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Students build their own, eco-friendly dorm

Pierre von Hélicity auf der Baustelle seines Passivhauses © Foto (Ausschnitt): Julie Lallouët-Geffroy

Students build their own, eco-friendly dorm

Rather than spend 500 euros each month for a tiny dorm room, these three future engineers decided to build their own passive house - for the same amount of money.

Pierre, Lucas and Martin are twenty-somethings starting their third year at the School of Environmental Professions in Bruz, located near the beltway surrounding Rennes. The prospective engineers made a simple observation: “A student dorm on campus costs between 350 and 500 euros,” explains Martin, “but the existing buildings are not very energy-efficient at all. So we figured, with the same budget we could build our own, sustainable passive-energy building,” Lucas adds.

These three young men, who are usually more accustomed to sitting in a lecture hall than to swinging a hammer, decided to make this simple, yet foolhardy idea their master’s thesis. They founded an association called Hélicity with four other students and did the math: the rent for four people over a period of five years would give them a total budget of 80,000 to 120,000 euros. They spent two years working out the plans, the concept and the financing. Construction has been under way since August of 2017. Classes resumed in September, which makes for a tight schedule and busy days. Every day between lunch and two, and then again at night after their classes, the students swap their pencils for power tools. The housewarming party is scheduled for November, so time is of the essence. “At the beginning, people were skeptical, they did not think three college kids could build their own house,” Lucas remembers. “So we are very happy that we could prove it was possible. The walls are up, insulation is done.”

  • Für die nächsten drei Jahre werden die Studenten in diesem Prototyp leben, der an das Studentenwohnheim angrenzt. © credit: Julie Lallouët-Geffroy

  • Familie, Freunde und Bekannte wechseln sich ab, um dem Trio zu helfen. © credit: Julie Lallouët-Geffroy

  • Lucas von Hélicity auf der Baustelle seines Passivhauses © credit: Julie Lallouët-Geffroy

  • Martin, beraten von seinem Vater, installiert die Wasseranschlüsse. © credit: Julie Lallouët-Geffroy

  • Pierre ist auf der Baustelle im Einsatz. © credit: Julie Lallouët-Geffroy

The structure comprises two buildings facing each other, each featuring two bedrooms with a private bath, a community kitchen, and a courtyard outside. “We will put a big table out here where we can have our meals together and take the aperitif. We have been dreaming about that for a while”, Lucas jokes as he gives us a tour of the home, starting with the future vegetable beds and bike rack. “We won’t have heating, we designed it as a passive house. We’ll find out in winter if it works.” To get to this point, the students submitted their finalized plans to industry experts for review. “We put in lots of windows to catch as much daylight as possible and to get optimal thermal performance”, explains Martin, “and we also have a vapor barrier and a rain screen so the wall can breathe, that means, humidity can circulate without entering the interior.” Two other important factors: extra-thick walls and a ceiling that is not too tall so the heat won’t rise too high.

“What we need is a complete housing package for students”

Their house is at the edge of a complex of hundreds of dorm rooms: One thousand spots are available on campus for almost 6,000 students. “One of the biggest apartments on campus is just over 300 sq. ft. and costs almost 500 euros per month,” Martin tells us. “And that does not include the cost of transport. We are at the outskirts of Rennes, to go downtown, you have to take the train or drive. There is only one restaurant near us, and we take the bus to go shopping.”

Students have the option of living in downtown Rennes, where you can get a 500-sq.ft.-apartment for 500 euros a month. But then they have to pay for the daily commute to their school. Martin feels that students need “a complete housing package that includes room and board as well as transport, and most importantly, higher quality accommodation, in particular with regard to insulation,” says the future engineer with the pronounced environmental awareness – no surprise given his major.

Because of the high turnover amongst students each year, few of them care much about the quality of their dorm, and very rarely does anyone contemplate becoming a homeowner. Owning your own dorm room at age twenty seems a strange notion, especially since the trio does not even own the plot, which they are renting from the Rennes metropolitan area administration for a period of five years. “This is an experiment, a prototype,” explains Lucas. “We will be the owner of the structure as such, and after we graduate, three years from now, we will be able to rent our place for two more years. After that, we can modularize the building. We have a few ideas, such as finding a new plot and converting the building into a student space or a grocery store. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

About ten companies from the Rennes metropolitan area are involved

To finance this housing prototype, they loaned money from friends and relatives, which they will pay back with the help of government subsidies for first-time homeowners. To lower costs, they recruited local companies as their partners. About ten firms have signed up; they contribute materials or help with construction. They also applied for project funds from the region that will allow them to finance future investments in the building, like a wind power system or a waste stabilization pond for water treatment. The Rennes metropolitan area is following the pilot project closely, the dialog between elected officials and students is open and the official word is that “conclusions from this initiative will be drawn at the end of the lease contract”, that is five years from now. And Martin is not afraid to think big: “If this works out well, we may just build France’s first eco-friendly campus here at Ker Lann.”


    December 2017
    Space & Housing
    Rennes, France

    The Hélicity association 
    The Ker Lann Campus 


    Independent journalist Julie Lallouët-Geffroy writes mostly about environmental and agricultural issues. She is located in Brittany, where she covers thriving local initiatives like this passive house dreamt up by future engineers. 



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