Three Birds, One Stone

Published 8 years ago
Three Birds,  One Stone

John Schooling lived up to his name and loved working as a high school teacher. Quitting the classroom and becoming an entrepreneur in construction had nothing to do with not liking his job.

“It was 1984, and I was tired of being broke halfway through the month,” he says. “My best friend from school and I then set up our own business doing renovations and restoration jobs.”

The company grew from strength to strength, growing into a very successful construction and development company. When the global financial crisis shattered the world and shook South Africa, Schooling and his business partner were forced to reinvent themselves and their business model.


STAG Student Lodging | Photography by Clare Louise Thomas

“We had planned an upmarket residential development and a hotel on a stretch of land near District Six, in Cape Town. These plans were canned after banks pulled their money from our investors,” he says.

“We then found out that the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), situated near that particular stretch of land, was struggling with a student accommodation shortage of 6,000 beds. We did some further research and found out that the countrywide deficit of adequate student accommodation amounted to some 200,000 beds. We decided to tap into this market, giving way to the Student Accommodation Group or STAG African.”

Schooling’s statements are reflected in the Ministerial Review of SA University Accommodation, presented by the Department of Higher Education last year. The report shows a shortfall of 207,800 university beds, meaning that less than 10% of first-year university students can be accommodated on campus. The reality is much worse as the ministerial figures exclude the shortfall at tertiary education institutions other than universities, including so-called technical vocational education and training colleges.


“The deficit at these institutions may be as high as another 200,000 beds,” says Schooling, noting that the available on-campus residences, particularly in impoverished areas, are not always in tip-top shape. “These residences are often dilapidated, unhygienic and unsafe. It is apparently not uncommon for as many as six students to share a tiny room.”

Solving this issue is critical. Research has shown that first-year students, who have a roof over their head at university, have an 80% chance of passing. This is double the pass rate of those roughing-it without.

Fixing this problem is unfortunately an expensive affair. According to the government, is costs some $3.6 billion to provide a decent roof over the heads of all students in South Africa.

“This is the price tag when one builds with bricks and mortar,” says Schooling. “STAG African does things differently, as we use Light Steel Framing (LSF).”


This technique has been used in Europe and the United States for at least half a century. It uses galvanized steel structural wall frames, floor joints, roof trusses with single skin brick walls or fiber cement boards as wall cladding.

“Building a LSF structure is 40 percent quicker than building that same structure out of bricks and mortar. The process also requires significantly less energy, making LSF construction even more cost efficient,” says Schooling.

There is another reason why LSF structures are more energy efficient than conventional buildings.

“The wall cladding comprises material from renewable forests and fiber cement. As a result you need 80 percent less energy to warm up and cool down a building to maintain an ambient temperature. On top of that, we fit our buildings with LED lights and heat pumps, which reduces energy usage even more,” he says.


STAG African has built a roof over the heads of 1,055 students. Various other projects are in the pipeline, including a 2,046-bed residence at the University of Fort Hare, in Alice, and an extension of the residence at the University of Stellenbosch’s Tygerberg Medical Campus.

“The 208 additional beds we are building will make this the greenest residence in Africa,” says Schooling.

Making way for energy efficient buildings is no luxury in South Africa, a country which faces a persistent energy crisis. Since 2008, the national power generator has struggled to meet the country’s energy demand. The power cuts are costing the economy up to $7.3 billion per month, according to the government.


While building decent, energy-efficient student residences, Schooling intends to create as many jobs as possible, particularly for young people. Data from the International Labour Organization (ILO) reveals that 52% of South Africans aged between 15 and 24 are neither at school, nor at work. As a result, 61.3% of all South Africans living in poverty are under the age of 25.

One of the main causes of the above scenario is a lack of skills. This is where STAG wants to come in.

“LSF building skills are much easier to learn and teach than building the conventional way. Apart from that, it is a new and very relevant skill in the South African context, for which there is a high demand locally. With the work STAG has in the pipeline now, we could create 12,500 sustainable, permanent jobs. We unfortunately do not have enough people with the right skills,” says Schooling.

“Our aim, therefore, is to offer training colleges to teach LSF building techniques to their students, while employing them. We will even draw up a curriculum. We can work up someone who is unskilled to highly skilled in two years. This is good for us, this is good for them, and for those whom rely on them financially: one laborer in South Africa on average supports seven to eight dependents.”


The pull of the classroom is still strong for Schooling, the teacher turned entrepreneur.