25 January, 2023

Solar trees light the way for a sustainable future

At Macsteel, we believe in the pursuit of reinvention to create a better world for all. Every day, new innovations and solutions are being engineered that demonstrate how humankind can adapt nature to our needs, without negatively impacting the world around us. And we admire and applaud it. One such example is the construction of a family of solar trees at the rooftop Piazza at Eastgate Shopping Mall. Comprising three elegant yet functional solar trees, constructed from steel, this mini-forest provides efficient and renewable energy while increasing the public’s awareness of alternative and responsible energy sources.

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When Liberty Two Degrees (L2D), co-owners of Eastgate Shopping Centre, commissioned architects, Batley Partners, to upgrade the rooftop piazza, they didn’t know exactly what they wanted, but they knew that they needed to create a space where customers could congregate and relax – a space that was aligned to the company’s Sustainable Development goals, as well their 2030 net-zero carbon target. “The solar trees at Eastgate are an exciting initiative as Liberty 2 Degrees aims to implement renewable energy projects throughout our portfolio, while creating sustained value for our stakeholders. This initiative also aims to inspire customers to adopt sustainability practices in their everyday lives”, says L2D Asset Manager, Mike Rodel.

Inspired by the Baines’ Baobabs in the Botswana Nxai Pan National Park, Batley Partners conceptualised a space designed to uplift the experience of customers through function and aesthetic. Being the only trees for miles, these Baobabs have drawn people to them for centuries. Known as Africa’s tree of life, baobabs are part of Africa’s social and storytelling culture and, likewise, these solar trees aim to bring people together to share their stories and enable community-driven experiences. Whatever the architects would dream up, it was up to the main contractor, Anchor ENGinuity to bring to life.

The result is a self-reliant, live installation that harnesses the sun during the day through its shade-producing, solar panel ‘leaves’, and then illuminates the area at night. Operating completely off the grid, the night-time lights run off batteries that last for approximately 6 hrs.

The logistics of creating such immense structures went beyond ensuring that they could withstand the conditions that they would be exposed to. Being so large, they had to be constructed off-site in 3 separate parts, transported separately and then assembled at the site. Over 200 people contributed to the successful completion of this project. The teams involved included, amongst others, Batley Partners as the architects and Anchor ENGinuity as the main contractor.

“The Eastgate solar tree project is unquestionably one of the most iconic steel structures in South Africa – integrating the steel component with electrical, solar and stainless steel cladding to create a special and unique world-class structure,” states Andrew Kirkland from Anchor ENGinuity.

The aesthetics of the solar trees were inspired by nature but dictated by the scale of the space – being an unconventional shape that was neither too large nor too small. The decision was taken to replicate the smallest family unit in nature – three. The father tree stands at 13.5 metres high, the mother tree at 10.5 metres and the child at 9 metres high. The intention was to make them look as natural as possible. Each tree consists of three primary parts, the steel tubular ‘trunk’ and ‘branches’ which allow cables to be run through them without being seen, the stainless steel netting called Jakob Webnet procured from Switzerland, and the solar panel ‘leaves’ which withstand the elements very well. Together they create a sturdy yet flexible structure that replicates the qualities of trees. “As a sustainable, versatile and strong material, steel is invaluable in a project such as this,” states Mike Benfield, CEO of Macsteel. “Few materials will allow you to recreate nature on this scale, effortlessly and seamlessly providing the strength required for the trunk while allowing for the precision needed for the more delicate replication of the branches and veins of the canopy.”

The real proof of its value is demonstrated, of course, in the experiences of those who use it. Since completion in 2020, it has consistently provided a self-powered, ‘living’ space where people gather, night and day, to regroup and relax.

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