Living it up

How are accommodation providers adapting their offerings to suit the changing priorities of students? Julie Ferry finds out

It may be a politically and economically unstable time for the UK but one industry that won’t be at the mercy of Brexit and its ramifications is purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA). The sector was recently valued at £53bn with the large rise in full-time student numbers over the past decade driving demand and a swathe of private investors moving into the market. Despite this boom, providers are not resting on their laurels and are very much aware of the needs of their clientele. With different students and a mix of housing stock causing variations across the country, they are continually adjusting their offering to suit local conditions.

Matt Shakespeare, operations director for Study Inn, which has sites all over the UK including Coventry, Loughborough and Bristol, says that the organisation benefits from taking an individual approach to each of their locations.

“The design of our accommodation very much depends on the city. For example, in Bristol we focused on shared serviced apartments, which are known as clusters,” Shakespeare explains. “We ensured they all had en suite bathrooms and a luxury kitchen kitted out with Nutribullets, Nespresso coffee machines and dishwashers as standard. And beyond the fixtures and fittings, we also arrange the cleaning of the apartments, which in practice involves deep-cleaning the accommodation a couple of times a week, filling and emptying the dishwashers, emptying the rubbish, servicing each bedroom once a week and supplying fresh towels and linen.

“All these services highlight our model as an accommodation provider who strives to deliver a hotel style of service. We believe it gives students the opportunity to focus on their studies, taking the stress away from day-to-day living at university.”

The sky deck at Cumberland Place

Study Inn predicts that the shared service model will also be popular in Nottingham, yet in Coventry studio flats are in demand. Shakespeare puts this down to the percentage of international students the university welcomes to the city each year. “In our experience, international students tend to enjoy their own private space and consequently prefer a studio to a shared service apartment,” he says.

“The challenge for us every time we embark on a project is to find out what students want and also speak to the university to discover what sells well in the local area and the kind of facilities that are required.”

The range of facilities available in student accommodation is considered paramount by planners and architects when conceiving a new project. In recent years there has been a distinct trend towards equipping the social spaces of a development with an array of amenities that are becoming expected by a savvy student population.

“The purpose-built student accommodation sector has exploded,” says Dan Baker, general manager of EMEA operations at student.com. “I can’t see that slowing down anytime soon. However, there are some cities in the UK where providers have overbuilt and so they have to be increasingly competitive on price but also with their offering to students.”

In developments such as Zenith Cardiff, due to open in September 2019, the range of shared facilities have been given a high priority. There is a spa area, as well as a highly equipped gym, basketball court and cinema room. However, the building isn’t completely geared towards the pursuit of play. Responding to student and university feedback, quiet study spaces have been created around the site. These dedicated study areas were high on students’ wishlists when surveyed and reflect the importance they place on collaborating with peers. Indeed, this desire to concentrate on academic work could be driving more demand towards PBSA, says Baker.

“We are seeing a trend for third-year students to move back into purpose-built accommodation because it is close to campus, and with all the facilities available it is less hassle than a private shared house. There is an increasing realisation that there are a lot of hidden costs when it comes to renting a house and, of course, that option doesn’t include access to a gym or other facilities. When students look at the figures, moving back into student accommodation can work out as the same value.”

Dedicated study areas were high on students’ wishlists and reflect the importance they place on collaborating with peers

One recently launched development, which has been making waves is Newcastle University’s Park View Student Village, which opened in September 2018.

The project houses 1,200 students but is groundbreaking because of its modular design, which not only ensured that the building was finished a year in advance and £1.5m under budget but also included a raft of sustainability measures to really put the project’s environmental ambitions on the map.

“The university works really hard on sustainability and has a target of zero net carbon emissions by 2040,” explains Paul Bandeen, director of accommodation services. “At the same time, we know that students are incredibly interested in the environment and want to see what we, as a landlord, can do to be as environmentally friendly as possible.”

In light of these findings, the estates team committed to building a project with serious eco credentials and looked to technology to achieve these aims. The final building included automatic cooker and light switch-offs, triple glazing and card-operated energy-saving devices. However, there were other green elements like the protection of an existing bat colony by building dedicated barns in the surrounding area and the careful planting of wildflowers. The university also provides a residential life team whose role is to support students within the accommodation by delivering a life skills programme that includes learning about environmental issues. But do all these measures really resonate with students?

“There are a lot of accommodation options that provide gyms and other amenities,” says Bandeen, “but I’m not so sure that’s the be-all-and-end-all for students. In my experience, it’s about them feeling comfortable in the environment and being able to have meaningful interactions whether that is through socialising or studying together.”

Zenith Cardiff’s beauty room

Combatting feelings of isolation among the student population is an issue that has been preoccupying some accommodation planners and providers, as well as dominating the pastoral agenda at universities. A recent online survey by the Insight Network on student mental health revealed that 50% of students have contemplated self harm and 21% have a current mental health diagnosis (most commonly depression). When considering solutions, the design of the built environment may not immediately spring to mind, but Mike Entwisle, partner and education sector director at BuroHappold Engineering says that it is a piece of the jigsaw that shouldn’t be ignored.

“We’ve been doing a lot of research on the root causes of mental health problems within students and have discovered that the environment can have a real impact,” he says. “We asked students what they would change about their environment. The answer? Physical connectivity.”

Connectivity may sound like a buzzword, which encapsulates many different areas of student life but Entwistle says that when applied to residential buildings, it means avoiding isolation. Student flats designed around a long corridor of bedrooms and a kitchen space at the end, can be a barrier towards socialisation. Entwistle states simply, “As a first year, walking past half-a-dozen rooms to get to a social space can require a lot of courage.”

Yet he is confident that a more inclusive design can be easy to achieve with a little consideration.

“Good design doesn’t cost any more and can quickly break down barriers. This means social areas need to be generous and in the right space. In addition, the inclusion of communal dining and a link with the main teaching areas of the university in the form of a learning hub can make a real difference.”


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