Tag Archives: Build to Rent

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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The UK Construction funnel problem

Earlier this year I attended a conference in London where Mark Farmer of EC Harris articulated some serious concern about the volume of construction activity in the pipeline and the likely ‘blockage’ that would occur with Main Contractors and Sub-Contractors, specifically in relation to their ability to respond to market demands. The issue being a lack of resources – and materials in some cases (brick availability being a big problem).

It seems that investors and developers have funds and are pushing projects forward at pace now – some of which are large, especially in the Residential sector. However the anticipated delivery/ supply chain blockage is now being realised…

UK Construction Funnel

At present we are engaged in the development of circa 3500+ Residential dwellings in London on numerous sites. In addition, following recent instructions, we have a fairly similar figure again in the UK regions – Manchester being a particular hotspot. Our Residential team is continuing to grow with our group team nearing 130 staff in recent weeks.

Our work winning success seems to be as a result of our focused/ efficient operating model, the scale and diversity of our team experience, and our extensive use of BIM. A big strategic focus for the group is on diversification and this is working very well for us. We’ve recently been appointed on Student Living, Education, Industrial and Healthcare related projects, in addition to our existing ever growing port-folio of Residential, Retail and Leisure work.

One thing that’s fueling the surge of major projects in construction is the significant interest and activity in the emerging ‘built to rent’ or ‘private rented sector’ (PRS), to deliver large Residential products, these are funded by institutional and international funds. This is something we’re involved with at present.

Our London projects are perhaps proving the most challenging at present, in terms of Tender dialogue, as Main Contractors are needing to be very selective about what they can physically handle. Furthermore sub-contractors are struggling to respond to pre-construction programme demands in terms of finalising designs and cost plans.

So the wider impact of all this could be significant, with cost plans rising and construction programme’s becoming protracted in some cases. It’s been reported in the press over the last week or so that brick layers are earning £1000 a week now. There’s a sense of the tail waging the dog here!

This issue won’t resolve itself quickly. There is now a clear skills and resources shortage in the Construction industry which simply can’t handle the current demands of the Property and Investment sector.

There’s a real irony here of course; The Construction sector has been the worst affected by the recession, by some margin. Now the recovery has recently occurred so quickly that the sector simply can’t cope with demand. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds in the 12 months as developers and contractors race to complete projects on site.

So whilst we as architects are incredibly busy bringing new developments to market, the challenge will remain for sometime yet in terms of building these on site effectively.