Student accommodation: a seismic shift

Student accommodation has developed into a thriving business sector that is modelling itself on the hotel market, says James Badley

Student accommodation – once a domain of drab, cellular units that focused on quantity rather than quality – has developed into a thriving business sector that is modelling itself on the hotel market. Architect, James Badley, of rg+p Ltd, discusses the growing trends for those behind the delivery of such schemes, the expectations of students for their living spaces and his vision for the future

Up until the late 1990s, requirements for student accommodation were largely based on the ‘housing by numbers’ approach, with a focus on functionality over aesthetics. Schemes were typified by their segregation into clusters, most commonly six bed spaces around a central corridor. Now, with the advent of faster broadband, technology and connectivity, the way we imagine and design these spaces has dramatically evolved. 

Accommodation is one of the top three things students consider when choosing a college or university, so getting it wrong can be a costly failure. Couple this with added commercial pressure to deliver these buildings to both a finite cost point and immoveable deadline and you see why accuracy and understanding are crucial. Modern student living has shifted to take inspiration from hotels; offering smaller, upmarket studio spaces that are pastoral and practical. A significant emphasis has been placed on interaction and creating a ‘family’ environment. The inclusion of eateries, delis, gyms, TV rooms and quiet study areas are all commonplace in today’s designs and sit alongside the expectations of safety, security, a high standard of fixtures and furnishings, and fully functioning broadband, the latter being a necessity since the growth of social media.  

This shift has impacted how we, as construction professionals, deliver these developments. With a typical scheme offering approximately 300 bed spaces, we must look at efficiencies – how can we create vibrant places to live and learn whilst being mindful of the fact these buildings must be completed in time for the start of the academic year to avoid missing a year’s worth of income? Imaginative design solutions provide the starting point, minimising the footprint to enable fast track delivery using modern methods of construction. 

For example, on our flagship scheme at Western Road, Leicester, we were tasked to provide a student village that would integrate a Victorian listed building and allow for ergonomic and spacious living. Using BIM (Building Information Modelling) technology and 3D flythroughs, we were able to demonstrate not only how the proposed scheme would provide maximum density whilst being sympathetic to its surrounds but also specific room layouts, including a level of detail showing where plug sockets would be situated to ensure smart phones or tablets could be charged by the bed at night.

Another consideration is location and the ongoing debate between on- and off-campus. Both have their restrictions, the former in terms of available space and how it dovetails directly with teaching; the latter with proximity, travel and the perceived socioeconomic problems a large volume of students would mean for an area. The right environment, conducive to learning, ultimately depends on students. What cultural sensitivities should be considered? What impact does course choice have on living arrangements? For example, on the £7m scheme at Moulton Agricultural College in Northamptonshire where rg+p London is acting as design development architect, the on-campus accommodation has been deliberately designed to be domestic in scale and environmentally sympathetic to ensure students have the best possible chance for academic success.

Fundamentally, the success of any student accommodation is not measured by a building’s eco-credentials or its ability to be easily maintained, rather by the individual’s overall experience. We strive to create environments that incorporate flexible, efficient and innovative designs without compromising on quality to ensure the best possible opportunities for future generations.”

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