As the market for student accommodation softens, developers need to think outside the box, says Emily Booth
Shoddy design. It dogs too much of the new housing in this country. According to a report from the Bartlett School of Planning, the vast majority of new housing developments should not have been built because of it. From 140 developments across England constructed since 2007, a whopping 20 per cent should have been rejected outright, says the report. A further 54 per cent should only have been built if the developer came back with significant improvements in the design.
In higher education, new student housing – the catchily named ‘purpose-built student accommodation’ (PBSA) sector, which in 2019 totalled £5.4 billion – hasn’t covered itself in glory, either. The past decade has seen a glut of garish towers springing up across the UK, a product of the student housing boom.
Of course, there will always be exceptions to the rules – such as high-end student housing in London, many Oxbridge offerings, Henley Halebrown’s Stirling Prize nomination for its Roehampton student halls.
But, let’s face it, many of the blocks in the mainstream PBSA sector are in the hands of private developers, stacking hundreds of anonymous rooms on top of each other, with little built-in flexibility, lots of poor detailing and a lack of connection with a wider sense of place and community.
Change does seem to be on the way, however, as Ella Jessel’s excellent research uncovers. Student accommodation is no longer a licence to print money: there’s oversupply in various local markets.
Partly as a result, councils are getting tougher on what can be built (it seems like they’re sick of Section 73 applications to change use when they can’t fill the digs). Student schemes now regularly need to show how they can be adapted and what that future use will be. And only the best, most flexible projects will thrive as the market softens.
Still, a home is a home – isn’t it? Whoever it’s for. (‘Accommodation’ as a term doesn’t cover how significant that sense of home is). High standards of design and workmanship are what we should be aiming for, and what we aren’t getting enough of. With student mental health issues on the rise, having a comfortable, secure home while at college would seem more important than ever.
Architects know this. There are some interesting intergenerational and cross-community schemes in the offing that the wider student housing sector might learn from. Check out LaunchPad in Bristol, designed by local firm Alec French Architects, a collaboration between a housing association, a charity and a student union. It would be great to see more retrofit approaches in this area, too!
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Certainly, all housing designers can learn from brilliant co-housing project Marmalade Lane, for which Alice Hamlin, architect at Mole, has been shortlisted in the new MJ Long Prize for Excellence in Practice. Part of the AJ and Architectural Review’s W Awards finalists, she is in very good company. ‘On community-led schemes, there’s the additional joy of getting to know the residents and seeing how they get on as they move in and make it their own,’ Hamlin says.
Why not apply this same rigour to all housing? Student homes included.