Adam Tyson is Managing Director of Asset Management at student accommodation infrastructure provider UPP, leading the delivery of its construction projects and strategic asset management. Here he explains why purpose-built student accommodation is ready for a shakeup
What are the main challenges facing the student housing sector?
Many of our university partners have challenges with their accommodation both from an energy and carbon perspective, as well as the legislative requirements around areas like accessibility and fire requirements. The climate crisis is at the forefront of most of our discussions.
Should universities be prioritising refurbishment because of the environmental advantages that retrofitting offers?
Finding a balance between new build and refurb is a hot topic at the moment. There are lots of benefits of retaining original buildings and structures, but we have to look at it on a case by case basis. UPP is the market leader in terms of large estate transfers and this means that in some cases, there are buildings where it’s not reasonable to try and adapt them to modern standards just because of the way they were built.
At the same time, we know there needs to be a step change to make sure any new build is as sustainable as possible - if we don't do that and make it the accepted norm through the use of Passivhaus or equivalent, in a few years we’ll be talking about the buildings we’ve built now, having to be retrofitted.
What are you looking to get out of the Architect Pitch?
At the end of last year, we ran an architects’ selection exercise and from that we chose a panel of architects we can use on a number of projects. But there needs to be a process of constant review to make sure we’re at the cutting edge of best practice when it comes to design, so we are not just concentrating on architects for our larger schemes, but rather looking at opportunities for smaller and more bespoke practices. This Pitch is therefore a very interesting opportunity for us because it could help us challenge our way of thinking and shift our expectations in many areas that we might not have thought of otherwise.
Could you give some examples of the areas you are thinking about?
It could range from looking at an individual bedroom from an interior or layout perspective, through to considering the design of the cluster flat type configuration, to new and different ways of using breakout spaces, access routes, reception areas and multi- use spaces through to current thinking around mental health and wellbeing and ways of getting those benefits embedded and built into a design concept.
How has students’ experience over the pandemic fed into your thinking about their future accommodation needs?
Housing is central to the university experience. It’s where students’ relationships are formed and where they meet people. But 73% of students said the pandemic had a very or somewhat negative impact on their mental health. In some other research, over half of the students felt lonely or isolated during the recent autumn term with 47% saying they had had mental health issues, which they had no intention of disclosing this to their university. This was quite an eye opener and makes us acutely aware of the importance of our accommodation, and that the needs of students have not always been as well thought out historically as they should have been.
To what extent do you canvas views of future students about their accommodation priorities?
Maybe 15 to 20 years ago students weren’t so concerned about the standard of the accommodation they were going into - it was more about university experience. But now students are asking questions around whether buildings are energy efficient and we’re predicting that more and more students will be making decisions based on that sort of information which is a great catalyst for change.
Do you have a favourite architect?
Zaha Hadid is very inspirational. I started off being a bit of a cynic and felt that her designs were exuberant, but difficult to build. As I gained awareness of the beauty of the structures and the innovative ways that they were built, I began to admire the cutting-edge nature of her designs. The Guangzhou Opera House in China is the building of hers I have always wanted to visit. Construction is often about coming up with the quickest, easiest, cheapest possible solution, however sometimes we need to do things to challenge those expectations to find how far we can push things. The Guangzhou Opera House opened my eyes to think outside the box.
The Architect Pitch takes place on May 18th at UPP's London headquarters. For more information please visit the event page