The Guardian, March 2007, Feature
En-suite bathroom, hard- wood floors, solid oak furniture. It sounds like a Chelsea apartment or a suite at the Ritz. But this vision of luxury is a standard student room in a Cambridge University college.
Long gone are the days when halls of residence carried the air of a poverty stricken monastic order, all bare breeze block walls and concrete floors with students crammed into cells along dingy corridors sharing 10 to a bathroom. For some students today, arriving at their hall of residence is more like checking into a hotel.
Universities realise that in the competition to win the best students, quality halls of residence can tip the balance when students are choosing where to study. Queen Mary’s Westfield college in north London is one that’s ahead of the game. Over the last few years it has set about creating an entire new student mini-village.
Its five-year vision to consolidate the college’s student halls on to one site has seen the addition of 1,000 new rooms housed within a series of distinctive four-storey brick and copper-clad buildings.
It’s a bold move by the college and a clever marketing strategy. To offer nervous school-leavers and even more nervous parents the comfort of a fully supported campus is what sets it apart from so many London colleges. For high fee-paying international students, it’s even more of a pull. While not all rooms at the mini-village are of the same standard, even the cheapest are a marked improvement on anything previously offered at the college.
Ian Taylor was the architect for the scheme. His practice, Feilden Clegg Bradley, has established itself as an expert in student housing. Taylor says he’s seen a quantum leap in aspirations in the last few years. His university clients are no longer just asking for budget accommodation — they’ve identified a growing market at the high end as well.
“What’s interesting is that design quality is becoming much more important,” says Taylor. “Clients are saying they want to be more sustainable, both in terms of the quality of the building and its environmental performance.” He suggests that in the future some universities could offer only top-end accommodation and let the market supply the rest.
Nowhere is this trend for high-quality housing more marked than at the Cambridge and Oxford colleges with their range of exquisite new buildings and refurbishments.
Both Darwin and Trinity colleges in Cambridge have realised projects by local practice Fifth Studio, where students are housed in cool modern spaces with hard wood floors and expensive detailing. Selwyn college has built a classical court in limestone and brick, while a new block at St Catherine’s in Oxford is set within beautifully landscaped gardens.
Besides the race to pick up the best students, there is also the lucrative conference market. If every student room has an en suite toilet and shower, it’s as much for the vacation-time conference visitor as for the student occupant.
But while many universities aspire to compete with Oxford and Cambridge, most have to take a more financially hard-headed approach. Those in less attractive locations need to be realistic about the rents their students and conference-goers will pay.
The University of East London (UEL), for instance, has known for a while the value that well designed student housing can add to a college. Eight years ago it built a series of new housing blocks on its campus in Docklands.
To counter the risk of radar reflections for planes taking off from the nearby City airport, architect Edward Cullinan designed a series of twinned drums in striking colours that became an instant icon. They’re now so famous they’ve not only become a powerful symbol of the college, but also for the regeneration of the Docklands. Despite the drums’ fame, though, being stuck out next to a dual carriageway in the east end of London will always limit their rental value.
The university is now building another new block next door. But as with its predecessor, the plans will have to reflect a modest budget. As many as eight rooms will share a kitchen and the sizes of rooms themselves will have to be kept down. “With a limited budget we’ve had to focus the money where it matters,” says the project’s architect, Angus Brown of Fraser Brown McKenna. “We’ve put it into the kitchens, the glazing and the use of colour. But it means we can’t get too precious. It’s about getting the overall form right, rather than relying
on beautiful details.”
Brown is also working at UEL with a student housing provider in a lease-back scheme — much like the arrangements used to build many of today’s schools and hospitals. But this procurement can have risks in housing of dubious quality.
He is optimistic, however, that even at this end of the scale, quality is improving: “Working with a service provider can produce tensions but it doesn’t have to lead to a bad result,” he says. As both the colleges and the architects gain more experience of working within these lease-back arrangements, they’re learning how to keep control over the design process.
Another factor driving forward quality is the growing sophistication of prefabrication. Ranging from the use of precast concrete to prefabricated walls, floors or even whole kitchen and bathroom units, prefabrication is spreading throughout the construction industry.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, these new technologies actually perform better than traditional building methods in terms of acoustics and heat loss, while keeping down cost. According to Feilden Clegg Bradley’s Taylor, the trick will be for architects to take these standardised elements and arrange them to produce varied spaces that still have character. With the quality housing students are being offered across the board, they will no longer accept the rabbit hutches of yesteryear.