Student residences: Why one size no longer fits all

24th July 2018

Sheppard Robson's Clayre Massey was asked by Architects' Journal to contribute a short essay on student experience and mental wellbeing for its Student issue. The full article is included below.

Research highlights that around half of students going to university see themselves as customers. The “student-client” has arisen from the higher price of education, and led to a growing scrutiny of the quality of facilities on campuses. Universities have responded by increased investment in many aspects of campus life, with directors of estates using design to attract students in an increasingly international marketplace.

But have student residences kept pace with shifting expectations and requirements? A typology that often conjures up images of tired halls of residences, student living is surely a fundamental way of boosting the student experience, shaping mental wellbeing and breaking down the perceived barriers of going to university. Where students live, in my view, holds the key to making the whole university experience more inclusive.

We have seen a new generation of premium products launched in the student living market, mostly by private providers. These have been a valuable source of new ideas by offering a greater range of spaces and amenities that cater for individual preferences, promoting new standards of wellbeing. But these facilities – and the improvements in lifestyle they encourage – should not be an optional extra for those with higher budgets; instead, we should be looking at how new developments can offer quality to all.

Key to this reappraisal of student residences is moving away from “the one size fits all” approach; efficiency is of course important, but standardisation should not come at the expense of wellbeing. There is change afoot – no longer are we seeing student residences as purely pragmatic accommodation, but as something that offers more choice, to tackle issues such as mental health.

If we take a prospective student with an anxiety-related condition, the often intensely social atmosphere of student halls might be a reason why they would choose to live at home or perhaps not go to university at all. However, if they had greater choice of accommodation, the student could select the right sized apartment for them, which would be supported by a greater range of services and carefully considered social spaces. This ability to choose is currently in too short supply.

It is not just those with diagnosed mental health conditions who need support and choice. Students are incurring more debt and are placing significant pressure on themselves to gain the qualifications that enable them to secure a job in an increasingly competitive and uncertain jobs market. Put simply, students are working harder. But are their homes, their spaces of refuge working harder for them?

Architects have a significant part to play in tackling what some have called a student mental health crisis, and an alarming number of suicides amongst students at universities. Whilst increased workload, debt and social media have been considered as reasons for debate on mental health, surely the safety and comfort of where they live has to be considered?

Students have a right to affordable accommodation which feels like a home away from home. This is not just about visually compelling, branded spaces, but residences that have carefully considered what students need to protect their emotional wellbeing.

I think this hinges on choice; creating spaces where students have private space but also opportunities to be part of a community. This involves more thought than just providing a kitchen; a rethinking of how the design of students’ homes can bring people with a multitude of backgrounds together in smarter ways.

I’m positive that this is the time for improvement. Not only do we have student expectations and increased competition in the marketplace, but we also have student unions and satisfaction surveys, which are increasingly engaged with living conditions and the cost of accommodation.

Architects have an obligation to make the most of this momentum for change and turn their talents to a building type that has been neglected by many. We need fresh thinking and bold new ideas to ensure that efficiency never becomes an obstacle to providing choices and protecting the welfare of our students.

The article was published in full on the Architects' Journal.

Clayre Massey

Associate