Horizon Heights

Heads down, spirits up – students are back and they want a design led post pandemic experience

Senior architect Alastair Wake offers an insight into the changing expectations of students and their accommodation post pandemic.

Visit any student suburb in the UK’s major cities and you can’t help but notice the difference.  Rusholme, Smithdown, Headingly: buzzing once again as a ‘normal’ student existence re-emerges, post-pandemic.

HMOs are fully occupied by second- and third-year undergraduates and freshers have filled up the purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) that now clusters around campuses, country-wide.

But that’s as far as normality goes because bubbling beneath the surface is a desire for something different, fuelled by the isolation of lockdown and a newly found drive for value.

For many, lockdown was a grim experience, the lack of meaningful social interaction, shared experiences and team learning leading to a deep well of dissatisfaction – something exacerbated by the perceived unfairness of unwavering university fees and rental contracts needing to be fulfilled, despite students’ absence.

Put simply, the old normal is no longer acceptable and students are looking for an enhanced experience and better value for money – not just in terms of their taught experience, but their lifestyles, too.  The more forward thinking developers have already adapted their offering to cater for these emerging needs and have begun to reimagine what communal living must deliver.

OUT go the cellular rooms and shared kitchens and IN comes a much more holistic view of how students wish to interact and underpin their health and wellbeing.

Developers who are smart enough to re-evaluate which spaces within a PBSA development hold the real value to residents will be the winners in the near- and medium-term.  That means different types of communal space in the same building – buzzy social spaces; quiet communal study areas; shared kitchen/diners and a well-equipped gym and exercise facilities to name a few.

Yes, they may reduce the revenue-earning bed spaces, but they are rapidly emerging as ‘must have’ amenities without which there’ll be less revenue all round.  In the short-term there’ll be premiums to be earned by developers who can retrofit their assets quickly to accommodate this shift; in the longer-term, this will be the ‘new normal’ and the change in the balance of personal and communal space will have to work its way through rental models in a competitive market.

This shift isn’t just physical – how places are designed and function, and the facilities they provide – but one that demands a change of management approach, too.  Developments that build strong brands, with a cohesive sense of community alongside activities and infrastructure which draws residents together will score more highly, I believe.  In the BTR sector we’ve seen this at The Lexington from Moda Living, already setting benchmarks for tenant retention.

Retaining students beyond their freshers’ year and stopping the drift to HMOs in the inner suburbs will be the catalyst for growth of the PBSA sector.  Through harnessing this untapped market, developers’ re-marketing costs will plummet, with a pleasingly dramatic impact on their bottom line.  It’ll also drive the requirement for additional capacity and satisfy the wider housing market, too, keen for as much new supply as possible for first-time buyers.  This shift is also beneficial to Local Authorities, with a reduction in rates-exempt HMOs bolstering hard-pressed civic budgets.

How do we get there?  Perhaps the answer lies in accepting the fact that as students migrate through the years of their degree their needs change as much as their expectations.  Few third- or fourth-year undergraduates with exams to cram for want to be in halls with partying freshers who are making the most of their newfound freedom.  Is it simply a case of marketing blocks as ‘final year halls’ or is there a need for different design and infrastructure? Diverse and flexible communal areas pepper-potted within developments may go some way to bringing forward a PBSA offering that allows all students at various stages in their academic journey to live harmoniously.

Which brings us back to these new buildings.  If lockdown showed us one thing it was that even the more robust amongst us can suffer when their social lifeblood is constricted.  Perhaps part of the management regime of buildings should include a pastoral function, too.  Or maybe the return to social normality will render that null and void.  We shall see.

What is certain is that the drive for a greater sense of community, enhanced value for money and a more segmented product offer is going to pose challenges and opportunities for the PBSA sector.  And holding the answer is good design, informed brand-building and nimble operators attuned to the market.


Aura, student accommodation
Aura student accommodation, Liverpool