CASE STUDY: CARLTON HILL STUDENT ACCOMMODATION, LEEDS
Addressing Student Wellbeing through intelligent building design.
As Chartered Architects with over 25 years of experience of designing student accommodation projects, Halliday Clark have seen a distinct shift over the years in accommodation design formats, from shared townhouses to ensuite cluster flats and studios and the move from university funded Halls of Residences to outsourcing to national and regional operators and developers who strive to maximise density and profit.
Whilst this move towards ever larger, more standardised designs, exploiting modular construction techniques and refining efficient use of materials and speed of construction may give a nod to wider environmental issues, one key item has largely been ignored within a great proportion of current student accommodation design projects.
Many research studies have clearly shown that our built environment has a direct effect on our health and wellbeing and can have long term implications for the quality of life of everyone, yet perhaps;
“Whether people are healthy or not, is determined by their circumstances and environment. To a large extent, factors such as where we live, the state of our environment, genetics, our income and education level, and our relationships with friends and family all have considerable impacts on health…”
World Health Organization; The determinants of health
Having worked closely with student Housing experts Unipol Student Homes over many years and along with The University of Leeds, Halliday Clark have developed a ground breaking and unique student living project at Carlton Hill in Leeds city centre for 604 students with student’s wellbeing being at its core.
This case study aims to shed some light on how building design can influence health and wellbeing and how at Carlton Hill we have generated an active and intelligent response to this critical issue, which we hope others will follow.
DEFINING HEALTH AND WELLBEING
The World Health Organization now defines health not as an absence of ill-health but as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing”.
The definition of health has changed over the years and now includes an awareness of the interrelationships between social and psychological, as well as medical factors. The way in which an individual functions in society is seen as part of the definition of health, alongside biological and physical symptoms. Health is no longer simply a question of access to medical treatment, but it is determined by a range of factors related to the quality of our built environment.
This wider definition of health comes at a time of increasing pressures on health services even before the current pandemic, as a result of an ageing population, increasing obesity and rising mental health problems. The narrow focus on individual symptoms and medical treatment is no longer sufficient or sustainable, and a more holistic appreciation of a range of health-related considerations, including the prevention of ill health, is required.
This approach sees health and wellbeing being interdependent, holding prevention as important as a cure and looks for long term solutions rather than short term treatments.
Designing homes, work environments and neighbourhoods to purposefully improve and support mental health and wellbeing is therefore an opportunity to also be more cost effective, for the happier we are, the less strain we will put onto our already swamped health system.
In simplified form, health and wellbeing can be condensed into what is known as the ‘triple bottom line’ of health, comfort and happiness or as architectural Scholars would say “Firmness, Commodity and Delight!”
DESIGN AND WELLBEING
The relationship between Architecture and health has historically received little attention, beyond the design requirements and healthy buildings. Recent work has changed this and has established a more holistic awareness of the role of architecture in health. An example of this in the UK includes the publication of reports by the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Commission for architecture and the Built Environment. This supported by an increasing wealth of medical research related to physical and mental health.
A person with feelings of happiness, curiosity and engagement are characteristics of someone with a positive sense of themselves and a high level of self-esteem. A good building will therefore ‘feed’ its occupants with devices that will allow them to achieve the five keyways to achieving this.
- Keeping active
- Social interaction
It is crucial therefore that Architects and Designers embed these five key criteria into their design process in order to create responsive and responsible buildings.
Through the expansion of these criteria, we can see how important they become and how they can start to create links into a building design.
The quantity and quality of social connections e.g., talking and listening to family, friends or strangers provides an important link with the outside world setting life into perspective and giving personal experiences context.
National and global studies have proved that there is a direct correlation between physical activity and mental as well as physical health. Increased fitness, reduced levels of obesity work hand in hand with other support mechanisms for mental health issues such as anxiety, and depression.
Being mindful means paying attention to the present and being aware of your thoughts and feelings. Being able to relax and take time to yourself is a behaviour that reduces stress, anxiety and depression.
Aspirations are shaped by your childhood. People that have higher aspirations tend to have better outcomes in later life. Evidence has shown that such aspirations are modified by your environment and that those participating in music, arts and sport are more likely to attain higher levels of wellbeing.
Evidence has emerged that positive social rather than self-centred behaviour has a positive impact upon happiness. The ability to give altruistically by spending time on others as opposed to oneself through volunteering or offering to help increases how good you feel about yourself. As the saying goes, “It is always better to give than to receive.”
With these criteria in mind from the outset, the Architect can form spaces within a design which prompt and support these behaviours either in a subliminal or overt way. Working alongside the physical comfort parameters these wellbeing criteria must become part of our everyday Architectural language if our deep responsibility as Architects is to be achieved.
“Design should be responsive to user needs, behaviours and requirements, offering users a freedom of choice and control over their environment”.
Adam Clark- Halliday Clark Architects
HOW TO SUPPORT WELLBEING IN STUDENT ACCOMMODATION PROJECTS
Whilst the research and findings linking mental health issues and wellbeing to building design are applicable to all building types, there are specific sensitivities which relate to a student living project.
“Studies have shown that more young people die through suicide than through any other form of death.”
Young people and students are a particularly vulnerable sector of society regarding mental health and wellbeing.
“Nearly 1 in 4 young people will experience suicidal feelings at least once in their lives. 1 in 20 will try to take their own life!”
With such shocking statistics in mind, there becomes a duty to all student accommodation providers to understand and support student mental health through their developments. According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), student support services have seen a rise of over 150% in recent years with young people in higher education compared to those of the same age not in higher education. Approximately 29% of students experience anxiety, depression, substance abuse or personality disorders.
Student accommodation providers therefore have a dual role to fulfil. Firstly, they need to provide a support network of staff who are trained to understand, look for and support students who are getting into difficulty. On a strategic level, they need to link with university educationalists and other interface groups within the university to provide joined up thinking and a managed approach to providing individual support for each student who falls into this category. This can involve academic, pastoral, Student unions, Chaplaincy wardens and accommodation staff.
Secondly, they need, with their design teams and management staff, to consider carefully how design techniques and spaces can be used to minimise the reliance on this staff support network by addressing the five keyways of achieving wellbeing outlined in section 2 of this case study.
For the Carlton Hill project this study will focus on the second role as the staff support function is an aspect of student accommodation management in which Unipol Student Homes and The University of Leeds are experts and as the scheme management provider and scheme underwriter respectively, have an established support network in place for vulnerable students.
DEVELOPMENT CONTEXT AT CARLTON HILL
The Carlton Hill project is located adjacent to the Leeds inner city ring road sitting between the city centre and the University of Leeds main campus. It has been a student accommodation scheme since 2003, when a four storey shared townhouse scheme was designed by Halliday Clark for Pickard Properties, a well established Leeds based student development company, managed by Unipol Student homes. The scheme has proved to be extremely popular, providing 253 student bedrooms to Leeds Beckett University and Leeds Arts University students whose campuses are within 3-minute walk from the site.
Whilst popular, as was stated within the introduction to this case study, trends in student accommodation have shifted over the years with demand for ensuite bedroom accommodation and fewer shared bedrooms and facilities fuelling a more space hungry marketplace. To avoid large capital spends, many universities have outsourced accommodation into the private sector proving in lieu an underwrite or nominations agreement as security to the developer to enable external funding to be obtained.
Carlton Hill was not immune to this pressure and although the accommodation was fully let and in excellent condition, having been regularly updated and constantly maintained by Unipol, with a 25 year lease renewal fast approaching there became an opportunity to assess current demands for an increase demand in modern ensuite accommodation.
This demand was particularly focussed on undergraduate accommodation for UK based University of Leeds students in contrast to the propensity of studio apartment developments being constructed for the overseas student market, which carry a dramatic increase in monthly rental charges.
The decision was taken initially to explore the use of adjoining land, not within the developer’s ownership to expand the existing development to a scheme of circa 500 bedspaces but due to a wish not to engage in the development by the adjoining landowner, the decision was taken to explore the demolition and full-scale redevelopment of the site to create a brand new undergraduate cluster flat scheme creating circa 600 bedspaces.
This presented a fantastic opportunity for Halliday Clark to consider a scheme from scratch that had the wellbeing of students at its heart with every design decision from layout to paint colours based upon a desire to support students and visitor’s wellbeing.
DESIGN TECHNIQUES USED AT CARLTON HILL
Working closely with Pickard Properties and Unipol Student Homes Halliday Clark developed a brief for the accommodation required both in terms of study bedrooms but also support spaces such as reception and office areas etc.
From this base brief we developed further a list of additional items which would enhance the practicality of the scheme including bicycle storage, entrance foyer, general use toilets etc. These areas combined would give the structure of the building layout and would require detailed design input into size shape, orientation, lighting, finishes to support their practical function.
What is unusual about Carlton Hill however is the development of a series of additional spaces and applications that were specifically designed to support student wellbeing.
These were developed in a priority order to ensure that the financial viability of the scheme could always be achieved, although key spaces were paramount within the emerging design concept for the overall scheme which were resolutely retained by Halliday Clark to ensure that the correct balance of cost was focussed on the priority areas.
The first priority area was bedroom size.
Floor area equals cost and as a result many student accommodation schemes sacrifice bedroom and circulation floor space to reduce costs or increase unit numbers. In terms of student wellbeing however this can be extremely detrimental as the lack of physical space to study and relax causes stress and anxiety, reducing effectiveness of study and unhappiness.
As an antedote to this at Carlton Hill, bedrooms were increased to an average of 16 sqm in floor area from a typical 12 to 14 sqm floor area in other cluster flat schemes. This 25% increase enables more flexible furniture arrangements, increased storage, wider beds, and a general feel of airiness.
Coupled to this priority was window size.
Natural daylight has proved to be a fundamental source of supporting wellbeing. ‘SAD’ syndrome has been an established condition for many years, being prevalent in countries, communities and living spaces where natural daylight is limited. Studies have shown that the spectrum of natural daylight compared to artificial alternatives stimulates brain activity and assists in positive thinking.
At Carlton Hill, large, full height glazing is introduced to all bedrooms and living spaces which not only increases natural light penetration but also increases the viewing area for students, giving a stronger visual connection with their surroundings, connection being one of the five keyways of achieving wellbeing.
Clearly there are always challenges to create a bedroom orientation that can have sufficient natural daylight and a view throughout the year but at Carlton Hill, using light modelling techniques, the design was shaped and sculpted to ensure that every single bedroom within the development will have above the national guidance requirement for natural daylight for study bedrooms. This benefits not only the wellbeing of the students but decreases the artificial lighting required saving energy costs and carbon emissions.
Having established an improved bedroom unit, the building layout was considered.
As with all building designs, careful site analysis was carried out to establish constraints and influences on the schemes form, position on the site however the internal layout was very much driven by a wish to make the building as light open and welcoming as possible.
It appears often to be forgotten in student accommodation projects that these buildings are a student home for the minimum of a year rising to three or more. For some, leaving home at just eighteen is a very traumatic and unsettling experience, leaving friends, family and even pets behind. It is essential therefore that the layout of their new home is warm and inviting and not institutional. Long narrow windowless corridors were eschewed at Carlton Hill for short wide routes.
The building plan, meanders across the site to create interest with changing focal points as you move around the building. Once again, this ability to establish your bearings, creating an instant mind map as to where you are within the development reduces stress and anxiety and reinforces the connection factor.
Moving on from the building plan layout the building form was developed.
Tempting as it may be on a city centre site to maximize volume and density, a successful scheme must balance financial viability with a ‘fit for purpose’ agenda. A scheme which may start off financially viable but then attracts a reputation for large numbers of rental voids due to unpopularity is self-defeating.
In addition to this aspect of the development a scheme needs to sit comfortably on its site and with its neighbours as a piece of townscape. A building’s form is an amalgamation of these two tensions.
In Carlton Hill’s case, there was a determination to create an intelligent response that was driven by access to natural daylight to all study bedrooms but also by the need to pay reverence to the site’s topography and its relationship to the adjoining buildings which range from 6 to 18 storeys.
Having worked closely with the local planning department a building form emerged that would create the 608 bedrooms required by the client whilst creating a dramatic form which steps in rotation from 15 to 6 storeys around a central open space, reinforcing the aspect and natural daylight to each bedroom.
Site Landscaping Design
Having established the building plan and form the site landscaping design was developed to work in tandem with the building layout. The ability for students to keep active and interact with one another is another key factor to support wellbeing with external spaces being one of the best ways of promoting this.
At Carlton Hill a landscaping design and strategy was established by Halliday Clark and the Landscape Architects to promote the use of the courtyard space for relaxation and exercise. Permanent benching and open areas are laid out to allow students to interact amongst carefully chosen planting which includes an emphasis towards sensory planting such as lavender, Rosemary, mock orange etc that provide sight and smell opportunities. Low level lighting is integrated to extend the usage of the space for as long as possible, enabling organised communal events to be run by Unipol periodically, encouraging students to interact and socialise.
Roof Top Gardens
As an extension to this landscape design roof top gardens are introduced to south facing 11 and 8 storey building elements providing additional green space and relaxation space with access for all students via the entrance foyer. These terraces, protected by full height perforated and solid parapets, create a safe external experience which provide fantastic views across the city in addition to forming niches and platforms which can suit individual study or relaxation as well as smaller organised events such as yoga classes, supporting mindfulness as another one of the five key factors.
To satisfy the keeping active factor, a sports gym is provided at ground floor, available free for all students within the building on a 24 hour a day basis.
Physical exercise is key to encouraging the creation of endorphins, the ‘happiness hormone’ which boosts pleasure and self-confidence.
Three Storey Sky Gardens
Perhaps the most unusual design element with the Carlton Hill development which has been developed with wellbeing in mind is the introduction of a series of three storey sky gardens.
Positioned adjacent to each stair and lift core, the sky gardens create an atrium space through which the majority of cluster flats are accessed. Large enough to study and socialise within, the purpose of these airy spaces is to maximise the opportunity and chance of students meeting and interacting with people so that they know that they are not alone.
Many student accommodation schemes through sheer efficiency minimise common spaces, forcing a student to take a direct route from the building entrance to their study bedroom which causes isolation, the most prevalent reason for loneliness and depression. Using the sky gardens as a light space with benching and planting which acts as a mini foyer to each flat, the student has the ability to prolong this route to their bedspace increasing the chance of meeting a friend or new acquaintance.
Often students can feel self-conscious sitting within a flat kitchen/living space if loud activities are taking place or if certain flatmates dominate conversation. Having the sky garden as a quiet, contemplative space with specially designed acoustic wall panels by Halliday Clark to reduce sound, these spaces allow students to be with their own thoughts or to discuss with others their feelings in an atmosphere which is not isolating.
The psychology of meeting spaces has been hugely influential particularly in office and learning design where the distinction between study areas and social spaces have become blurred. It has been shown in our own designs for Further and Higher education buildings that students are gravitating towards much more relaxed forms of study space be it in a café or lobby rather than within a bespoke classroom.
At Carlton Hill, the creation of a generous entrance foyer set out with relaxed seating along with the sky gardens, gives students the choice that they desperately need to find a place to study, relax and interact to suit their own needs.
As a specific request from Unipol a demonstration kitchen is incorporated into the main entrance foyer.
As the move to Carlton Hill is likely to be a student’s first time living independently from home, the ability to cook and provide themselves with the right diet and nutrition is an ever-growing concern.
As we know, the UK has one of the highest levels of obesity in Europe and relies heavily on education to reduce these levels and as a result reduce pressure on the health system.
As an attempt to encourage students to benefit from a healthy diet, reduce obesity and increase a level of physical and mental wellbeing the demonstration kitchen will hold demonstrations from visiting chefs and lecturers showing the basics of food preparation and cooking. These will be carried out within flat cohorts to encourage support and friendship groups within each flat, enabling flats to increase their time cooking and eating together as a ‘family group’. This learning activity satisfies another of the key factors to support wellbeing by creating a new skill which is beneficial to both mind and body.
Entrance Foyer and Reception
Supporting the demonstration kitchen is the generous entrance foyer and reception.
Many student accommodation schemes tend to pay lip service to an entrance foyer, using it principally as an access corridor and access to laundry facilities.
In strict contrast, at Carlton Hill the entrance foyer is designed as a ’hub’ space. A space to meet and have a coffee and a chat. Perhaps study individually or in groups or to discuss something with the on-duty student representative reception staff. The space is generous in size, light and open but is designed to have clusters of comfortable moveable seating and tables much like a high-quality hotel foyer but with a homely and soft atmosphere where low-level lighting creates a warmth and inviting area for students and visitors.
Using a rich and warm colour palette of browns, tans and golds a selection of finishes are chosen to form texture and comfort moving away from the neutral grey and white palette so often used in large scale interiors.
As this is the first internal space that new students and their parents will arrive at, it is critical that the warmth of the building design is clear from the moment they walk through the entrance doors. Students are put at ease not only by their own attitude to a space but also by their parents or guardian’s reaction. The introduction of a student into their first experience of independent living is traumatic for parents and students alike, so the first impression of their son or daughter’s new home is fundamental for the ability of a parent to give the necessary positive support to their child.
Interior Colour Palette
Finally, Halliday Clark has introduced a specific interior colour palette to the Carlton Hill development.
Halliday Clark Director, Adam Clark, has always been influenced by the psychology of colour and through early studies in his career from a strong interest in Neoplasticism (the study of geometric forms generated by natural objects) has developed an expertise in the use of colour within Halliday Clark projects.
At Carlton Hill, the desire to use a soft and warm colour palette has been established which runs throughout the scheme.
Starting within the large entrance foyer in its rich tones of browns, tans and golds through to the circulation areas coloured in Farrow and Balls Charleston Gray, a soft brown/grey, through to the individual flats and bedrooms coloured in Farrow and Balls Stony Ground, a soft taupe. In contrast to many student accommodation schemes, skirtings and architraves to the flat areas will be painted in white eggshell, providing a more domestic feel in contrast to institutional greys so commonly used.
Flat and bedroom entrance doors will be painted to match the wall colour rather than being the default wood veneer whilst carpets to flat entrance areas are in muted taupe and greys which contrast with the warm wood effect planked flooring within the common areas and with bedrooms using a combination of warm oak and natural concrete tones.
In contrast to all ceiling finishes being white, individual bedrooms have their ceilings painted to a prescribed pattern by Halliday Clark to create a warm homely atmosphere whilst also generating a coloured effect to the overall facade of the building particularly at night.
The use of Farrell and Balls, India Yellow, Card Room Green, and De Nimes Blue provide a balanced combination of colours which give each room an individual character, once again diminishing the institutional feel.
Carlton Hill is a unique project in many ways. It has a client, building manager and Architect relationship with the site that has been in place for nearly twenty-five years. It also has a combination of personalities within this relationship which have become experts in their field and will persist in their desire to make student accommodation buildings not only profitable, practical, and easy to maintain but above all else to drive forward, the next generation of student living projects which have student mental health and wellbeing as a constituent part of their design and management process.
In Carlton Hill, all those involved have been privileged to be able to work on a project which although not without its challenges has enabled the team to show not only what can be done but must be done to fulfil our obligation as student accommodation providers to ensure this most vulnerable sector of our society, is not only physically supported but is given the building environment to flourish and achieve their aims.
Adam Clark BA(Hons) Dip.Arch SCA RIBA FRSA
Founding Director Halliday Clark Architects