Opening its doors on 3rd January 1998, Activate started out as a collaborative of idealistic young graduates determined to design great buildings and make a difference; and has grown into an award-winning practice with noteworthy projects in the public and commercial sectors.
An Inspiring Journey
Says Michael Magner, founding director, “As young architects who were quite critical about South African architecture at the time, we wanted to do relevant work by creating better buildings in a pragmatic way. We quickly learned how to listen to our clients and respond meaningfully to a project’s context in the pursuit of high performance architecture.
“Ed and I started discussing sharing a studio space while we were studying at Wits. We scouted Braamfontein and found the top floor of a building that was standing vacant. We negotiated with the owner to occupy the top floor during our thesis year, and in return we managed the process of repairs to that floor, which was leaking like a sieve. We ended up renting that space for just R10/sqm.”
Edward Brooks, founding director, adds, “While we were there, the Nelson Mandela Bridge was being built. One of the highlights of those early years was being right in the thick of things, starting out this new adventure in this new country, with a small studio of five or six young architects.”
Director Nhlamulo Ngobeni comments, “The way the first group of people put together the firm and guided it to where it is today, is significant. Activate’s history has been important to me because it was started by young graduates who overcame their fear of the unknown and took a leap of faith, and have successfully guided and grown the company over two decades. It’s a story worth telling, and this journey inspires me to be part of the company’s new evolution. It has given me courage to embrace the risk, and to challenge myself to go beyond the norm. All our team members work together for the collective benefit, and everyone can see how their contribution makes a difference.”
Key early projects were commissions for the original Moyo at Melrose Arch and the Forum Homini Hotel in the Cradle of Humankind. The Lebone II College for the Royal Bafokeng Community in Rustenberg and the 4-Star Green Star certified SANRAL Corporate Head Office in Tshwane were completed in 2010 and 2012 respectively. Recent highlights include the 5-Star Green Star certified Baywest office for Abacus Asset Management in Port Elizabeth, completed in 2016; and the award-winning Sol Plaatje New University Student Residence and Science Centre in Kimberley for the Department of Higher Education and Training, completed in 2017.
Creating High Performance Architecture
Activate’s original mission of creating high performance architecture is still what drives the company today. “What differentiates Activate’s offering is the way in which we solve problems, ultimately aiming to deliver results that go beyond our clients’ expectations,” says Brooks. “Activate prides itself in listening to its clients and understanding their needs. And we understand that a design will shift and change depending on the various inputs made.
“We believe that, as architects, our key role is to provide co-ordination leadership by including our team in our design process, and canvassing opinions, strategies and design objectives from the client and wider professional team on a project. This collaborative and inclusive approach creates a richer, more layered outcome.”
Director Reon van der Wiel adds, “Our experience over two decades, working on a number of substantially sized projects, has enabled us to develop a design approach across a range of projects by identifying the fundamentals of buildings that perform at a higher level. It’s a strategy that digs deep into the requirements of a project to derive the best value for the client throughout the building’s lifecycle. We strive for high performance solutions by addressing spatial and operational efficiencies, return on investment, environmental sustainability, user wellbeing and productivity, and the vision that the client is trying to communicate to the world at large.”
A New Ownership Model
With a view to establishing a meaningful legacy that can be taken into the future, Activate restructured in 2016 in order to distribute ownership and appropriate responsibility across the spectrum of people who make up the firm, from the founding partners to young graduate interns, all of whom share in the success of the firm, its profits and the future of the firm.
“Our twentieth celebration is testimony to the real commitment, effort, focus and journey that we have had as a team together,” observes Brooks. “What excited us as young architects was the possibility of owning our own business, and we are very pleased to be able to give that same incentive to other young architects – to nurture them, expose them to opportunities, and acknowledge the energy and hard work that they contribute to the company’s growth. The legacy that we aim to create is for young people who share in our vision to be proud of taking up the mantle and confidently moving it forward together.”
Van der Wiel adds, “Our intention with the new ownership structure is to create a legacy for current and future employees that teaches the process of creating meaningful and efficient projects with real value for clients – both financially, and by designing places that give back to both a building’s users and its context.”
Designing the next Twenty
Building on a solid base defined by twenty years of commitment to the best that architecture can offer, it is with a real sense of potential that Activate looks forward to the next twenty years. Magner concludes, “We will continue to evolve Activate as an engine for high performance design, supported by the diverse skills, interests and philosophies of our highly dedicated team. We are excited about this new chapter and look forward to serving our clients with the drive and enthusiasm that have become the hallmarks of our work.”