The Surface; an iPad and Laptop combined.

For many years now I’ve used a laptop as my primary workhorse, in addition to an iPhone and iPad + all the associated power devices!

Today, more so than ever before, I work in a truly mobile sense. My office is my backpack and, to a large extent, where I am physically doesn’t affect my ability to work. All I really need is connectivity.

I do like the iPad a lot. Its convenient and easy to use whilst traveling, but for me its never quite been the complete package. When I really consider what I get from the iPad, it’s not a true necessity. Like most Apple products!

I’ve long been an Apple fan, the iPhone is exceptional. But it seems to me that everything else is really an extension of the phone – or an alternative to the Windows based PC, which for most businesses isn’t that practical to convert to. The Apple Watch still confuses me. It’s cool perhaps, but its just another extension to the phone?

Our IT manager contacted me recently; “We’d like you hand back your laptop and iPad. You’ll be using a Microsoft Surface Pro going forward. Is that ok?”. I’d already spoken to a couple of colleagues who’d been using the Surface and had been impressed, so I agreed. The idea of finally having one combined laptop and iPad device is appealing!

Microsoft Surface Pro

So I’m a few days in. The Surface is good. Exceptionally good in fact. It really does seem to blend the laptop and iPad functionality very well; I’d even go as far as to say its better than an iPad! The pen (stylus) is very realistic, allowing you to write and draw naturally, rather than using a clumsy rubber blob-like thing on the iPad. The pen can also be used as a mouse alternative which is very intuitive. The screen is as good as the iPad and in terms of performance it is more powerful than my 20 month old Dell laptop. The option to use the screen keyboard or the smooth magnetic add-on keyboard are both good. The integrated stand on the back of the Surface is also good and offers many positions. The power-pack is compact and has a second USB port which is handy to charge a second device. It also has a very slick magnetic connector which goes onto the side of the Surface. Some of the more demanding programmes I use (Revit, AutoCAD, Photoshop, InDesign) all seem to cope fine which is encouraging.

There are only two negatives. There is only one USB port. Admittedly this is one more than the iPad, but 2-3 would save the need for a USB hub if you want to connect an Ethernet cable, monitor, mouse etc. Also, bizarrely, there is no SIM slot for mobile connectivity? WiFi is the only option. Surely if the Surface is looking to take on the iPad/ tablet market, this is an essential! I’ve been given a seperate EE WiFi device for this, so I’m now a walking WiFi hotspot!

So my early view on the Surface is really very good. If you’re tempted to make life simpler, go for it. The Surface could be the future! I am a big fan of it already.


Rolling out the Red carpet in Student Living; the European perspective.

Last week I spent a few days at the ‘Class of 2020’ Conference in Amsterdam. This was a Student Housing and Higher Education event which included visits to a number of recently built student living developments around the city, with an insightful conference programme that discussed/ explored the growing Student Living market in Europe.

The Class Conference

Refreshingly this conference wasn’t financial/ data or advertising heavy. The content was very broad but students from all corners of the world, and their aspirations, demands and needs, were at the heart of the discussion.

The UK has for sometime been recognised as THE global leader in privately developed/ managed Student Living and it’s very much a mature asset class here. However other countries are following suit now and the forecast looks quite interesting across Europe.

2015 has been a record year for global investment into the UK student living asset class, but almost all of this has been high value transactions of built asset portfolios. The opportunities for new-build development in the UK are becoming challenging, not least because there is a high volume of existing supply in most key locations already.

By contrast Europe presents much more opportunity. The dynamics of the market in key cities around the EU have been constrained historically by regulation in terms of asset  use-class, taxation and rental caps. The ability to ‘make it work’ financially has been limited.

Higher Education is a continually growing and evolving global sector which is becoming much more connected in lots of ways now. With such a strong focus on the internationalisation of the HE sector, the EU is stepping up it’s game and rewriting the rules.

Cities with strong global brand status are always going to be popular/ desirable, but some currently have barriers to entry for Student Living development. For example Amsterdam is a great city, with good uni’s but, due to their regulations, the supply of PBSA (purpose built student accommodation) has been small.

European countries, cities and universities are now recognising the importance of international students and they really are rolling out the red carpet to attract them; this is proof that they understand the tangible and significant value of students, in financial economic terms, but also in terms of long term talent retention economically. With  all this comes a fundamental shortfall/ demand for quality purpose built student living.

We visited a number of recently completed projects last week. Its clear that they are learning from experience and are someway behind the UK. There were lots of interesting/ creative ideas, but in some instances the offer was very basic and serious questions about durability/ robustness were voiced.

For sometime I’ve been keen to see The Student Hotel. This high profile brand/ operator have developed a really strong offer which is based on creating a community. The environment is very design-led and includes some great ideas. I liked the TED Talks lounge best! Such a simple idea really, but a great way to engage residents and promote thought leadership/ ideas.

The Student Hotel TED Lounge

There are many areas I could talk about here in terms of the continual evolution of Student Living; environment, technology and communities being a huge area of development still, but I’ll blog about that one separately soon.

It was interesting to see a number of UK sector colleagues out at the conference; I’m sure we can all take something useful from what we’ve seen this week outside of the UK. You can see the Annual Trend Report launched at the conference by clicking here.

Early next month we’ll be attending the Property Week Student Housing conference in London. Hopefully the content will be as as engaging as the Class of 2020 conference…or maybe it will be the usual ‘sponsors pitches’…

Here’s a few more photos of The Student Hotel…

The Student HotelThe Student HotelThe Student Hotel


The Property Revolution; Buildings, Spaces + People.

The fundamental purpose of most buildings is to accommodate people. But are buildings really focused on people or value?

Look back ten years and the world of UK property was, by and large, pretty mundane in terms of buildings being delivered I think. A very commercial, corporate and profit driven approach was applied to a lot of new buildings in the residential and office sectors particularly. Houses and apartments were fairly uninspiring places both internally and externally. Offices were largely run of the mill with grey carpets, suspended ceilings and open plan spaces, to accommodate rows and rows of identical desks. In the wider city context, buildings sat next to each other, but the spaces between them were sterile and lacked genuine use and interaction by people; they were just the spaces to move around.

The following five years witnessed one of the deepest recessions in history and a major compression in development activity, especially outside of London. The ‘other side’ of the recession has seen new thinking and new demand, with fundamental need for new and different supply.

Today, thankfully the built environment in the UK is changing. I actually think we’re seeing somewhat of a revolution in the built environment. Design is back and People are the focus.

Last night I attended an event in Manchester and heard Tim Heatley from Capital and Centric deliver a compelling talk about designing “awesome” buildings, focused on people and how they use spaces inside and out, rather than bland boxes which offer some degree of diversity, but don’t create a culture, vibe or an energy. A lot of what his company are doing is based on reinventing existing buildings and giving places life, character and identity.

05_canal-st-raisedKAMPUS in Manchester by Capital & Centric + Mecanno.

Society has changed hugely in the last ten years, especially with our need for connectivity in all we do. The way we work, learn, socialise and interact has evolved and the environment we use is starting to reflect this now.

The rapid rise of PRS (private rented sector) Living promotes a new world of housing. One which, thankfully, isn’t wholly focussed on build it cheap and sell it fast. This institutionally funded approach to delivering rental living provides a lifestyle and quality which must last. This in turn provides a better quality of environment within which people can live, work, socialise etc. Interestingly a sector I’m close to, student living, is well ahead of the curve in this approach. There are many built examples of how this works and the PRS offer is very similar.

On a different level I’ve heard Tom Bloxham of Urban Splash talk a lot in recent months about a brand led approach to property. His vision is a focus on space, choice and diversity, not just the number of beds in a home. He rightly argues that homes should not be valued and sold on the number of bedrooms, but the actual floor space a house has. His latest HoUSe offer blends contemporary design-led homes, which are innovative in their construction, and offer a new car style ‘options’ approach to making your home suit your needs and aspirations. Customer choice and flexibility is the central focus.

Urban Splash_HoUSeThe Urban Splash HoUSe concept.

The office world, or “workplace” as it’s now referred to, sees a strong resistance by many companies from the bland, grey corporate environment. Leaders like Google and Facebook have offices which are uber cool, creative and collaborative environments, underpinned by a primary focus on people interacting, sharing ideas and working together, rather than sitting at a desk and working in relative isolation or using corporate meeting rooms to interact. “Collaboration” is what it’s all about and the industry leaders in this new approach are influencing the full spectrum of business now.

Google Workplace3Google Campus Dublin.

The use of buildings and spaces are now about creating character and identity, by making them diverse and flexible in their offer and giving people a strong reason to be there.

So what’s the big deal? The seismic shift in how the property industry is approaching new buildings is that the focus is firmly on creating ‘buildings for people’ and places with ‘character and identity’, this isn’t just talk now, it’s real. It’s an obvious thing to say, but actually I think ten years ago that focus was really lost. Buildings were more about money than people.

Now there is a distinct connection between people and the environment creating long-term sustainable buildings which in turn creates value.

Ocean Valour to complete New York – Salcombe rowing expedition

Last year, whilst on our annual holiday in Salcombe, I came across ‘Ocean Valour’; a couple of young guys who would attempt to row unsupported from New York to Salcombe. You can read my previous blog by clicking here.

The idea emerged to raise funds for The Brain Tumour Charity, an organisation particularly close to Tom’s heart after sadly losing his father Luke in late 2012.

Tomorrow, after an incredible 92 days at sea, Tom Rainey and Lawrence Walters will arrive in Salcombe. I’ve been following their story over the last three months, via social media and their website, where they have a live GPS tracker.

Ocean Valour

From reading their updates it clearly been a tough gig, although obviously it was never going to easy. It is a truly incredible achievement to complete this journey. Sadly I can’t make it down there tomorrow to welcome them home, as much as I’d like to be there.

They have raised an impressive £50,000 so far, but I know they wanted to raise much more. Hopefully these guys will get some decent media coverage over the next 24-48 hours and can increase their funds further.

A massive well done Ocean Valour; the necessary mental and physical stamina, not to mention sheer grit and unbelievably determination they must have, far exceeds that of many I’m sure.

You can see the whole story of Ocean Valour on their website, including ways to contribute to their cause;

The image below shows their actual GPS tracking map. It gives some degree of the scale of their achievement.

OV Tracking

London’s newest and tallest Sky Garden

As I’ve said on here before; I love tall buildings. Mainly because they offer an incredible and often unique perspective of cities. I’ve been fortunate to visit a number of tall buildings around the world; here’s a couple other blogs I’ve posted previously;

Last week I called in to see London’s newest and tallest ‘garden’, originally named; The Sky Garden in 20 Fenchurch Street (also nicknamed the Walkie Talkie). I first saw this building as a steel frame when the 2012 Olympics were in London. It’s a building which has been subject to much media attention after it melted part of a car on a sunny day during construction. This was due to the south-facing concave elevation which acted like a mirror and created beam of light which hit the ground and had been measured at 117°C on one occasion.

The building is a prime office block situated in the City of London. Other notable structures close-by are Tower 42, The Gherkin, The Leadenhall Building and The Shard.

At 160m tall, 20 Fenchurch St currently the 5th tallest building in the City. It cost over £200m to build. One of the buildings features, to service the main offices floors, is double-decker lifts! The building actually gets bigger (on plan) as it gets higher which is unusual, this reflects the premium rental values of high floor spaces.

In this location and within a building of this quality/ prominence a tenant could expect to pay at least £100/Ft²  for space here (including; rent, service charges and business rates). A single floor plate this building is around 20,000ft², so there are some big numbers here!

This building is impressive. It’s curvaceous elevations and overall building form are rather unique. Attention to detail is evident everywhere. Whilst this, and others like it, are largely about their city scape profile and visibility, this development has an immense quality when you experience the building up close, both inside and out.

A visit to the Sky a Garden is definitely worth it – and its free (unlike the Shard), but you do have to pre-book online. The space sits on the very top of the building, accessed on the 35th floor and is enclosed by a glass roof. There is also an external balcony which overlooks the Thames and is directly opposite the Shard.Sky GardenImage above: Cut-away section view of the Sky Garden

The ‘garden’ is in fact relatively limited as the majority of space is occupied by hard surfaced seating areas/ walkways, with two restaurants situated in the middle, in a building within a building. But the presence of plants/ tree does add a strong natural dimension to an otherwise man-made environment.

Here’s a few photos from my visit. If you are in London I’d definitely recommend a visit.


Does the Planning System work?

In the last twelve months the construction and property industry has gone ‘off the scale’ in terms of activity, particularly in/ around London, but increasingly in the regional cities now also.

During the recession Local Authorities were quick to scale back their Planning department resources. It seems then, and indeed now, that Planning isn’t considered a particularly important component for Councils, perhaps because they don’t generate much (direct) revenue. Some are better than others in terms of performance, but its definitely a lottery as to how you will fare and a costly one at that!

For sometime now I’ve had growing views about the effectiveness of the Planning system.  The people you deal with a often junior and lack experience/ understanding of design and Planning. To broaden my perspective on this issue, I’ve been canvassing opinions from professionals in the industry recently, especially Planning Consultants. A theme emerged which supported my concerns.

In January this year I submitted a minor Planning Application to Derby City Council for some modest alterations to a domestic house. The stated determination period for an application of this nature is 8 weeks. It actually took 23 weeks to receive the decision. Was there a reason for this? No. Did I get a decent explanation as to what had gone wrong? No. Nothing. Not even an apology. In fact before they finally released the decision notice I was asked, in writing, to sign a form accepting an extension of time, before they would issue the notice?! This presumably relates to their performance figures, but what an unbelievable way to operate, especially for a public sector body. The irony here is that the proposed works to the property will take around 10-12 weeks, so how can Planning take twice as long?

For larger applications, probably mostly commercial developments, under the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) it is now a requirement to engage with the Local Authority prior to making a formal application. This makes a lot of sense. The NPPF states; “Early engagement has significant potential to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning application system.” The key word in that statement is ‘potential’ because in practice it doesn’t always work. On one Pre-App submission I have been involved with, it took 16 weeks to get a formal response. An  Planning Application should be dealt with in 13 weeks. I think the reality of Pre-App is that it is often used to stall the process, not improve it.

Pre-Application dialogue isn’t (I don’t believe) measured or tracked in terms of performance. Therefore if the department is a bit busy, they can let things drift a bit it terms of responding. Indeed they aren’t actually obligated to respond within any specific timescales?!

So here lies the problem; In a largely private sector led industry of investors, developers, contractors and consultants, you have to work smart and deliver on your commitments. Fail to deliver and you get sacked. Pretty simple.

The Councils however can do what they want really and certainly don’t seem to consider the commercial realities of how investment and development works. In two sectors I’m very close to, Residential and Student Living, programme delivery is critically important. Losing a few weeks/ months in Planning can seriously compromise projects.

It seems that central Government want the investment, jobs and new buildings to stimulate economic growth and enhance/ regenerate communities, but unless the Planning system starts to become more effective and reliable, we will continue to struggle and even fail in some instances.

The construction industry faces many significant challenges at present, these include; material/ labour supply, cost certainty and commitment from Contractors to deliver. However I believe that the Planning system is also a critical issue which must be addressed.

I’ll be sending this blog to Brandon Lewis (Minister of state at DCLG for Housing and Planning) and Greg Clark (Secretary of State for DCLG). I hope to positively engage with them directly to discuss this and explore how things can be improved.

I’d welcome your views on this issue. If you agree with my concerns, please feel free to share this post to raise awareness in the industry.


Student Living Design in 2015

Next week I will be speaking again at a national student housing conference in London, hosted by LD Events. My talk is focused on Student Living Design and I’ll be exploring the changing learning and living dynamics for ‘Generation Y’ in University life.

There is no doubt that technology has a huge influence today, in a social context and also in how people learn/ study/ work. The formality of how we use physical spaces has changed significantly as the boundaries between our day-to-day activities have blurred. One of my most productive workplaces is actually on the train to London.

So what’s new in Student Living? The sector has continued to evolve as the competition has increased between existing and lots of new operators in the market place. I suspect a lot of people will still associate student living with basic halls which lacked any real design or identity. The reality is very different now.

Modern student living developments are seeing more architectural quality externally, and much better quality and design focus internally. Generally most new developments seek to align with student aspirations and expectations in their look and operation. The major focus is now on creating an outstanding ‘student experience’.

Living formats range from premium studios, twodios (2 beds with a shared compact kitchen), twin rooms, townhouses and of course the traditional cluster apartment/ bedrooms. The latter is where the demand remains, as this makes up more than 80% of the market, and is generally the most affordable.

A standard bedroom will now typically include; a larger bathroom pod with a defined shower enclosure (no more wet rooms or shower curtains), more storage space, linear desks, a 3/4 sized bed and larger windows. The finishes and colours are much more modern too. Whilst there has been a push for smaller compact room formats, we are also seeing larger rooms emerge as well.

Student Room conceptResistance is growing to address the visual impact of the long institutional corridors which enviably exist in these buildings. They can often be a monotony of identical doors! The use of feature finishes/ colours, recessed doorways, daylighting (where possible), signage and lighting all improve these spaces dramatically. There is also a growing trend towards forming small break-out spaces within the general circulation areas to allow residents to meet, relax and dwell.

Two big areas of operational progress in the sector, which directly impact upon design, is branding and a more hospitality led approach to student living.

Operational reputation is so critical now. It heavily influences investment for new development and is a big decision factor for universities and students alike in the hugely competitive marketplace. Reputation is measured by performance, satisfaction and occupation/ retention levels. All are equally important. If a student takes to Twitter to vent their frustrations about something, the operators have to respond instantly.

Operators now (finally) recognise how important brands are to young people. A number of existing operators have dropped their corporate look to promote a fresher impression which is focussed around lifestyle. Within the buildings, the operational focus is much more aligned to hotels now. The intention is for residents to be treated as customers and communal facilities to promote social interaction and a range of activities.

In some early student living developments I have designed, we would provide common rooms. These would typically include pool tables, vending facilities and seating, but they were rarely used. Why? Because there wasn’t a desire or need to be in that space.

Student HubVITA Student leading by example : Hub space

Now common rooms (now referred to as ‘Hubs’) have large reception spaces, coffee lounges, games/ media rooms, TV/ Cinema lounges, Group study spaces/ private rooms, Private Dining facilities, gym facilities and more. These spaces are aspirational and lifestyle focused. They are there to promote and create a social community.

receptionVITA Student leading by example : Reception

So what else is affecting student living? The boundaries between private residential apartments and purpose built student living continue to blur, especially with the surge in Permitted Development rights for Office to Residential conversions, and also the rapid rise in the Private Rented Sector/ Built to Rent. The latter also focussing heavily on well branded, aspirational, lifestyle managed living for young people. In part PRS is very much about continuing that standard set by Student Living for the next step in life; ‘Graduate Living’. I can see the potential for this emerging as a specific branded offer.

Another influence which is growing is sustainable design. This is led by statutory legislation in the main, but the bar keeps rising and therefore the need for the sector to embrace sustainability is becoming critical and increasingly expensive for developers. It surprises me that nobody seems to have seen the opportunity to create a point of difference here, a bit like M&S and their PlanA initiative.

So the conclusion here is that student living is very much about excellent quality design in 2015 and beyond, both in terms of the architecture and the internal environments. The skill however is in being able to balance design with commercial reality in terms of development/ financial viability. This is where sector experience, in both the design and delivery of student living, becomes so important when selecting an architect.

We  have a dedicated Student Living team at WCEC, with years of experience and thousands of beds delivered. We are currently working on over 2500 beds across numerous projects, both on and off-campus, all over the UK.

If you want balanced, pragmatic and informed advice on the very latest Student Living design concepts, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We love talking about Student Living!




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