Code of honour for Leicester’s riverside

Architect James Badley discusses how the student village at Western Road has revitalised a derelict suburb

Winner of the 2014 ProCon ‘Best Regeneration Project’, the riverside student village at Western Road, Leicester has revitalised a derelict, inner city suburb. The village was designed to blend old with new and showcase how top quality, cost-effective student accommodation can be created by regenerating historical spaces.

Situated on a narrow, waterside side, Western Road was historically characterised by mill buildings, factories and commercial spaces central to Leicester’s industrial heartland. After a steady decline, many of these buildings were left redundant and the land was earmarked for redevelopment. Due to the close proximity of both DeMontfort and Leicester Universities, the site was identified as highly viable for a student housing complex. 

Working closely with the local authority and CODE Students, who was our client, we created a dual purpose design for the village’s exterior. On the western boundary, the site is faced with traditional Victorian terraced housing so this limited the height, density and material palette we could use, whereas to the east, the river frontage extended in excess of 120m, meaning we had scope for creativity. The result combined traditional brick finishes and feature detailing with modern rendering techniques to create a facade that was sympathetic to its environment, whilst also providing a suitable backdrop to the neighbouring Bede Park. Consideration was given to the site’s orientation to maximise natural light and surrounding landscaping was designed to give good quality communal space for outdoor use.  

Constructed in three phases with each phase being ready for the beginning of the academic year, Western Road comprises 750 bed spaces, gym, delicatessen, café, recreation rooms, private cinema and quiet study areas. Steel frame, pre-panellised construction enabled fast track delivery whilst flexible and innovative design ensured overall efficiency. 

Western Road’s river frontage    

A fabric-first approach was adopted from the outset, with good air tightness and high levels of insulation specified to reduce the amount of energy consumed. Unusually for a student developer, CODE places a strong emphasis on low energy living, so each room was individually metered in order for students to take responsibility for their own energy consumption. Photovoltaics were positioned on the roofs of the buildings and this ensured that 14% of the village’s total energy consumption is provided by renewable technologies. 

The challenge for a scheme of this nature, of course, was to balance the financial constraints without compromising on quality and overall student experience. Often new, formulaic buildings don’t necessarily generate good experiences; rather an environment has to be created that will engender a sense of community, safety, interaction and be conducive to study. 

Whilst cost was imperative, the consideration shown to students and end users has determined the true success of Western Road. Discerning students, especially from overseas, expect hotel standards when choosing living accommodation and with the overall marketplace being wholly transient, creating adaptable, aesthetic spaces is essential. CODE has pioneered this approach. Flexibility was built into the ground floor design so that a bespoke set of amenities, addressing real requirements, could be developed post-completion. 

CODE has been highly acclaimed for this progressive attitude, with the village winning numerous awards for customer service and the quality of its management. The building’s design has been widely acknowledged too, and in addition to winning ProCon Leicestershire’s ‘Best Regeneration Project’, Western Road was also presented with the Civic Society’s Award for Architecture in 2012. 

Western Road has become a real flagship scheme for not just those involved with the project, but also for Leicester itself, creating an iconic landmark on the city’s skyline. It has demonstrated how a sympathetic yet skilful design can revive a jaded neighbourhood and bring positive socio-economic change. You could say it cracked the ‘code’!”

James Badley is director at rg+p Ltd.