Home is where the health is

David Blair, Principal Director at tp bennett, on how well-designed accommodation can make for a fit and happy student body

According to the National Student Money Survey 2018, 50% of student spending in London goes on rent, 78% worry about making ends meet and 46% feel that this stress affects their mental health. So, at a time when going to university has never been more pressurised, what role can student accommodation play in addressing some of the issues and promote both physical and mental health?

As an architect working with universities for many years, we have seen a significant shift in the frequency of conversations around wellbeing, wellness and mindfulness and, as a result, we are evolving tired student housing to purpose-built accommodation for students that delivers on their technological, professional, social and wellness needs. This approach blurs living and workspace and mirrors a trend we see across the commercial office and residential sectors.

Young people want a space that caters to their fast-paced lifestyle. A significant part of the university experience now is about meeting different people and making new friends, and the demand for amenity spaces is therefore being recognised as a key aspect in supporting this. Shared facilities often include cooking and dining areas to meet, relax and eat with friends. These spaces are increasingly seen as a priority as they provide comforting, family-style living that encourages interaction, a sense of belonging and community. Other break-out areas, such as easily-accessible gym facilities, encourage physical activity and space to interact of escape to away from the pressures of the education environment.

“Research into the need to incorporate wellness in the design of mental health facilities, hospitals and schools is well established; applying many of these design principles to student accommodation is just as important.”

Alongside the social side, students also want space that allows them to excel in their studies, work areas that sit apart from their private space. Their spaces must be quiet areas for study and concentration, and areas where students can collaborate. Critically, there must also be areas that are digital or wifi free to provide an escape zone for students to enjoy time out. Outside space is another often over-looked component and yet there are great opportunities to harness roof and courtyard spaces for access to nature through planting, gardens or even allotments.

The physical characteristics of our environment naturally impact our experience. Artificial lighting, the provision of fresh air and the use of colour are essential elements. Increasingly, so are the use of natural elements and organic materials and textures such as plants, wood, stone and fabrics – otherwise known as biophilic design. Similarly, different social structures and interactions arise from the layout and form and when well-planned enhance and enable a sense community, the opportunity for personalisation, privacy and security, all of which can have a significant influence on resident’s health, positive outlook and mood.

The issues around the mental health of young people moving from home to university are complex and as a result require a multi-faceted approach to encourage awareness and provide key support services. Research into the need to incorporate wellness in the design of mental health facilities, hospitals and schools is well established; applying many of these design principles to student accommodation is just as important, not least because it is often the first place that most young people live during their formative years away from home.

All of the elements described here are fundamentally the principles of good design and, done well, will support a healthy and happy student body, providing a high quality of life and helping to tackle loneliness and isolation. It’s about balance, adopting an ethos of responsible generosity, providing a variety of spaces, understanding students are a diverse body with different needs, and an open discussion on promoting wellbeing across living and work spaces. This is no longer a choice for universities but a responsibility.

tp bennett: tpbennett.com