Accommodation for students entails more than just a roof

Student housing can be identified as a social infrastructure that allows students to participate in social and educational activities, removing barriers and promoting equality and cohesion on campus.

However, due to the impact of climate change on societies, providing affordable student housing that is also sustainable has become an urgent and critical matter for higher education institutions.

Sustainable student housing refers to buildings with high efficiency in the use of energy and water, and improved indoor environmental quality. Some essential elements would include the use of sustainable building materials, sustainable urban and landscape designs such as green roofs and student accommodation gardens as well as open spaces.

Sustainable housing for learners can be a fundamental component in the pursuit of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by higher education institutions, as it supports students’ quality of life.

Sustainable housing relates to good health and well-being (SDG 3), quality of education (SDG 4) and sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), as well as climate change (SDG 13).

Some of the challenges African institutions face when they want to implement sustainable student housing are a lack of adequate funding and the lack of continued training and research in the area of sustainability for architects.

In addition, the African region is still lagging behind in developing criteria for assessing student housing, including assessment tools for quality and sustainability.

Sustainable housing assessment tools are indicators that measure and balance the environmental, social, economic and institutional dimensions of a building or housing facility and include the integrated concept of building, community, and locality.

Building for future generations

Nabil Ibrahim Mohareb, an associate professor in the department of architecture in the School of Sciences and Engineering at the American University of Cairo (AUC) in Egypt, shared some of the best practices and examples of how universities can implement sustainable student housing within the context of the Global South.

He highlighted that developing sustainable student housing is a long-term investment that will serve the future generation of students.

“Sustainable housing requires funding, which can be challenging for African institutions as projects do not have a fast return on investment. Therefore, institutions need to engage different stakeholders when developing sustainable housing for students,” Mohareb said.

“Building sustainable housing also shows an institution’s commitment to sustainability and the SDGs. When this vision is followed, it contributes towards reducing the institution’s environmental impact and building climate resilience,” he said.

He added that sustainable student housing must be part of a university’s environmental sustainability vision and policies and requires local partnerships and student involvement.

“Sustainable housing requires commitment from the leadership of an educational institution. It is important to have strategies and guidelines on how to achieve your plans to design and implement your buildings in a sustainable way. Energy efficiency, water conservation and waste management systems, and sewer plants must be part of the institution’s sustainability vision from the start,” he said.

“There are stakeholders involved in implementing these kinds of policies. Institutions must engage with, not only local partners but also communities, sustainability research centres and the private sector. It is also important to engage with communities, as they are the main clients who bring in students to the university.”

Reducing environmental impact

According to Mohareb, sustainable housing also feeds into the institution’s work on carbon footprint reporting as well as monitoring and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have an annual carbon footprint report that helps us to measure and report our carbon footprint – especially that of our educational buildings. This is important, because our students are also involved in gathering and analysing data,” he said.

To expand its work, the institution has also focused its research on the sustainability of buildings, including measuring the footprint of educational facilities and applying the concept of green roofs and gardens to student housing.

“Some of our research includes reimagining old buildings and bringing them to operate more efficiently. We also have courses such as sustainability design, which embody sustainability issues and also go beyond just theories, to practice and implementation.

“For example, with the design-build approach, we aim to involve our students in implementing and practising with raw materials. Within the architectural department, we also have competitions on sustainable housing for students, and this helps to expose them to new ideas,” he said.

Open spaces as a key feature

Mohareb highlighted that key features to consider in sustainable student housing include site location, the basic design, which involves natural lighting, ventilation, open corridors and solar grids, open spaces, landscape and greenery as well as systems for monitoring and evaluation of energy, water, and environmental impact.

Student housing for the New Cairo campus at AUC situated in El Cairo, was designed with the concept of a village with a desert landscape design, vegetation that preserves water, and five primary areas which include students’ wings, common spaces, faculty apartments, and administration.

“All buildings have two to three floors. The general morphology mimics the old city’s series of hierarchical spaces of paths and nodes. The finishing materials depend on stone cladding and rough plastering that reduce heat gain and loss to the indoor environment, maximising thermal comfort inside the residence,” he said.

“It is important to use sustainable materials in student housing, also considering how students move inside and outside the residences. At AUC, we also established a bicycle mobility system, and large corridors and open spaces are part of student housing.”

Part of Mohareb’s ongoing research involves the inclusiveness and effectiveness of open spaces on the AUC Cairo campus.

“As a fresh eye, I am trying to monitor student behaviour in open spaces. Our campus is like an oasis in the desert with open spaces and vegetation which allows the flow of wind and good temperatures. We also have open classes, which allow students to conduct lectures and studying outside of the normal building setup. This provides a unique experience for both students and lecturers,” he said.

Technology-driven housing

Mohareb underscored the importance of data-driven technologies such as smart sensors in meeting environmental objectives within student housing as well as mechanisms for monitoring energy usage, temperature and air quality.

The use of technology in architecture and design in Africa could pave the way for transforming student housing at universities to become more environmentally friendly and climate-resilient.

“We need to be able to apply new technologies and innovative ideas, especially on how to implement new methods and machinery in architecture and design. Climate change is currently one of the biggest challenges across the globe. It is fundamental how we accommodate these changes as well as sustainability into our work and infrastructure. We, therefore, need to bring climate resilience into the way we design our educational buildings as well as student housing,” he said.

“When it comes to implementation, we need to establish a monitoring evaluation system for resource usage, not only for energy saving but also to help with managing resources such as water.

“Monitoring water usage is particularly important in the African region, given the increasing challenges around water availability due to extended dry seasons due to climate change.”

African perspectives in architecture needed

Mohareb also commented on the 28th International Union of Architects (UIA) World Congress of Architects which took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, from 2-6 July 2023 under the theme ‘Sustainable futures – leave no one behind’.

The UIA congress brings together architects from across the globe to promote, discuss and display the vital role of architecture in achieving the SDGs.

The congress’s 10 outcome principles highlighted social, economic, and environmental sustainability by promoting inclusivity, using recycled materials, and avoiding disturbing environmental balance.

Mohareb emphasised that one of the main architectural challenges in the Global South is the lack of a local identity and voice, and it was, therefore, critical to educate and train African architects for a sustainable future.

“In Africa, we need to have our own voices and identity as architects and we need to bring in our own perspectives, theories, and ways of implementing to the table instead of adapting theories and practices from the Global North,” he said.

“The Global South is rich in cultural diversity and historical contexts. The challenge is how to accommodate modern needs and practices within our own architecture and design, especially in balancing preservation with modern contemporary architecture. Even with new methods, we should be able to reflect our own identity.

“Education and training African architects for a sustainable future is critical because we cannot achieve our long-term goals and plans if we do not raise awareness of these issues to students, faculty members and communities to elevate our values and practices in the Global South,” he concluded.