Third Annual Aggie Leadership in Community Development Conference: The Thesen Islands Sustainable Land Redevelopment by CMAI Architects

by Michael Murphy, PhD, ASLA

Dr. Chris Mulder speaking at the 2018 Aggie Leadership in Development Conference with other CMAI personnel and former interns on stage / image: Master of Land and Property Development Program, Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, College of Architecture, Texas A&M University

In February, the Master of Land and Property Development Program at Texas A&M’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, sponsored its third Annual Aggie Leadership in Community Development conference. The conference featured the work of Dr. Chris E. Mulder, Outstanding Alumnus of the College of Architecture and Outstanding International Alumnus of Texas A&M University. The conference, held to improve awareness among the faculty and student body of exemplary work by former students, was held at the Annenberg Conference Center at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library. Chris Mulder’s firm, CMAI Architects, has been responsible for some of the most significant sustainable development projects in his native South Africa, and for this work he has received international recognition for excellence in development at Thesen Island in Knysna, South Africa.

The Leadership in Community Development Conference, open to the University and professional communities, was established by Professor Geoffrey J. Booth, former director of the Master of Land and Property Development program at Texas A&M to improve relationships between students and the leaders of the planning, design, and development fields. In addition to presentations by Dr. Mulder, attendees heard reports from his former interns from the Department, now established professional practitioners, who described the importance of their own experiences in working at CMAI during their student years, and for some, for an extended period of employment. Mulder established a long-standing tradition of mentoring student interns during the firm’s early years of the 1980s and he has continued in this role up to the present.

Thesen Island prior to redevelopment / image: CMAI Architects

Mulder presented his firm’s work on the Thesen Islands, as the new community is called, and the redevelopment of a century-old contaminated brownfield industrial site – formerly a timber mill and wood treatment facility – into an island development for single and multifamily residences, shops, restaurants, club, and two hotels. The site even boasts its own wood fired bakery.

The planning and design of the project was undertaken as an interdisciplinary collaboration employing landscape architects, architects, engineers, planners, ecologists, hydrologists, and soil scientists in addition to financial planners to translate a former industrial site into an ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable new community, located in one of the most scenic areas of the country where tourism provides the basis of the local economy, replacing timber after a century of extraction had logged out the upstream forests resources.

Plan view of The Thesen Islands development / image: CMAI Architects

The low-lying island, located in the estuary at the mouth of the Knysna River on the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa, was in the planning, design, and application stages for some 10 years prior to its development. Because the development proposal was so innovative, there was no precedent to assure financial backers of the likely success of such a radical concept. When the property owners were unable to secure the financial backing to undertake the development, Chris Mulder invested everything he owned to finance the development, to include the note to purchase the island. Development finance and three co-investors followed. Over the following seven years, the planner and designer now turned developer struggled to complete the project before the cash flow was exhausted. And, he succeeded.

Because the land was so near the water line, tidal fluctuation required that houses had to be sited a meter above the high tide line. This necessitated the excavation of canals for the overburden to be used as fill to raise the island to the required levels. The development is now a series of 19 small islands with a half dozen as individual lot sized islands, connected by 20 arched bridges with both street and water access to homes on private lots.

Canal side view of Thesen Islands housing / image: CMAI Architects
Pedestrian bridge connecting residential islands / image: CMAI Architects
Wetland to cleanse storm water runoff from The Thesen Islands / image: CMAI Architects

Some of the most heavily polluted areas of the island could not be remediated by soil removal and were capped and sealed with the land used as open space in the new community.

Old warehouse buildings were adaptively redeployed as a multi-unit housing complex comprising 56 duplex, triplex and penthouse apartments. The former power plant for the timber mill and treatment factory has been converted to offices and an on-site parking structure.

Dry Mill, a condominium created from a former timber warehouse and wood preservative treatment building / image: CMAI Architects
Bird sanctuary at the constructed wetland / image: CMAI Architects

Some of the most significant aspects of the development are the designs for treating the formerly submerged soils of the site and subsequent storm water management of runoff. The dredged fill material had to be dewatered and leached of salt before development to enable plant growth in the community. Today, street runoff water is handled by way of rain garden channels that direct it to man-made wetlands to biologically cleanse the water before it is allowed to reenter the natural system. In addition, the wetlands have been developed into an on-site bird sanctuary with blinds that enable residents to view the wildlife unobserved from secluded vantage points.

Waterfront housing development at The Thesen Islands / image: CMAI Architects

Today, the ecosystem of the estuary is in its most healthy state in the last half century. The infrastructure is designed not just to be sustainable under the coastal conditions in which it is located, but it has been designed to create employment for the local population, not just for initial construction, but to provide a sustaining economic component of the community. CMAI designed the site furnishings, signage, and lighting, for example, to be constructed by local artisans. The development has been created with consideration for the health of the ecological community, its economic and social contribution to the local population (the project provides over 1,800 permanent jobs in the Knysna community), and for its contribution to high quality architectural and landscape architectural design; it is today, a vibrant, healthy community. The development is a sterling example of what landscape architects and their collaborators can accomplish when they have confidence in the science in support of their innovations and their ability to bring about improvement through design.

Marina at the Dry Mill / image: CMAI Architects

by Michael Murphy, PhD, ASLA, Professor Emeritus at Texas A&M University

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