Thursday, June 2, 2011

A new slant on student accommodation

Forward-thinking developer John Schooling of STAG is reinventing the term "student digs" with the introduction of STAG Student Lodge, an innovative, hi-tech design for student accommodation that is smart, chic and affordable—and very cool and very 21st century.

There's a reason why "student digs" conjures visions of crowded apartments with mattresses on the floor and skanky kitchens, and it's not just because students lack domestic skills. The main reason is because the country is short of more than 100 000 student "beds". Statistically, this means that each year more than 15% of the student population struggle to find accommodation.

STAG CEO John Schooling says the solution to the problem required thinking beyond traditional bricks and mortar—a building method STAG has been involved in for more than 24 years. "Generally, in South Africa, we have seen bricks and mortar as OK, that it's upmarket and and anything else is downmarket. But if we look internationally, traditional building methods are not the norm."

John points out that Australia has been using light-weight steel structure construction technology for more than 70 years: South Africa's building regulators only recognised it as acceptable two years ago. Stag plans to utilise this technology to help address the student accommodation shortage.

"To build 100 000 rooms with bricks and mortar will cost anything between R32-billion to R62-billion," says John. In 2008, STAG designed a traditional, upmarket student "residence" for a local university, and they did it for R272 000 per bed—dramatically lower than any other building costs. But, as STAG discovered, this was still too expensive and that's when they began to explore new technology.

STAG wanted a 21st century solution to the problem. "We had to establish ground rules," explains John. "First, there would be no compromise on quality. It could be different and alternative but it had to be top quality and environmentally sympathetic.It needed the correct thermal qualities, sound proofing and to conform to fire regulations. We also strongly believed that a student, whether in Stellenbosch or Mpumalanga, deserves a quality student experience."

The outcome was STAG Student Lodge, using innovative, hi-tech, cost-effective design technology. STAG took the proposal to the University of Stellenbosch and it was agreed that they could build a prototype. "What we had looked for was a high-quality environmentally friendly, cost-and-time effective approach. We did this by optimising two things: first, architectural design. We moved the student to the centre of the design process and asked what does he or she need to have a quality learning experience? Second, we had to focus on the materials we used as well as the design—it needed to be cool. And, finally, we had to optimise an alternative product through product innovation."

On 1 March, they started construction in Stellenbosch. The other extreme advantage of modular light-weight steel structure technology is the speed with which a building can be constructed. John estimates that the three-storey, 30 bedroom STAG Student Lodge at Stellenbosch took eight weeks from start to finish, whereas traditional methods take more than eight months. "We needed a solution that solves the problem now," he says.

John stresses that the technology is "not a cheap solution—it's a time-and-cost effective solution, based on student needs". The end results, though, are designer smart, hi-tech, innovative student digs with an energy efficient, minimal carbon footprint.