STAG African founder John Schooling says the crisis of student accommodation not only in South Africa, but Africa, is affordability. “It’s a crisis for students, parents, universities and governments, who just can’t afford it.” The question is: how can we address the problem? Schooling believes that student accommodation is intrinsically linked to tertiary education success. “If students are in campus accommodation or living close to campus, their pass rate chances improve by 80%. ‘Through put’ is a term used for the total number of graduates vs total student numbers. In South Africa, the through put percentage at university is below 18% vs the 25% global average. “Our goal as a property development company is to pioneer the provision of a sustainable, affordable alternative to world-class student accommodation.”
But achieving world-class student accommodation is not only about beds. “If you design accommodation that ticks these boxes – providing a sense of community, sustainability, innovation, flexibility and technology – you’re well on your way towards world-class accommodation,” he says. “Then add these last four principles, specific to Africa: job creation, operational ability, transformation and affordability.” STAG applies all nine principles in their student builds.
“We have built the greenest student accommodation at Stellenbosch University’s Tygerberg campus,” adds Schooling. Nkosi Johnson House was named the “greenest residence in Africa” after being awarded EDGE certification, earned through considerable energy (30%) and water (22%) savings, achieved in day-to-day residence operation, and in its sustainable construction methods.
STAG’s sustainability wins at Nkosi Johnson House include the reduction of embedded energy in building material, grey water recycling for irrigation and toilet flushing, and solar photovoltaics (PV) for electricity generation. Heat pumps and LED lighting assist in additional electricity reduction.
What considerations does STAG factor in for builds? “Built into our student accommodation costing is anchoring. If the Department of Higher Education and Training puts our cost at R350 000 per bed, our anchor is that it costs nothing per bed. We build it up instead,” Schooling explains.
“The first step is that it must tick all those nine boxes. We also apply ‘first principles’, like Elon Musk did by designing a car that brought the cost down yet is worldclass and sustainable. We break down the product into its most basic form.
“We are building the Tesla of student accommodation. We reduce the total amount of material used in building by 50%. We also reduce our waste from 25% to 1% of construction volume. And so on.”
“The latest ‘cost of greening’ research has shown that a green-rated building only costs between 2% and 5% more on average,” says GBCSA CEO Lisa Reynolds. “Running costs of sustainable buildings are much lower – more cost-effective to run during the building’s lifetime and more affordable for students. Building (or renovating) student accommodation close to campus is not only beneficial to their studies and time management but minimises their carbon footprint with sustainability beyond the buildings.”
INTERNATIONALLY ON PAR
Says Braune: “The reason we use the Green Star standard, as opposed to EDGE, is that Green Star is a holistic green building standard that covers all the most relevant issues a green building standard must incorporate, on par with other international green building standards such as LEED certification from the US, or BREEAM from the UK. These
include not just aspects related to carbon emissions and water (what the EDGE tool covers), but also critical issues such as human health and ecological health impacts of a development. In the context of accommodation for students, human health must be a priority, which is why we place special emphasis on this.”
But is this sort of sustainable investment workable? “Many will say the cost of using the Green Star standard is too high, but in our experience, it has not cost us more than approximately 1.3% additional to the project’s construction value to achieve a four-star rating, including for the Avenue Road Residence project,” says Braune. “This is very quickly recovered in terms of energy and water savings once the building is operational though – two years, in the case of the Avenue Road Residence building.”
CAPE STATION HUB
Eris Property Group, one of South Africa’s biggest developers, is backing education in an existing transport hub by developing South Africa’s largest single-phase student accommodation in Cape Town CBD. The R1.5-billion investment consists of student accommodation plus a ground floor retail component. It is in the vicinity of the existing Cape Town station rail network, with its bus hub nearby.
Phase 1 of Units on Cape Station student accommodation will create more than 3 000 beds in the new Cape Station precinct development. The purpose-built student facility has supporting amenities including sports courts, study rooms, a cinema and gym. The ground floor will have 6 700m² of retail space.
“Too expensive” is often the retort, in economically challenged South Africa. Developers are entitled to make profits. So, is a sustainable building with green features affordable and achievable for new student accommodation builds? Eris says it is. “Sustainable building increases cost savings, which in turn reduces the required rentals from students, making these buildings more affordable to stay in, increases the longevity of the building and does not have a negative impact on the environment,” says Johan Janse van Vuuren, executive head of student accommodation at Eris Property Group.
ECONOMIES OF SCALE
“Substantially sized projects create economies of scale, where the development cost per bed can be reduced and the operating cost per bed can reduce too.” He says designs maximising natural ventilation and optimal thermal positioning of windows and shading systems can reduce mechanical installation and save on utilities. Each student unit having individual metering of electricity, hot and cold water means that excessive usage and leaks are detected timeously and proactively, saving on operational costs.
Students save too. Janse van Vuuren says all shared amenities are included in the student accommodation, reducing the cost of each student having to purchase, rent or travel to amenities such as computer labs, study areas, high-speed Wi-Fi, gyms and recreational space. From a sustainability perspective, an urban location closer to campuses and amenities ensures carbon footprint is reduced. It also increases student personal safety and affordability.
TARGET: ADVANCED RATING
The Units on Cape Station student accommodation building at Cape Station precinct development will achieve a minimum GBCSA IFC EDGE rating. Janse van Vuuren says at present, the project is targeting an EDGE Advanced rating that will require a 40% reduction in energy, 20% reduction in water and 20% reduction in embodied carbon.
Initiatives to meet these requirements include a PV electricity generation system, non-resistive water heating through heat pumps for all hot water generation, lowflow bathroom fittings and energy-efficient LED lighting throughout the building as well as individual monitoring on all apartments. Low-carbon building materials such as cement bricks will be used.
Eris’s Johannesburg student project is due for completion at roughly the same time. Following similar green design principles is Units on Jorissen Street in Braamfontein, offering 998 student beds. The development is conveniently
located near Wits University. Both Units on Cape Station student accommodation at Cape Station precinct and Units on Jorissen Street in Braamfontein should be ready for student intake in 2023.
Adowa is the specialist student accommodation property developer behind a 7 000-bed pipeline, with 6 000 student beds due to come online in Cape Town, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in the next three years. Its target market is the more than 70% of learners funded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
Adowa Property Developer CEO Sisa Rafuza says their residences are designed to offer students security, proximity to institutions and a design arrangement that fosters community. “The impact of not having a safe, purpose-fitting home to live in – of sleeping in libraries or backyard makeshift rooms – needs no explanation,” he says of the alternative.
Reynolds makes a similar point about short-term solutions. “I believe students in South Africa have unique needs when compared to other places. We need to establish how student housing can provide a solution to these unique needs and build accordingly. An example is that some students need a quiet place, with access to Wi-Fi and meals, only around exam time. How can we provide this?”
“The revenue from NSFAS is fixed, so costs need to be managed. The only way to do that well is to ensure that you build sustainably in terms of the running of the building, so you can yield a decent return on your investment as a developer,” says Rafuza. Centralised water heating instead of individual unit geysers, glazed windows and water flow management are just some of the features implemented.
Adowa says that being focused on developing new builds, not refurbishing old spaces, means they are able to introduce green features with relative ease. At the completed Ellis Park Student Village (Phase 1), 50m from the University of Johannesburg’s Doornfontein campus, Adowa’s holistic approach includes EDGE certification
of the building design plus green materials.
“For example, we’ve used autoclaved concrete that make it more sustainable – the brick itself uses less water, with less waste,” says Rafuza. “It’s also lighter for transportation, so uses less trucks and fuel overall. That is one sustainable aspect of the build.”
Adowa’s Ellis Park Student Village provided 1 047 new beds on completion in January 2022. Another 600 beds will come online in Phase 2, during the 2023 academic year. Braune says more beds are in the pipeline for Cape Town too. “UCT is planning to roll out additional student accommodation for about 4 000 students, to hopefully come online by 2023/2024. Various development proposals were received recently through an open tender process, which is now in negotiation stage on the preferred proposals received. These projects will also be targeting a minimum four-star Green Star standard.”
Reynolds reminds that renovating and/or repurposing buildings into student housing is another option. Aside from providing opportunities for creative solutions and jobs, they are “sustainably better than building new”. “Currently, there are some very creative solutions for student housing in the retrofitted building space – reusing of office buildings, railway station buildings, etcetera. The financing of these projects is dependent on them attaining a Green Star or EDGE rating.”