabricated hangars and platform roofs inspired more sophisticated sunscreens for passive design on new buildings. Other "green" features are an energy efficient HVAC system which has been calculated to save R3.5 million over 20 years, daylight sensors for indoor lighting and heat pumps for hot water generation. Rainwater from roofs is used for vehicle washing while storm water feeds the lush rain gardens. 

From Left: New buildings alongside old with overhangs for shading. One of the repurposed hangars. Extant hangar converted into entry forecourt and parade ground in front of new conference centre. © Malan, 2015.

SAHMS Argitektuur HR 48

New sunscreens interpreted from the prefabricated steel aesthetic of existing buildings on site. © Malan, 2015.

SAHMS Argitektuur HR 119

Interior of the new building for storage and dispatch with specially designed shelves, the height of which reduce building footprint. © Malan, 2015.

Acting ethically

Malan's approach to architecture may be self-evident to some, but his principled outlook to reuse and adapt existing buildings provides reminders for critical reflection when considering how we can act ethically in an age of limited resources. His relationships with clients, the fostering of positive, uplifting and historically connected place and a responsive attitude towards sustainability has resulted in the creation of a precinct that is not only revered by his peers, but more importantly by the users of the precinct who remark on how happy they are (Malan, 2015) to work in a such a unique environment that is steeped in history, fit for its purpose and ready for the future.


  1. 1. The hangars were only used for general storage and never for aircraft.
  2. 2. Prof. Harber lectured at the UKZN Department of Architecture for over thirty years.



  1. 1. PIA Awards Brochure, 2015
  2. 2.
  3. 3. Interview with the architect, Jeremie Malan on 20 November 2015