Three new residences at Stellenbosch University’s Tygerberg Medical Campus are built using innovative building technologies, with an emphasis on placing community and flexibility at the heart of the architectural design response.

We are sitting in a central common room that serves eight bedrooms. Each of these eight-bedroom configurations, or community “pods”, is conceptualised at the scale of the home and consequently, this common room holds an eight-seater table, two fridges and enough cupboards and drawers for the students that live here to apportion according to their needs and self-determined house rules.

Two new, high-tech residences have recently been completed at Stellenbosch University and a third is nearing completion at the Tygerberg Medical Campus. The Student Accommodation Group (Stag) African is delivering these buildings using Innovative Building Technology (IBT) according to its guiding principles and a holistic approach to development.

The design brief for the new residences was a simple one: Design and supply three student housing facilities using sustainable IBTs. Stag African has been involved in student accommodation for over eight years and has delivered over 3000 new beds in South Africa.

Stag African’s nine principles place community and flexibility at the heart of the architectural design response. Principal architect Robert Quintal created a design that fosters relationship-building. “Students spend more time on technology and studying, less on socialising. So to create interaction, buildings are designed around social spaces and students get to know each other when commuting between spaces and buildings,” says Quintal. The design team considered the impact on the student and community at different scales of home, street and village. The pod is analogous with the home, the residence building the neighbourhood, and the corridor is comparable with the street. In this case, the “street” or corridor is inward facing around the centralised courtyard and is accessed by two open stairwells. Residents can see people moving around the building and that fosters facial recognition and provides opportunities for interaction. “It means that instead of being one of 24 000 students across campus, they are one of eight in a household and one of 32 in a street – and that helps them to form social connections,” says Schooling.

Innovative building and skills development

Flexibility and innovation were addressed through the specification of a light steel building structure. Quintal sees specifying innovative building technology (IBTs) at learning institutions and residences as a strategy for fostering market acceptability among future generations.

Light steel frame structures are not a new IBT internationally, however, they haven’t found widespread exposure in Africa and the Stag African team is working to change that. “I love the product because it doesn’t require the space that conventional materials need and is perfect for a constrained site,” says Marc Barnfather, operations manager at Umgeni Projects.

When Umgeni receives the drawings from the architect, the details are carefully redrawn into working and assembly drawings that ensure the components are correctly manufactured. The frames are pre-assembled and stacked on one side, then assembled into the building. The system lends itself to flexibility because it can be disassembled and reconfigured according to changing needs. The wall panels are made from a composite of sustainable wood chip and cement, which is suitable for recycling in secondary applications if it is not directly re-used in its manufactured form.

The novelty of the building system within South Africa has provided opportunities for the team to fulfill the local context principles of job creation and skills development. “When we began these projects there were minimal places where semi-skilled labour could be trained in lightweight steel construction. As a new alternative construction method, Stag African employed semi-skilled labour and trained them,” says Quintal.

Schooling refers to the skills required as a “unique” skill-set. For this project, 15 unemployed matriculants were initially contracted. They were bussed in from the Eastern Cape and provided with food and board in Pinelands. “After four months of on-site training, they had a certificate of competence, a driver’s licence and R12 000 in each of their bank accounts,” says Schooling. When the next project went up in Umtata, Stag African undertook to re-employ successful graduates. The skills development programme also reaches the project management level.

Model sustainability

The big environmental gains made with light steel frame systems are in the dematerialisation achieved through smaller overall quantity of raw materials consumed during manufacture and construction. Additionally, less waste is generated during construction.

The sustainability design responses have evolved with each building. Residence 3, which is currently under construction, is targeting Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiency (Edge) certification, which assesses residential projects. Initially the team screened the building design to target a Multi-Unit Residential (Murt) Green Star SA certification, but after the initial review process decided to go with the Edge certification instead. According to sustainability consultancy Terramanzi, through the Murt screening process many of the design features associated with the rating tool became part of the design even though they did not pursue certification. In particular, communal facilities at the shared “Tyger Hub” and the cyclist facilities, which were in line with Stag African’s own principles, were introduced.

Affordability and quality

According to Stag African, the capital cost, plus the operating cost of a standard building, is about R62 000 per student per year. “In South Africa we’ve found that students can only afford about R25 000 per year”, says Schooling. Recognising that the African context demands affordable solutions, Schooling placed affordability as a central principle to their building solutions.

They first sought to find cheaper alternatives to conventional solutions, then negotiated with local roll-former manufacturers to ensure quality international standards could be met. In a tender put out by the Department of Human Settlements, the costs of construction were set at about R375 000 per bed, but the team has managed to deliver the Tygerberg residences at R250 000 per bed.

After working on reducing the cost of construction, Schooling looked for grant funding. He found that there was plenty of international humanitarian grant funding that could be accessed. “One of our local context principles is grant funding. We found that we could deliver the building at no capital cost to the [poorer] universities and that meant that the students only had to cover the operating costs.”

By Peta Brom

See earthworks magazine issue 38 June-July 2017 for the full feature.