Designing for the entire student experience

Today’s student accommodation needs to be forward-thinking enough to perform well for years to come, says Bill Soper

For decades, student accommodation has followed a simple design template. Single or shared rooms with single beds, wardrobes, desks and bookshelves. The design focussed on functionality and the results unimaginative and uninspiring. Student accommodation has always been a place to sleep, study and eat/ cook and, until recently, this has been acceptable practice. But with increased fees, students and parents are more discerning and student accommodation has had to evolve in order for universities to maintain a competitive edge. 

Today’s designs in student accommodation need to reflect modern trends and be forward-thinking enough to perform well for years to come. While university reputation and course suitability will always be the deciding factors, applicants are placing more importance on the overall environment and the full student experience – and student accommodation is an integral aspect of this.

A shift in expectation

Our design decisions need to respond to behavioural trends – encouraging some and guiding others. With an increased reliance on parental funding there is more parental input into decisions with a more balanced and considered view on aspects such as accommodation. This viewpoint is drawn from an experienced ‘house-buyer’s eye,’ and is combined with a more sophisticated outlook from today’s student. There is also a large number of well-funded or sponsored foreign students entering the UK to study who expect living standards to match their lifestyle needs, especially as they are so far from home. Expectation is starting to mirror the home environment, en suite facilities are taken for granted and social and recreational spaces – such as games facilities, entertainment rooms and even gyms – are actively sought. 

The role of catering has also fluctuated over the years with catered halls, extinct for some 10-15 years, now making a comeback. The universities located in close proximity to a good range of affordable food have experienced less demand for extensive food preparation areas. Café culture and a burgeoning array of fast-food options have changed the way we socialise and where and when we eat. However, while some halls of residence have dispensed with kitchens in their student accommodation, others are seeing a return in the desire to cook for themselves and others. The popularity of cookery television programmes may have an influence, but today’s students are also far more health conscious than their predecessors and a well-designed kitchen space is becoming central to the overall experience.

The workplace environment is undergoing radical change with a new emphasis on co-working with office designs influenced by collaboration – and this is now filtering down to the student audience. With the creation of specialist rooms for study groups or music practice, student accommodation is now designed for a more mobile student who wants to work and study with others as well as alone, but within an inspirational environment. As well as considering where students should sleep, we also need to consider where and how they will work as well and the introduction of study pods – out of the bedroom and within social spaces – is being explored. 

Emphasis on interaction

Not only functional and inspiring, these ‘social’ areas also form a focal point – designed so students need to pass through or by them in the flow of day to day activities. This style of interior layout encourages social cross-fertilisation where students of different subjects, and even halls, come together naturally to study with friends – creating a wider, organic network. 

By doing this, the ‘cluster groups’ formed by traditional cluster dormitories is widened. It was originally thought that the ideal ‘study’ group size was four to six people, hence the four/five and six bedroomed dormitories were born. However, this has since been disputed in that it relates to ‘study’ not ‘living,’ which means removing barriers for dormitory design and designing spaces for greater numbers of six  to eight all the way up to 15/16 people. In addition, design standards now reflect this enabling more space for each individual increasing from an average of three square metres per person to four. Instead of a small kitchenette that’s good for tea and toast but not much more, we’re now looking at larger kitchen/ dining areas and lounge spaces that create a natural sharing environment, suited to hosting, relaxing and group interaction. 

Arranged for balance

High-quality shared space also has indirect benefits for today’s student experience, reducing dependence on social media as the main form of socialisation and social-entertainment. By arranging internal layouts with welcoming shared spaces suitable for everything from table football tournaments (indoors sports) to demonstration cooking lessons, we can encourage better real-life group interaction. 

That said, providing the very best communication technology should be taken as read – a great broadband connection with fast wireless access throughout all personal and shared space is absolutely fundamental. Focus is on mobile boosters rather than telephone and TV points. Without the right online capability, you’ll lose students rather than attract them. 

Creating value for everyone

Design concepts determine that the less available space, the less it costs to build and subsequently the lower the rent, heating and maintenance costs. This means internal design needs to be thoughtful, multifunctional and flexible creating compact spaces that feel roomy. Today’s bed expectation are double beds (albeit only 1200mm wide) and so bedrooms need to be the right width, but that can be made possible by losing some of the bookshelves that are becoming less relevant – due to technology – and by installing smaller desks. Imaginative space optimisation delivers better quality of life and functionality, while creating value for everyone. Design that creates fun spaces that are visually interesting, current and ‘cool’ can be a differentiator. Clever design of these spaces can also create a comfortable and stimulating environment for study, socialise and sleep.

Pastoral care is important to all institutions and these social spaces and encouraging creation of new friends and new interests is a key part of adjusting to university life.

Considerations for the future

Over the last decade, technology has had a resounding impact on the way we live and it will continue to evolve in regards to learning and social interaction and design in student accommodation needs to consider this. This means creating flexible spaces that can be transformed at minimal expense such as dedicated IT rooms in shared accommodation, or even space to take 3D printers, creating a ‘library’ type area for study. Tailoring communal areas to each location’s strengths and weaknesses – social scene, gyms, takeaways, proximity to campus – will help make accommodation attractive and space-efficient. 

In a market when ‘residential’ is king, universities and operators face resistance throughout the planning process and in acquiring the land they need and finding the right location for student accommodation is not as easy as it once may have been. A consequence of this is more off-campus locations. The more remote the location, the more, well-planned, inspiring and engaging the accommodation needs to be. However, irrespective of location, if universities want to compete in this burgeoning market, they needy to deliver the very best for their students across all elements of the student experience.

Bill Soper is principal director at tp bennett.


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