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Imagining the student housing of tomorrow

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Within the IMAGO project team, young architect Emma Penot is designing student accommodation in which the entire life cycle is designed to be as frugal as possible.

Photo : Architect Emma Penot, specialist in resilient housing © Gautier Dufau
Architect Emma Penot, specialist in resilient housing © Gautier Dufau

It all started with an experience in the desert of the Middle East, an adventure that was "exciting and testing at the same time". While completing her studies at the Bordeaux School of Architecture, Emma Penot applied for a rather unusual internship offered by a team of lecturer-researchers from the University of Bordeaux (see below): the project was to move an ecological housing prototype produced within the framework of the Solar Decathlon university competition to Dubai, where it would be set up in a residential area known as the "sustainable city". Under a blazing sun, in a society where luxury shamelessly rubs shoulders with poverty, the young woman discovered an urban geography that was totally different from anything she had seen before, and gained a very concrete understanding of the challenges of so-called 'resilient' housing. This prototype, BaityKool, has since been regularly visited by students who maintain it, observe its integration in the city, experiment with team management and work on the water loop, phytodepuration, aquaponics, solar energy, etc.

Low-impact housing

"Resilient": over the last few years, the word has become familiar, overused in economics, politics and other contexts. In the field of housing, however, it has taken on its original meaning of "resistance to shocks" and "ability to overcome trauma". For Emma Penot, "we're talking about housing that is perfectly adapted to the site where it is built, from a territorial, ecological or social point of view; housing that has as little impact as possible - before, during and after its construction - and for which the entire life cycle has been anticipated to be as frugal as possible". In other words, the building is based on virtuous exchanges with its environment. In this type of housing, the most innovative techniques are used alongside low-tech dry toilets and rustic materials that have proved their effectiveness... and their resilience.

Some time after the BaityKool experience, Emma, a young graduate, was recruited by the University of Bordeaux to work on a new project, IMAGO, designed to provide shared accommodation for students in the rapidly growing city of Bordeaux. The team started from scratch, and the early days were "pretty rock'n'roll", Emma recalls with amusement.

This is what makes the charm and the difficulty of the Living Lab approach to the project: experimentation involving researchers and students, users and industrial partners, where you learn as you go along, try things out, become enthusiastic, give up and start again in a different direction, until a truly co-constructed object takes shape - another overused word, but in the case of a Living Lab, an accurate and sincere one.

The IMAGO project therefore involves apprentice architects as well as engineers, students in civil engineering, industrial companies, a design office, an architecture firm, etc.

A Living Lab on resilient housing

The BaityKool project, in which Emma Penot took part in Dubai, was overseen by Philippe Lagière, lecturer-researcher at the Bordeaux Institute of Mechanics and Engineering (I2M - University of Bordeaux), and Ferran Yusta Garcia, lecturer-researcher at the Bordeaux School of Architecture. The IMAGO project is supported by the University of Bordeaux within the framework of the ACT programme. Emma has been working on it with lecturer-researchers Philippe Galimard and Alain Sempey (I2M - University of Bordeaux) and researcher Myriame Ali-Oualla, head of the resilient housing Living Lab project at the university.

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The ideal flat-share

Once the project site had been chosen, on the campus of the Bordeaux Sciences Agro engineering school, the team first entrusted Sciences Po Bordeaux students with the task of surveying the students already living on the site, in a 'traditional' residence, to define what their ideal home would be. "We then used the surface area of the existing residence," explains Emma, "which we analysed to find out which spaces could be shared to make them more comfortable. Our prototype thus comprises two floors with, on each level, three bedrooms - one in each corner - and a shared bathroom in the fourth corner of the floor plan. On the lower level, in the centre of the floor plan, there is the kitchen, a living area with a large table and the staircase leading to the upper level, where there is a work area and a more 'chill' zone, consisting of a hanging net. As always, the use of the communal areas will be determined by the residents".

As we enter 2024, IMAGO is now ready for planning permission. To avoid the need for a large footprint, the prototype has been designed to be built on top of the existing residence, using an exoskeleton made of wood from the Landes forest. The logs (debarked trunks) of maritime pines support a wood-concrete slab on which the "inhabited box" sits, like a structure on stilts. "It's really exciting!" enthuses Emma, who admires the engineering deployed and the capabilities offered by wood. "The tree trunks are cut and debarked directly in the forest, then transported and applied on site, without any drying or machining phase: in terms of energy spent, it's very economical."

The project also incorporates soil, collected directly from the site from which it had just been excavated during a worksite. When Emma discovered this material, which could add thermal inertia to the building, she had a hunch that it could be used for the project: "I went out and bought some 'big bags' and asked for help from the university's maintenance department, which provided me with a lorry in which we loaded 10 tonnes of earth". Initially, there was some reluctance, but Emma soon overcame this by teaming up with Amélie Bourquard, a local specialist in raw earth construction, who taught her how to test and process the earth to turn it into bricks.

Raw earth bricks add thermal inertia to timber-frame walls © Gautier Dufau
Raw earth bricks add thermal inertia to timber-frame walls © Gautier Dufau

The materials at the heart of the project

In the months that followed, group workshops produced more than 300 bricks, which were stored in a building next to the Institute of Mechanics and Engineering, where Emma and the lecturer-researchers working with her are based. "We're still 500 short", says the young architect, who starts scribbling a diagram to explain how the bricks will be used, "here, between the bedrooms and the communal areas, where they will add mass to the timber-framed walls, which don't have the same capacity to absorb heat". Plastic is also being used for the prototype's interior layout and furniture; recycled plastic, of course, transformed into sheets of different thicknesses by a local association, La Plastiquerie. All sorts of collaborations of this kind are springing up throughout the project with local craftsmen and manufacturers, providing grist for the mill for the hundred or so participants involved in IMAGO from the outset.

When asked about the next stages of the project, and whether it could be replicated on a large scale by a property developer, Emma smiles and says she hopes the work on the IMAGO project will bear fruit in some way. Some of the challenges, particularly the financial ones, are out of her hands, and she has learnt to control her impatience, to deal with administrative red tape and to make the best of an exciting but complex game full of standards and constraints. In fact, although she has a degree in architecture, she is not yet a qualified project manager. However, her atypical career path suits her, as she likes to get her hands dirty and is passionate about exploring materials, which is central to the project. "It's an opportunity in my career as an architect to realise that the choice of a particular material has consequences for the environment, the arduous nature of the construction work and the health of the workers who will be responsible for it. And it's exciting to see that with very little available locally, you can create projects as brilliant as this one!"

I went out and bought some 'big bags' and asked for help from the university's maintenance department, which provided me with a lorry in which we loaded 10 tonnes of earth.

Emma Penot, architect and IMAGO project manager