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Can you dig it?

Demand for high-quality student accommodation is soaring, so how can universities satisfy expectations? Ella Taylor finds out

Posted by Hannah Oakman | November 21, 2016 | Facilities management

Housing trends may come and go, but with UK university admissions continuing to rise, the need for student accommodation is going through the roof, and providers must keep up with the ever-increasing standards expected of them. Perhaps because of the higher cost of university, the influence of international students or better living standards at home, modern students are no longer satisfied to lock themselves away in small, drab rooms. Modern students insist on comfort, social space and top connectivity, among other popular features. As Kellogg College communications officer Vanessa Hack says: “People used to a modern city such as Hong Kong, for example, might find an old-fashioned room with an electric heater and a bathroom down the corridor rather a surprise.”

Some 46% of students surveyed for the 2016 University Partnership Programme’s (UPP) Annual Student Experience survey said that good accommodation was important to their overall university experience. To keep up with the demand for more spaces and higher specifications, some universities are investing in new halls of residence where space and budgets allow, while others are making the most of their existing stock with refurbishments. So how can universities ensure that their money is well spent on spaces that students enjoy? What are the current trends in student property that look set to continue?

Flexible social space

The UPP survey, conducted by YouthSight, found a decline in the percentage of students who view bars and clubs on campus as important. Yet many developments are now putting shared social spaces at the heart of their design, suggesting that students still want time to socialise, just perhaps not at the pub. Jon Wakeford, director of strategy and communications at UPP, says: “We need to create flexible shared and social spaces that give young people a wider range of experiences and speak to a more academically focused generation of students.”

The University of Hull’s new residences at The Courtyard are focused around such different social spaces, such as the ‘MasterChef-style’ large communal kitchen and dining area, student lounges, a games room, cinema room and outdoor sheltered courtyards. Bath Spa University’s new Green Park House appeals to the academically minded by offering a bookable study/meeting space alongside a common room area and a garden. Similarly, different types of study areas are also a trend, as developments such as the University of Derby’s new calming and invigorating outdoor study balconies show.

The University of Oxford’s Kellogg College recently started construction of a new £2m social hub, offering social space including a common room and a café within easy walking distance of halls. The trend for more casual socialising and studying spaces was key to the hub’s design, which involved a huge amount of student consultation. Kellogg College’s Vanessa Hack says: “The presence of the café will mean that people can ‘graze’ as they talk or type, which is a feature that modern students require. While formal meals continue in the dining hall, there is the flexibility for them to refuel on coffee or snacks as they work. The old approach of fixed meal times and a ban on food in libraries and study spaces is no longer the norm.” 

The college has also replaced top tables and segregated, hierarchical spaces with long, shared tables where all students, academics and even alumni can mix. Hack says: “The variety and depth of this open community will stimulate and develop ideas, which is what university life should be all about.”

Cutting-edge technology

Of course excellent Wi-Fi access is also vital to students nowadays, who rely on the internet not only for their studies but also for countless aspects of their daily lives. Perhaps for this reason, many universities include broadband access in the rental price of their residences.

Jon Thornhill, commercial director of ASK4, which provides high-speed internet for student accommodation, says: “The most notable change over the last five years has been the demand for high-performing wireless internet, rather than a wired connection. With students arriving at their accommodation with an average of five Wi-Fi-hungry devices, a robust, managed Wi-Fi service is absolutely crucial.” 

International students may arguably rely on technology more than others while away from family and friends back home. Students at Bath Spa University even benefit before they arrive from technical innovations, through Skype tours of potential accommodation where they can see the facilities and get to know some of the staff, to help them decide where to live.

Similarly, the process of applying for and managing their housing has to suit the needs of students. Kinetic Solutions is a company that designs online application sites for universities. These provide “a visual, hotel-like booking process that reassures students (and parents) about the options, facilities and locality.” says marketing manager Nick Lomax, adding that they also offer services once students arrive such as online tracking for parcel deliveries, online service portals and even an online portal for students to report concerns about their peers’ mental health “in a way that is familiar and easy to use, and that ensures the information reaches the right people quickly so that help can be given.”

Green credentials

For the new generation of students coming up, environmentally friendly designs prove a distinct bonus. The Courtyard at Hull features a green roof, while Derby’s study balconies incorporate living walls, making their green credentials visible. 

The hub at Kellogg College will be the first building at the University designed to meet Passivhaus standards, meaning its airtight build will require very little energy to heat and cool. This energy-efficient design is greener and cheaper to operate, providing value for money for the University and its students.

Similarly, Bath Spa University’s Green Park House was built to achieve BREEAM Very Good, another exacting energy-efficient standard. 

The building is part-powered by solar PV panels, a heat recovery system is in place, 80% of building elements are from sustainable sources and low water use fittings have been installed throughout.

More flexibility

Perhaps a perennial issue for accommodation is having the diversity of stock to satisfy the multitude of needs in each cohort. While some students in their first year of study will want the ease of being on or close to campus, others may prefer to commute, in order to enjoy living in the heart of a new town or city. Green Park House is an example of new halls of residence that have been built away from the University’s main campuses, but close to bus routes to lectures and right in the heart of Bath city centre, opposite a large supermarket. Bath Spa consulted with existing students about potential locations for accommodation.

Green Park House also offers different room types to suit different budgets and lifestyles, including en suite rooms in shared flats (another increasingly popular option), townhouses with shared facilities, studios and twodios (two study bedrooms with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities).

As Rob Armstrong-Haworth, director of corporate and external relations at Bath Spa University, says: “The building offers something for everyone, which is important to us. Whether it’s the high-quality finish of the kitchens, the metro tiles in the bathrooms, the USB charging sockets, or the garden with its picnic benches, we’ve worked hard to give the building many features that will appeal to lots of different people. A particular favourite of mine is the bird boxes camouflaged into one of the accommodation blocks, which at first you may not spot!” 

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