Construction World – Q&A with John Schooling


A holistic approach to student housing

Construction World asked STAG African about the company’s USP, its secret to success and about its particular focus and success on student accommodation.

John Schooling

Give the background to STAG African?

The company is made up of a number of in-house property development experts and student housing specialists. We’re a highly specialised team of developers with strong entrepreneurial, architectural, financial and project management skills. We have a proven track record of developing retail and residential properties, as well as student accommodation projects.

Currently, our core focus is building and financing tertiary student accommodation for universities, TVET colleges and schools in Africa. We are committed to creating commercially sustainable, high-impact social investments in the form of student housing. We’re also the first company in Africa to focus on implementing innovative building technologies (IBTs) for student accommodation purposes, total campus solution developments and green precincts.

Who are the key people in the company?

The Chairman of the group is John Schooling – he is responsible for identifying student accommodation opportunities and securing investment. John has 34 years of experience as an entrepreneur in property development and construction, and 10 years’ experience in student accommodation. During this time, STAG African has delivered over 3 000 beds at universities across South Africa.

How is the company structured?

STAG African is run by a board of directors and enters into partnerships with local businesses wherever possible.

What is STAG African’s business model?

We’ve segmented the student accommodation market into three sectors:

  1. Universities that call for a Request for Proposal and have their own funding.
  2. Universities that call for a Request for Proposal and don’t have funding, in which case we raise funding for them.
  3. Purchasing privately owned land that is strategically located near universities, developing the land and then leasing it to universities or directly to the end-user.

What is the company’s unique selling point (USP)?

We build custom-designed, high-quality student accommodation that is focused on the unique needs of the individual student and universities. We take a holistic approach to development, which differentiates us from our competitors in a few important ways:

  • We offer a full service, including design, finance, building, operation, transfer of accommodation (DFBOT) and maintenance within the shortest timeline and to the highest standard of quality, at the best price. Our maintenance and management services include cleaning, ongoing maintenance and upkeep, engagement with residents, management of security services if required and maintaining operating features, including Wi-Fi.
  • We offer a scalable and repeatable standard design which brings efficiency into the development process and is engineered to the highest international standards. Every residence is essentially a replica, taking into consideration site-specific requirements. So, our buildings are effectively manufactured off-site and put together on-site – this production line approach mitigates the risk of bad design.
  • We are committed to creating buildings that are sustainable and green. Using green building practices, we can reduce building time by 40% and associated costs dramatically.
  • Our buildings are designed to ensure student mental, psychological and emotional health, these are critical components of student success.

What has been the key to the company’s success?

In 2008, we identified a massive shortfall in student accommodation – not only in South Africa, but in the rest of Africa too. We recognised this as a crisis of affordability, which could in part be addressed by the provision of affordable student accommodation. Since then, we’ve made an effort to understand the affordability levels of students and universities, and are actively working to reduce the amount on every line item of cost applicable to student housing. Our biggest success is that we have identified the true meaning of providing affordable, world-class student accommodation. As a result, we are already one of the top 10 student accommodation groups in Africa when measured by project pipeline.

What is the philosophy behind building world-class student accommodation?

We believe that good student accommodation goes beyond just providing a bed for a back. World-class student accommodation needs to provide safety, internet connectivity, access to resources and social support – it also needs to be affordable. These factors are all critical to a student’s ability to succeed, and that is our main goal. By allowing students to focus on their work instead of spending their energy on survival, good student housing contributes to academic success. Our philosophy is guided by the Association of College and Housing Officers International (ACUHO-I) 21st Century Project vision of creating. ACUHO-I has identified five principles that contribute to developing student accommodation that has a positive effect on student health and hence student success. These design principles are community, flexibility, technology, sustainability and innovation. In the African context, STAG has identified three more principles: affordability, transformation and job creation.

What do you mean with ‘holistic approach’?

When we talk about a ‘holistic approach’ we are talking about accounting for more than just the buildings themselves – our approach involves looking at the impact a building can have on student success. Successful design is based on understanding how students use their environment and how design can benefit them and help them achieve their best potential. We have conducted a detailed study of best practice globally and have looked in-depth at optimal student design and innovative building technologies. Ultimately, if you get the building right, the overall performance of the student improves dramatically.

What innovative building technology do you use when building student accommodation?

We’ve explored various kinds of innovative building technology: lightweight steel framing, polymer building systems and now we are using lightweight foam concrete.

How does the end result create a community?

Research has shown that university students who enter residence in their first year of studies have an enhanced likelihood of passing their studies. The reason for this is that university residences have the potential to create close-knit communities – and a sense of community is vital to the wellbeing, and consequent success, of most students. By creating communities and emulating successful villages, we create a home space, a neighbourhood and a thriving community. Community is achieved by creating residences with a maximum of 250 beds – this creates a perfect balance between optimal operation costs and creating a sense of belonging. The residence forms the neighbourhood, which is divided up into a number of blocks, which then become the home. The ideal student accommodation is made up of a pod of eight students (representative of the ‘family’) which exists within a block of 32 students inside a neighbourhood of 256 students (the residence).

What are some of the projects that you worked on in the past and that you are currently working on?

We’ve been involved in student accommodation, residential developments, including luxury estate developments, group housing developments, sectional title apartments and retirement complexes. We have also developed retail, commercial and industrial projects. Some of our biggest, most recognised projects to date include Anfield Village, Nature’s Gate, Riverside Manor, Urban Spin, The Edge, Blue Water Estate, Jupiter Drawing Room Head Office, Edward Nathan’s Head Office in Cape Town, Park Inn by Radisson (a collaboration with DeafSA) and Le Petite in Franschhoek. In terms of student accommodation developments, we are currently working on a 2 047-bed student village at the University of Fort Hare – the biggest student housing development ever undertaken by a public university in South Africa. Additionally, in excess of 3 000 beds have been completed at university campuses throughout South Africa, including Stellenbosch University, Cape Peninsula University of Technology and Walter Sisulu University. In the SADC countries, we are in the process of funding the development of 24 000 beds at universities in Kenya, 4 700 in Malawi, 5 400 in Zambia, 3 000 in Lesotho and 4 500 at Copperbelt University in Zambia.