Student accommodation today: how to give them a home from home

From multi-purpose communal spaces to safe and convenient food and drink options, how is accommodation provision adapting to the needs of the modern student? Steve Wright reports

Flexible, multi-purpose living spaces; food and drink of every kind easily available across campus; super-fast internet and charging capacity everywhere onsite: students’ demands from their accommodation have changed exponentially over the past decade, spurred on both by advances in technology and rising costs of student living.

But how is today’s student accommodation provision adapting to the needs of the modern student? And how will the Covid landscape, and its attendant social distancing regulations, have disrupted those needs?

One priority is clear as students return for the 2020–21 academic year. “When we look at how student accommodation is changing as a whole, the most pressing need is to adapt to the impact of Covid-19,” confirms Dan Baker of international student housing marketplace

Buildings are now featuring lighter and brighter rooms and communal spaces. Use of larger, longer windows, and harnessing of light to define different zones, is proving popular – Dan Baker,

What this means, most immediately, is a sense of flexibility from universities and accommodation providers. “Students are looking for adaptable living options in the wake of what has been an unprecedented year,” Dan explains. “Solutions such as flexible move-in/move-out dates and free cancellation policies have been put in place by student accommodation providers, to mitigate against students’ plans being cancelled due to Covid-related travel or university course delays.”

Beyond these most immediate and topical adaptations, though, what is the modern student demanding from his or her accommodation?

It seems that, chiefly, students increasingly want to feel invested in the place that they now call home for much of the year. “Ultimately, students are looking for a safe environment to call home whilst at university – and that hasn’t changed,” Dan reflects.

“However, what we have seen increasingly from student feedback is that students want to settle into their university communities. They want to feel part of a local community, and to care about the local area, what’s on offer and how they can get involved. An example of this is the interest in our Together programme, where students and care home residents are connected in local UK communities.”

This desire for a sense of community is reflected not just in programmes and initiatives, but in building design too. “This desire for connection and community is mirrored in the design of many new student accommodation buildings, where communal spaces are broken down into multi-purpose areas, and where smaller groups of students can gather for social activities – such as games night or a club meeting, or even a communal kitchen where students can come together to try out cooking classes.”

Among current architecture and interior design trends, Dan notes three universals: light, height and muted tones.

“Buildings are now featuring lighter and brighter rooms and communal spaces. Use of larger, longer windows, and harnessing of light to define different zones, is proving popular. We are also seeing more in-built storage created for the full height of rooms, giving more floor and storage space.

“And, perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s an increase in muted tones – including greys and whites – for student rooms. That mirrors current home-design trends, but also brings the obvious benefits of creating a clean, calm space for students during what may be anxious times.”

Dan notes that the top three room styles demanded by UK students are studios, en suite and flat share. ~

The range of room styles is increasing, and some properties can now adapt their rooms from singles to ‘twodios’ (pairs of private bedroom and bathrooms, with a shared kitchen) depending on student demand. “Students want a hub – a place where they can feel at home,” Dan concludes. “Whether it’s studying, working out, or connecting with friends, they want that one space to adapt to all these needs. Flexibility is key.”

Elsewhere, the Student Living residencies managed by catering and facilities management specialists Sodexo have worked over the course of the pandemic to deliver a safe learning environment. Built around a four-pillar system (pre-arrival, arrival, living and departure), the Student Living programme aims to build as much convenience and flexibility as possible into the student experience.

A new addition this autumn is the digital concierge offer. “We understand what our students want, and we now provide a 24/7, 365-day-a-year web portal and phone number that residents can use to book flights, arrange holidays, book a restaurant or organise food deliveries,” explains Tracey Smith, managing director of Student Living. “This service provides students with extra time – time to develop, to study, and to relax. It will help to alleviate the stresses and anxieties of university life.”

Sodexo has also introduced other innovations across the student spaces it manages, such as self-booking platforms and online induction sessions. Tracey has also witnessed the growth of ‘twodios’. “Twodios are a cost-effective solution, but they can also help with breaking down social barriers. En suite accommodation still appears to be the most popular solution at the moment: however, new developments encourage more shared accommodation spaces, which could become a more attractive option.”

Alongside comfort, convenience and flexibility, factors such as sustainability and – particularly from the university or college’s perspective – cost-effectiveness are also coming increasingly into play. University estates managers, for example, will be taking note of the emerging technologies that allow temperatures across student rooms and communal spaces to be controlled at a much more individual level, providing the opportunity for substantial savings.

Ravencourt House in Hammersmith, London; students may view vending machines as more hygienic than a shared kettle

Prefect Controls provide remote and automated control of student accommodation heating. “Today’s level of automation makes our lives easier and, in most cases, more efficient,” says Prefect’s marketing manager Adrian Barber. “Not only that: in the context of student accommodation, it can make a huge difference to the energy budget.

“For HE energy and accommodation managers, a building full of people who can control their own room temperature, but who are not responsible for the electricity bill, must be a concern. Yet, if all students were diligent and turned their heating off when they left their rooms, unnecessary use of energy would not be a problem!”

Passive infrared (PIR) sensors are used for this very purpose: however, they are often set to activate when the occupant returns, rather than focusing on saving energy. Prefect’s automated energy management system Irus, however, uses PIR sensors designed specifically for student accommodation. A node in each room silently monitors temperature, humidity, light and decibels. Managers access data on the web-based portal and set maximum temperature and time profiles.

The PIR sensor on the room node can be set to presence or absence detection. Presence detects an occupant entering the room and activates a programme to bring the room to a comfortable temperature.

The rise of en suite bedrooms and pod-style living has reduced opportunities for socialising among students. Add to that the social distancing measures brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the potential for feelings of isolation has rocketed. Students really need that feeling of connectivity – John Broderick

“This is very convenient for the person in the room – but not so great for those paying the energy bill,” Adrian explains.

“Switching the PIR to absence detection makes a lot more sense. This way, on entering the room the student needs to press the button to activate the Boost mode, which will run for a pre-determined time period before reverting to the Setback mode. However, if they leave their room shortly after pressing the button, the control unit’s PIR will register that the room is empty and cut short the Boost programme, thus avoiding heating an empty room.

“If we conservatively estimate that 30 minutes of unnecessary heating is avoided in this scenario, and then multiply that for a 1,000-bedroom facility, the numbers become eye-watering – equating to almost 21 days of heating that could have been prevented! Consider that in terms of annual use and it becomes clear how automating your heating system with Irus can produce savings of 40%.”

Adaptations to accommodation and lifestyle are coming right across the student experience spectrum. John Broderick is managing director of Broderick’s, the national vending and refreshments business that partners with universities nationwide including Liverpool John Moores University, the University of Manchester, and Manchester Metropolitan University. And, as John sees it, vending systems can play a key role in combatting feelings of isolation, particularly in the new Covid landscape.

“The rise of en suite bedrooms and pod-style living has reduced opportunities for socialising among students,” John reflects. “Add to that the social distancing measures brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the potential for feelings of isolation has rocketed.

“Students really need that feeling of connectivity, and that’s why those communal areas are now coming into sharp focus. Snacking and having a cuppa or cold drink with friends is more important than ever: however, the provision must now change to suit the social and behavioural changes that we are all facing.

“I think that’s why we’re seeing such an uptick in requests from university estates managers for vending machines within student accommodation. Students will want to grab a brew and drink it in the communal kitchen or lounge, without worrying about using a kettle that’s been touched by hundreds of other hands.”

Dinner’s ready!

When it comes to the broader university catering landscape, sustainability and convenience remain high on the agenda. “Most universities are looking for innovative takeaway and ‘grab and go’ solutions to provide students with a quick service and, particularly at this time, to avoid the need for queues,” explains Michelle Parnham, university specialist at Pelican Procurement Services. “Sustainability continues to be important, and universities are seeking the most sustainable food packaging solutions. Many universities are carrying on with re-filling coffee if students bring their own cup to avoid plastic waste.

“With students ever more interested in sustainable food and in their own health and wellbeing, universities are looking to increase plant-based food options and healthy alternatives. We have also seen many universities looking for pre-packaged salads to replace self-service salad bars.”

Colleges and universities catering for Asian and Afro-Caribbean diets are also seeking authenticity in their food offer. “The demand for imported, rather than UK/European brands, is high,” Michelle explains. “Increasingly, we are seeing specialist suppliers, rather than mainstream wholesalers, filling the demand for products such as soy and chilli sauces, tofu, noodles, bao buns and jerk
or curry pastes.

“International students returning for the autumn term and entering a quarantine period has driven a need for us to source ethnic-inspired student food packs.

Again, using our unique expertise, we have sought specialist suppliers to source a range of authentic products that the big UK wholesalers are unable to cater for.”

Broderick’s UK partner universities have now enabled the company’s new Pay4Vend app across campus. The app reduces the need for physical contact, as selection and payment of purchases are made by phone. It can also help secure discounts and even organise busy social lives, sending notifications of social events, university news and offers – and helping to maintain that all-important sense of connection.

There is uncertainty ahead, then: but universities and colleges, accommodation and catering providers alike will all be striving to provide students with safe and welcoming spaces for living and learning in the year ahead – as well as technology that allows those students to immerse themselves in community life as much as they wish, while still maintaining their own personal space and social distancing where required.

“I think there could be a lot of unanswered questions to come this year,” reflects Karen Burke, Chair of the Association for Student Residential Accommodation (ASRA). “However, accommodation providers are working closely with universities to ensure that this year’s students and their parents can feel safe and confident about their move away from home.”

Contacts Together scheme
Sodexo Student Living 
Prefect Controls 
Pelican Procurement 

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