The need for Student Housing quality standards?

Following the recent award of BD’s Carbuncle Cup to the UCL Student Housing development on Caledonian Road in London, the architectural press have created somewhat of a storm around the quality of student housing and design standards.

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Above: Calendonian Road, London

Personally I think the media are ten years too late for all this. I believe that in general the design quality of purpose built student housing has improved significantly from early generation developments. There are many reasons for this, not least of which the need for new developments to continually offer more than any existing student housing within a locale. I spoke at a conference back in May about this – you can see my talk by clicking here.

4526064725Above: Early 1st Generation purpose built student accommodation.

There is a continual debate about what contemporary student needs are and how that is designed into purpose built accommodation. Investors and developers remain attracted to student housing, but land values and capital build costs necessitate a relatively fine balance in terms of ensuring schemes are viable – and more importantly; fundable. The rental price point and ensuring maximum occupancy demand are clearly key factors as students pay upwards of £4500 per year for their ‘digs’.

Ultimately students who decide to occupy these buildings are essentially endorsing them by choosing to live there and pay rent. Therefore how relevant is any third party criticism of what others’ think’ is right or wrong?

To give this subject some wider context it is worth noting that the growth of student housing has been fuelled by a shift away from extremely poor quality student housing within HMO’s owned by single Landlords. This sort of accommodation has gained a reputation for shopping trolleys in gardens, damp/ cold homes, within student ghetto’s where transient population issues lead to social problems with owner-occupied homes. Purpose built student housing is a positive and necessary asset class. Students need to live somewhere and the UK higher education system is amongst the best in the world, delivering many economic benefits.

The Government have recently recognised the need to gain a better understanding of this asset class by forming a British Property Federation group, led by Unite MD Richard Simpson, to advise/ support Government on a wide range of policy matters affecting Students and their housing. You can find out more here. This was following the ‘perfect storm’ of 2012 where the sector felt a hit by the £9k fees hike, immigration laws changing and A-level scoring levels being adjusted. I know a number of people who sit on this group and I receive regular BPF communications on current issues being discussed.

One point of contention in the media this week is the size of bedrooms and more specifically their window sizes. On the Caledonian Road development a comparison has been made with a local prison and a suggestion that prisoners get better quality living accommodation than students. A fundamental difference is of course that students can get out when they want – and they choose and pay to live there!

A student bedroom generally serves 2-3 uses; desk based working, sleeping, relaxing (TV, gaming, social media, internet etc). This is fairly consistent with a domestic bedroom within a home. From my experience student bedroom window sizes are broadly in-line, if not better, than modern domestic homes. There are other factors which come into play when comparing purpose built student housing to domestic properties. Student housing buildings are intensely cellular in their floor layout planning. This is largely unavoidable and issues with security, fire separation and heating/ cooling these spaces are always an issue. Almost all doors must normally be closed preventing natural ventilation occurring. Bedroom windows are typically restricted in their opening due to a number of operational concerns with taller buildings. These issues directly influence the practical size of windows. Students also have an increasing range of on-site alternative spaces for daytime occupation. These include shared Kitchen/ Living rooms, common rooms, external amenity spaces, coffee lounges, gyms etc.

I think there are valid points to be made about the need for new student housing to be built of a suitable quality, both internally and externally. But I think this current media hype needs to be considered in a broader perspective. It seems to me that people are jumping on a band wagon here, with little actual knowledge or understanding of these buildings and how they operate.

There will always be exceptions, as with all building types, which stand out for criticism. It is inevitable that student housing would feature highly this year when you consider how strong this sector is whilst other remain slow/ dormant! But this should not open the flood gates for complete sector wide reviews and suggestions of regulatory policies being required.

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One thought on “The need for Student Housing quality standards?”

  1. We all know the development of purpose built accommodation for students has been significant in the last 12 years, led by a relatively small number of large specialist owner/operators in Unite, Opal, Liberty,etc.,along with developers such as George Downing who mainly build to sell on to an owner/operator at some point. The progression has by far not only been in bed numbers, and I would argue that the quality of what is now being offered to that sector has improved significantly and is usually very desirable, often enquired about by the younger non student worker particularly in London, which in itself reflects that the product and price matches the requirements of todays young workers and students.
    Now it may well be that external elevation treatments/design may leave a lot to be desired but this is the case not only with accommodation for students but with general building design today, often brought about by planners initially demanding costly elevation treatments/effects which are then compromised to help get the project closer to budget and as usual the end result is not ideal.
    I remember one of the first developments built by a business called Domain called Atlantic Point in Liverpool looked more akin to a prison than anything I’d ever seen in the student/residential market and that must have been 12 years ago so the problem was around then, and still exists but I doubt whether the 1000’s of students that have lived there have ever really been bothered about it’s external appearance as it still delivered them their ‘value for money’ accommodation at that time.
    As far as on-going quality is concerned the sector has an excellent organisation that actively inspects and monitors both the physical and service delivery aspects of owner providers and for sites managed by the growth of management companies such as CRM in the sector. This organisation is ANUK (Accreditation Network UK) and was formed around 12 years ago by members of the main providers in the sector, along with independent representation of the National Union of Students, experts from within the building industry, and with complete collaboration with DCLG. The ANUK Code is now thoroughly respected throughout the industry for accommodation for students both within the educational and non educational providers of accommodation. In fact most large providers cannot use the relevant University’s marketing opportunities unless they satisfy the requirements of the Code. This has been a key development in upwardly driving standards by providers operating in this sector. If you need to know more please contact the schemes administrator Simon Kemp who operates out of the Unipol offices in Leeds.

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