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Catherine McKenzie: ‘We want vision and creativity’

Alumno development manager Catherine McKenzie discusses future challenges in the student accommodation sector

What kind of schemes are you working on?

We have a significant pipeline of projects ranging from beachfront accommodation for the University of St Andrews, to a 625-bedroom scheme for Birmingham City University. We also recently won planning permission to transform Southwark Town Hall [by Jestico + Whiles] into a mixed-use development featuring student accommodation, artists’ studios and a children’s theatre.

How have the past few years been for you and how do you foresee the coming years?
They presented challenges which meant we had to be flexible and adaptable. We are optimistic about the future and excited about our projects – particularly in the regions, where demand for good-quality accommodation in university locations outstrips the supply.

How has the student residential market changed?
The flight to quality has created a more sophisticated and varied market. There also appears to be a move away from expensive studio schemes – especially in London where affordability has led to more traditional cluster flat arrangements, non-en suite rooms and up to three people sharing.

Some student housing has received a bad press, is that fair?
Many student housing projects built in the last 20 years have come in for criticism for various reasons – be it the quality of materials, or the public perception of student housing.

What do you want from an architect?
We look for honesty, vision, leadership, creativity and ambition, combined with the experience to deliver a commercially sound project. Each project is unique, and different practices are more suitable for different jobs. This also allows for a more varied product.

Are you looking for new talent? Would you ever consider having design contests?
Alunmo is very open to new talent and seeks to work with ambitious and dynamic practices. We have developed close working relationships with a handful of young practices. Given the timing pressures and nature of delivery, design competitions tend not to work for us.

What would you most like the government to do for you?
The government should reconsider its cuts to universities’ capital funding and look to enhance access for students from poorer backgrounds. The relaxation of procurement regulations would also be highly welcomed.

Which of your projects is your favourite and why?
Stratford High Street by MJP Architects – it is one of our most ambitious projects.

MJP Stratford Tower

Stratford High Street by MJP Architects

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