Design matters at St Mark’s

Winners of CUBO’s ‘Best Student Housing’ Award 2014, the University of Leeds is leading the way, says Ian Robertson

The University of Leeds guarantees to provide all first year undergraduates and international students with a place in University accommodation and currently allocates 8,250 beds. Its newest accommodation, St Marks, was designed in response to the needs of postgraduate students.

Student satisfaction levels are high, as evidenced by the International Student Barometer, where Leeds is ranked number one in the Russell Group against a range of accommodation indicators. However, competition is fierce and the University of Leeds works hard to continue developing its student accommodation, which it sees as essential for recruitment, retention and the ongoing delivery of an excellent student experience.

In a recent survey carried out on behalf of AUDE by One Poll, 2,000 students were surveyed online in February 2014. The survey found that eight out of 10 (77%) students said that the facilities available at their prospective university played a role in them choosing it. The only factor marginally more important for students was the course itself. Andrew Burgess, chairman elect, Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE) and Deputy Chief Operating Officer at Loughborough University commented: “The University estate is core to enabling the delivery of the academic mission. There is a clear link between the buildings and accommodation on offer at a University and the desirability of that establishment to potential students.”

The University’s St Mark’s Residence, winner of CUBO’s ‘Best Student Housing ‘Award, has 526 rooms and opened in September 2013. It was designed to provide high-quality bedroom accommodation and first-class facilities for students, in particular for postgraduate students.

Past winners of the Best Student Housing Award have been Sheffield and Bradford Universities. With Leeds taking this year’s accolade, this win puts Yorkshire’s universities firmly on the map as sector leaders in providing great student accommodation.

The previous St Mark’s residence had been constructed at low cost in 1979 and was by the noughties considered to be cramped, with small kitchens and limited shower facilities. Its buildings had aged, had become expensive and difficult to maintain and were accruing high
running costs.

The design scheme adopted for St Mark’s was based on the new development becoming primarily a postgraduate residence to support an important element of the University’s recruitment strategy. Also, international students were telling the University that they had a clear preference to live on or near to campus.

Following a number of surveys and focus groups, the University found that postgraduate students looked on their room as a ‘home office’ so they needed somewhere that was more spacious with a comfortable work area. Rooms at St Mark’s Residence are big, with a larger than usual desk and an ergonomically designed desk chair. Telephones, data access points, an IPTV facility and a room safe are also provided. And with a junior double bed, a spacious en suite and soft ambient lighting, the rooms are perfect to relax in as well.

A central reception building, ‘The Pavilion’, houses common areas; a lounge, resource centre and a meeting room where residents can study, prepare work together and hold group discussions.

Postgraduate students also told us they didn’t want to waste valuable study time so the University provided washing machines and dryers in each flat and networked printers in the communal Resource Centre.

The building has achieved a BREEAM ‘excellent’ rating and the planting scheme throughout the grounds has been designed to support diversity. The landscape has been planned so that wildlife will be attracted by flowers and later berries and hips on both shrubs and trees. The design has taken inspiration from the surrounding buildings and some adjacent Alms houses.

Ian Robertson explained: “Experiences gained from developing other new residences at Leeds meant that the project team at the University knew exactly what would be required when they planned and oversaw the building of St Mark’s. Attention to detail throughout the build ensured that the finished residence would meet the expectations of its residents and be as close to perfect as it is. We wanted external and internal space to interconnect, to make common spaces busy and interesting so that residents would want to socialise in them and we did that by mixing up space for watching TV, playing games, exercising on gym equipment and using the buildings reception area.”

Fulfilling one of its strategic aims, this year St Marks has seen an increase in the number of postgraduate and international residents with a mix of 77 different nationalities living together under one roof. International postgraduates who had previously lived further away from the University have now come together to form a community at St Marks, where they can study in a safe and peaceful environment away from some of the more exuberant student social activities. Since it opened, St Mark’s has been praised enthusiastically by students who live there: “St Mark’s is a brilliant place to live and I have already booked my room for next year!”, “The accommodation totally exceeded my expectations”, “Well done,” and “I love it!”

Going forward, the University is pleased to have just acquired the freehold ownership of the recently constructed 980-bed Central Village development built by Downing, which is adjacent to campus. The investment underlines a commitment to maintain its own high-quality residential portfolio.

Ian Robertson concludes that, to maintain and deliver a truly excellent student experience: “We have to deliver services that will differentiate what we do and keep our students, their parents and others talking about how good the service is that they receive.

“Our student residences must be well designed, secure, convenient to use, conveniently located and, above all, they need to provide students with an opportunity to live in and be part of a really sociable community.”

Ian Robertson is Head of Residential Accommodation at The University of Leeds

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