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The Evolution of Student Accommodation

  • Posted on 21st August 2014
  • Category: General

This article recently appeared in the Builder & Engineer Newsletter.

Increased investment from private developers is dramatically changing the student accommodation sector says Peter Stienlet, managing director of Patrick Parsons

The student accommodation sector is growing rapidly, with investment reaching £2.1 billion last year in the UK.

In addition to rising demand, students are increasingly seeking a better standard of accommodation. This is particularly true of the number of overseas students coming to study in the UK, and developers are going the extra mile in order to attract them.

Back in the 1980s, accommodation was usually university-owned. Funding cuts meant that this then switched to private developers in the late 1990s, and now there is another big change with the move towards luxury in the student market.

The quality of student housing in this country has improved year-on-year, and is certainly ahead of mainland Europe, but it still pales in comparison with the luxury available in the Middle East. I have recently visited cities such as Doha and Dubai to assess their student accommodation offering, and the standard was incredibly high.

I had the chance to take a tour around Education City – 14 square kilometres of education facilities from school age to research level on the outskirts of Doha. Some of the world’s top universities are setting up campuses there, from the USA’s prestigious Northwestern University to the UK’s University College London (UCL).

Student bedrooms there were similar to five-star hotel designer rooms, with features such as marble floors and walls, granite worktops, smart-room technology for climate control and other preferences, and wall-mounted LCD panels.

This sounds like the complete opposite of what we’re used to in this country, but UK developers are beginning to take note and incorporate more luxurious fittings and fixtures to attract the top end of the student market.

Of course, the UK has more demands on space than Qatar does, where there are fewer planning restrictions. Here, developers are trying to squeeze as many rooms and floors as possible into a specific building height to maximise the number of rooms, and hence the rent that can be charged per week.
To this end, there is an increased use of concrete frame and flat slab, partially due to the rising cost of steel but also because flat slab construction can minimise floor-to-floor heights. Other benefits include fast construction, energy efficiency, maximum flexibility and simple installation of services.

The whole life costing of the building is now an important consideration, and there is an increased focus on sustainability and energy efficiencies. This means that the mechanical and electrical (M&E) engineering input is increasingly significant for these projects.

Sustainability is key and as a result, developers are under pressure from Planning Authorities to look at efficiencies and use sustainable technology for all power requirements. We are looking at the increased use of community heating and power systems combined with renewables.

In order to help with funding in the early stages, some developers are offering private lets in buildings that provide accommodation for both students and young professionals. This allows investors to purchase a room within a block at the outset, and then reap the rewards of the rental income, and this is something I see as only becoming more prevalent.

Going forward in the UK market, I anticipate that accommodation blocks will be tailored for different target markets in the planning stages, and developers will think more along the lines of hotel operators.

We will potentially see a two-tier system of student accommodation in the near future – some blocks will follow the ‘boutique hotel’ model but this won’t appeal to everyone, so there will still be a demand for budget housing.

Either way, gone are the days of basic ‘student digs’ with shared facilities of the last few decades – it’s now not just a room but a community or village with high quality accommodation, social areas, sports facilities and food and drink outlets.