Using donated and recycled materials, architect Lewis Levin has created a memorial centre on a busy road in Johannesburg. The design of the centre was informed by discussions with survivors of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. Lewis is one of the finalists of the AfriSam-SAIA Award for Sustainable Architecture and Innovation. The winners will be announced in Cape Town on 26 October. We asked Lewis a few questions about his building.

How did you get to do this project? Was there a competition process? This project started many years ago when the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation initiated a search for a site to build a flagship centre. We found the old fashion museum on Jan Smuts Avenue that was donated to the city by the two Bernberg sisters, Anna and Theresa. I have worked on Jewish community projects for many years and was approached to formulate the designs. The site was spot on, because it had a public side and addressed the fast moving traffic on Jan Smuts Avenue and also the quiet neighbourhood and landscapes.

Did the design process include consultation with different partners? The design emerged from a process of engagement with survivors of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. It’s very difficult to find symbols for the horrors, and yet provide an uplifting message. The survivors encouraged us to look at the landscapes where the events took place. This was the key. We looked at forests and the urban fabric of the railway systems that made these unspeakable events possible.

You’ve been nominated for a sustainable architecture award, what criteria does the building meet? We recycled and re-used materials that were donated by Johannesburg industries. We got dump rock stone from Afrisam, old railway lines from Macsteel, burnt bricks from Coro brick, tombstone offcuts for the paving… We tried to use these materials in an economic and sustainable way to reduce our energy footprint. We orientated the building east west and screened facades with the dump rock walls and ventilated faces that we made from donated materials. Donated LED strip lights were used throughout to accentuate the structure and the trunking. All air conditioning systems were under-designed to cope with only extreme temperature ranges. Importantly we were donated double glazing from the PG Glass group and used this for all fenestration to insure first-rate insulation. Sponsored insulation from Isover and subsided plywood was used to create a build up of roof insulation and cushion hail noise.

Did you implement techniques and styles you hadn’t used before in your work? Engaging low-skilled labourers to create the highly crafted elements of the building was very exiting. We set up the materials elements as pallets and gave the discretion to the labourers to place them. We asked them to pack the dump rock and select the cobbles with their own intuition.

Is there anything you’d change? I would have liked to integrate water recycling and solar energy systems even though consumption is very low.

In general, how do you take the environment and sustaining the future of the planet into consideration in your work, and in your personal life? I have been working and living The Netherlands for a few years and have become much more aware of environmental issues both in my practice and in my personal life. Buildings are much more sustainably built with excellent insulation and very low impact lighting and heating. The city councils provide financial incentives to insulate buildings and lower depends of gas. We can purchase groceries that are sourced from locally. I have only used a bike and try to purchase materials only from places I can bike to.  I bike around the city looking for craftsmen. It’s best to minimize emails to make building by forming relationships with people.

Which building do you love most in the world? The buildings that move me are works that integrate artworks and craftsmanship. I love the temples of Fatehpur Sikri in India, the buildings of Antoni Gaudi and the early modernism of Michel de Klerk in Amsterdam. My all time hero is Pancho Guedes whose art works, painting, sculpture and buildings accompany me daily.

What inspires your work? My favourite structures are not buildings but the Strandbeest creatures by Dutch artist and engineer Theo Jansen. He makes moving constructions out of electrical conduit that use wind and plastic bottles as a power source. The animals are set to roam free on beaches. His works are a wonderful inspiration for architects who should think of their works as autonomous creatures that are not dependent on external plugins service.

What are you reading at the moment? I am reading ‘ The Great Pretender ‘ by Theo Jansen. It’s the story of how he makes his automata and every page is a joy and inspiration. Architects should drop everything they are doing and read this book. !

And, what music are you listening to? The Bach Cello Suites for their inventiveness and suggested polyphony on a single instrument are my all time favorites.

The winners will be announced at an awards event in Cape Town on 26 October. Read about other AfriSam-SAIA Awards finalists here.