The Mapungubwe Interpretation Center was completed in 2009 using latest developments in structural geometry along with an ancient construction technique, in order to implement a contemporary design, meant to house centuries-old artifacts. The stabilized earth visitors’ center is constructed with stabilized earth tiles that were made near the site, rather than fired-clay bricks. The traditional timbrel vaulting, using locally-made pressed soil cement tiles, allows the design to be materialized with minimal formwork and no steel reinforcement.
The vaults have been designed in collaboration with John Ochsendorf from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA) and Michael Ramage from the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), using a 600-year old construction system that is both economical and has a low-environmental impact.
Timbrel vaulting (or “Catalan vaulting”) is being rediscovered as an ecological building technique because it saves large amounts of building materials and thus embodied energy. This also makes it a cheap building method, at least in regions where manual labor is affordable. The design makes use of sunlight for day lighting and open-air rooms without walls yet covered above to take advantage of breezes and shade. Ample natural light is brought in through windows and skylights. Its intensity is tempered by rusted steel screens that echo the branches of indigenous trees, and reflecting ponds bounce sunlight up into vaults, giving diffused and dramatic light. Reflecting ponds are placed around the perimeter of the building to cool the air that naturally passes through the structures.
As part of the project's Poverty Relief Program, dozens of local workers were trained as masons. Masonry's high thermal mass makes it perfect for an energy-efficient project, but it is sustainable in broader ways. The program trained unskilled laborers to produce over 200,000 tiles required for the construction of the domes using a manual brick-pressing machine. Masonry is not a relic of history, but is leveraged as a means of economic empowerment and a catalyst for new, sustainable forms.
In addition to being made out of local materials, the center was constructed by unemployed local workers who were trained in the production of the stabilized earth tiles that were used to build it. These skills are now a part of the culture of the region, and the masons continue to use them and the leftover tiles for their houses in nearby villages.