As demand for quality student living increases the design of communal spaces is becoming more inventive and flexible

Andrew Kane

Like me, many parents will have sons or daughters starting university in a few weeks’ time. Now that the choice about town or city has been made and the results are in, the next concern will be where and how will they live? This focus on student accommodation is not just shared by parents, but increasingly by universities and investors alike. With the cap on student numbers due for removal this time next year, the quality of residential accommodation is increasingly seen as a key student experience differentiator. At the same time the demand for student accommodation from institutional investors remains exceptionally strong, underpinned by the power of university covenants.

This spotlight on student living spaces is driving innovation and change and a common mantra from operators is ‘it is more than just the room’.  By this they mean that student living should be much more than simply providing shelter per se, it should be more about establishing a strong community and fostering a richness of lifestyle. The ugly duckling of the old hall of residences model needs to evolve into a bird of paradise if it is to attract and provide the quality of lifestyle expected by modern students paying fees of £9,000 a year and demanded by institutions at risk of increasing competition from their peers.

Our design work in this sector is embracing the concept of the “third space” as the catalyst to create a step change in the quality of student living. Characterised by Ray Oldenburg in his influential book, The Great Good Place (1989, 1991), the third space is separate from the social environment of the home or workplace and provides an anchor of community life helping to foster group identity and a sense of place. Some of the features that commonly define the third space ring true with the desire for student living improvements: space needs to be welcoming, comfortable, highly accessible and inexpensive.

The social nature of laundrettes can play an important role in community life; by pairing the laundry and cafe, the functional necessity of washing your clothes becomes an opportunity to meet with friends over a coffee

As a consequence, the design and provision of the central communal spaces is diversifying and becoming more inventive. For example the social nature of laundrettes can play an important role in community life; by pairing the laundry and cafe, the functional necessity of washing your clothes becomes an opportunity to meet with friends over a coffee. Shared dining has always been a strong part of any community, and while cluster flats remain the main location for cooking and eating there is an increasing provision of communal dining rooms. These provide space for 12-15 students to meet for shared dinners, events, celebrations or small parties.

Equally, for those students with little or no knowledge of cooking beyond boiling an egg, they provide perfect locations in which to host cooking classes. Some of the more innovative facilities even provide music practice rooms or workshops to promote a diversity of activities beyond work or socialising. Of course, fitness facilities also play an important role in promoting wellbeing. With changing patterns of study the provision of small group study rooms is also becoming increasingly important.

This new third category of space must above all be flexible in order to respond to the changing interests of students across the course of the academic year. For example, the autumn term is generally more relaxed, emphasis is on making new friends or renewing friendships fostered in previous years. These spaces should provide a venue to watch TV or movies, have parties, or even play computer games. As the third term approaches emphasis shifts towards study and exams so the thirdspace should provide a venue to study individually or with friends very much as a changed from the individual bedroom or cluster flat. Clever furniture systems and integrated IT connectivity can play an important role in delivering this flexibility.

So, the third space concept offers a rich seam of spatial possibilities. As a guiding concept it is one that has the potential to change the landscape of student living in a way that can truly fulfil the collective expectations of students, parents and universities alike.

Andrew Kane is a partner at architect and urban designer at FaulknerBrowns