As children, we learn to examine, touch and take things apart, during this process we bend and break things and find that we sometimes can and sometimes cannot fix them again. A kind of experiential way of learning: ‘learning by doing.’ As we develop, formal education becomes more of a cognitive experience; one that mirrors a contemporary challenge in sustainable development education. This is the challenge of transdisciplinarity, considering multiple sciences and adopting a ‘systems thinking language’ when attempting to mitigate the challenges posed by the Anthropocene.

David Kobl proposed a theory on experiential learning that argues sustainable development education should stretch beyond one-dimensional cognitive learning; it must include both apprehension and comprehension, to try understand how these mutually affect one another. Kolbs’ theory of experiential learning truly embraces the process by combining, ‘the grasping of experience’ and subsequently ‘transforming that.’ This learning approach has an emotional and intuitive level, where one develops the capacity to better assimilate, appreciate and apprehend complex systems. Based on Kolbs’ experiential, hands-on education philosophy, a small group of multidisciplinary students, passionate about sustainable development took part in a Design-Build challenge in Morocco.

In early 2018, Sharné Bloem, a researcher at the CST with a background in architecture and the support of Prof Mark Swilling, entered the Solar Decathlon Africa competition with a design proposal for a net-zero-energy house for the African context.

The Mahali* design was selected as top 20 finalists and awarded with seed funding to construct a prototype over an 18-month period. Initially around 30 students were selected from Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town to participate on this journey. The students were from diverse backgrounds including food systems, social science, natural science, urban design, architecture, engineering, entrepreneurship and innovation. Team Mahali was the only official team selected from sub-Saharan Africa and chose to embrace the notions of bio-mimicry, circularity and decentralized water, energy and waste systems. Their main mission was to convert conceptual academic knowledge into something tangible and innovative whilst competing in the first Solar Decathlon in Africa.

The very first Solar Decathlon competition took place in 2002 in Washington DC, USA and was an initiative of the United States Department of Energy. The initial focus of the Solar Decathlon was to challenge the schools of architecture and engineering to integrate solar technology into residential housing and to prove the technologies viability. Since then the criteria has evolved to include public awareness of sustainable living; interactions and discussions across the entire construction value chain; and more sustainable and innovative solutions.

For team Mahali the last leg of the journey took place on-site in Benguerir, Morocco. A group of 18 students were selected to be immersed in the final stages of the Decathlon. The first 21 days were dedicated to constructing the house on the competition site in preparation for the actual competition.  Many challenges were presented during the final procurement and construction period; a vast language barrier, the lack of students’ on-site experience and a constrained budget – all of which escalated the intensity of this already near impossible task – constructing a house in 21 days.

The team completed the construction phase in time and were awarded with a second place in Architecture and Design. While imagination, experimentation and co-creation served the team well on this journey, this experience affected the student’s personal paradigms, context and theory-practise balance – all of which are important for the challenges of contemporary sustainable development. The competition helped students appreciate the differences between criticism and making suggestions towards contextual change, an important skill in preparation for the workplace. This experiential learning process provided invaluable opportunities and insights, and was extremely effective in mobilizing students and their communities in becoming better change agents for sustainable living.

To learn more about this project, please visit

* Mahali means “place” in Swahili.