Public Interest Design/Build - South Africa

Public Interest Design/Build at CRAFT The Thinking Hand Design/Build School

By Janine de Waal

As an architect, I have designed many large structures. I have seen them rise up from the ground at the bi-weekly site inspections over the years, but I had never physically built anything bigger than a small wall-mounted cupboard.

I always had a desire to make and build things as opposed to only drawing and designing them on paper; taking woodwork in primary school, jewelry design and making in high schoo,l and making bronze castings and ceramics in the years that followed. By chance I picked up a book about Rural Studio and Samuel Mockbee during my university years while studying to be an architect in the 1990s. The idea of designing a structure and then building it just seemed right! I wondered why we were not doing this in South Africa.

Many years went by, but my desire to make the connection between the design and build process remained. Later I read Juhani Pallasmaa’s book “The Thinking Hand”, which emphasised the idea of the Hand-Brain-Eye connection and how one can only truly understand a design or structure by making it. Early in 2016, I became aware of Yestermorrow, and found the courses to be very enticing! Yestermorrow’s byline of “think with your hands” really resonated with me. After looking at the types of courses and the timing, I eventually registered for two courses (making the trip more worthwhile as the flight is a long one from South Africa): Public Interest Design/Build and Timber Framing. My dad joined me on the Timber Framing course. He is a keen woodworker and he was the one who asked me at the age of 10 whether I wanted to take woodworking instead of needlework, a craft usually done by girls.


As it happened, the Public Interest Design/Build course was run by two of the three Jersey DevilsSteve Badanes and Jim Adamson, and Bill Bialosky. I could not believe my luck when I found out that Samuel Mockbee had credited the members of Jersey Devils as the inspiration for Rural Studio.  Spending 12-days with them on the Yestermorrow campus was a full circle for me…


Being part of the Yestermorrow Public Interest Design/Build workshop made me realize what I need to do for the rest of my life!


Back home I started a non-profit design/build school: CRAFT The Thinking Hand Design/Build School. We completed our first Public Interest Design/Build workshop. I managed to twist Jim Adamson’s arm to face the long hours in the African sun to share his knowledge, skills, and fun with us! A colleague, Simone le Grange, joined us for the Design component and my dad, Konstant de Waal, for the Build component of the workshop.

One of the central intentions of the workshop was the up skilling of informal contractors. Modeled on Yestermorrow’s Public Interest Design/Build workshop, it was a 12-day D/B workshop (three days of design and nine days of building). The project was a small artist’s residence structure (approx. 9m²) as part of an extension to the adjacent Nyanga Arts Development Centre (NADC) in Nyanga, Western Cape. We used timber pallets as one of the main building units. We very quickly realized something that John Ringel figured out at an early age:

“Obviously, you did not spend enough time doing warehouse work as a kid.  No two wooden pallets are ever the same.  They are more like snowflakes than manufactured items.  Doing warehouse work, you learn right away that a pallet of items pulled out of a slot between two other pallets will not fit into any other slot in the warehouse, nor will any other pallet in the warehouse fit into that slot.  So dimensionally they are totally inconsistent.”

 We learned plenty of things about pallets; we also taught the informal builders “solar yoga”(inspired by John Ringel); about the “Cape Doctor” (the strong summer south easterly winds that blow away the air pollution in the City and that have a Marilyn Monroe effect on dresses!); the horizontal winter rain from the north west and much more.

I think the connections that you make in life are the what makes life extraordinary! The connections start with the hand-eye-brain and end up connecting amazing people from all over the world, to ensure that we create beautiful, thoughtful objects, and spaces for people to love and use.


As Nosisana Nama, a director of the Nyanga Arts Development Centre (for whom we built the artists’ residence) told Jim, there is a Xhosa proverb that says, "once you meet, you will meet again.”


We look forward to meeting again…