Spanking new purpose-built student accommodation  accommodation (PBSA) is springing up all over Belfast.

These are well appointed places to live, with interiors in a style that is… neutral and inoffensive.

Students have their own en-suite bathroom with access to broadband and cooking facilities.  

There  are games rooms, study rooms and TV rooms in a building that is fully managed. All costs are inclusive. 

It’s a far-cry from student accommodation of old. 

And yet, accommodation in Belfast’s  ‘Holylands‘ remains popular. 

The streets of big old terraced houses close to QUB have evolved into a veritable student quarter. In term-time, crammed with students, it is an enclave that is almost devoid of  families and mixed age-groups. 

A steady supply of students ( replacing those who have just left) means there is big demand for this type of accommodation.  Here, they get to live outside of the rules and regulations of student halls. 

Listed as ‘student rental accommodation’ (SRA) the houses tend to be basic, multiple occupancy,  some  of the original rooms may be sub-divided. 

student accommodation front door from inside

It’s far to say: landlords don’t try too hard with the interior design.

The occupants will have somewhere to sit, to cook, to bathe, to sleep, to eat – and that’s it. They will all have a key to the front door and (usually) a room of their own.

These are old buildings, not designed for contemporary living.  

Rooms are mostly painted white, the floors are bare and the rooms filled with mix-matched furniture.

But maybe students don’t see it that way.  

Within their budget this what they can afford. 

When you have little choice you can put up with a lot. And, you are not expecting it to have all the comforts of home.

Maybe that’s the point.

Student life is short and intense, it’s a time to study hard – and play hard. For at least one academic year this place will be ‘home’.  And, when it is for the first time, it is exciting to be living away from home with friends.

What will they remember about living here? 

The cold, the bills, the petty squabbles, the damp….. the laughs, dramas, fun, new love, friendships.  

How they couldn’t afford to switch on the heating, how the washing up piled up, how someone used to hog all the mugs. Working all night, sleeping all day, partying till dawn. Who used up all the tea bags? Who left the dirty dishes?

Happy days….

Years later they may joke about just how awful it was!  

student accommodation  view towards kitchen

Student housing is not luxurious. 

Full of mis-matched pieces of furniture, as if rescued from a skip.

Bleak/weak lighting, cold surfaces, grubby walls, thin walls, draughts, noisy neighbours. Cheap materials and finishes in vinyl, laminate and linoleum flooring, washable and wipe-down surfaces. 

A random, mix and match kitchenware that is cheap, serviceable and replaceable. 

This is typically what constitutes SRA interior design.

Living in student housing is a rite of passage. 

Many landlords will only rent to post-graduate students, because older students are more mature. Under-graduate students tend to go a bit wild, they like to party hard.

Fitting out student housing with top quality fixtures, finishes and fittings may be a waste of money.

Breakages are expected.

Damage to property through wear and tear is inevitable.

However, surrounded by fixtures of a much cheaper quality than their family home – students may not value or look after them to the same extent. 

The ‘landlord’ is not mum or dad.

Cheap furniture used year after year by so many different occupants will inevitably show signs of  damage. Something that is broken, chipped, wobbly, stuck, charred, creaky, mouldy, peeling will be viewed with less regard.

But, they have to live with it.

The one space where individuals have control is their bedroom.

Students will ( normally) try to make their own room comfortable, more ‘homely; a place of their own.

Each bedroom comes with a cheap divan bed, a wardrobe – perhaps  a chest of drawers, and  desk. 

To this, students may personalise the space with  a nice duvet cover, bed linen, towels, throws, cushions, a plant, lamp, perhaps a rug, personal effects, mirror and posters, books. Items they can take away with them. 

Rooms in SRA tend to be bigger than on a student campus so occupants can supplement what they have with furniture from charity shops.

When they leave this place – which they will – they have the option to to sell these pieces on. Or, if they love it, to take it with them to wherever they Iive next.

The rooms may be basic but there is scope for individualisation.

The student can re-arrange the furniture, install their own free-standing shelving and mirrors and curtains. They can make it more homely – more their taste.

student rental accommodation  (SRA) bedroom

For many, student accommodation is a first taste of domesticity outside of the family home. 

Living away from ‘home’ means you  have to learn how to live with strangers, cook for yourself, manage your own money and pay bills. 

You also enter into a landlord/tenant contract with all that it entails; the rules, the regulations, the legal stuff.

Student rental accommodation  sink and dishes

But… with that you have the freedom to eat, hang-out, stay-up, sleep-in whenever you  want. 

And, you can tidy up – or not.  

Wash dishes  – or not.

Do your own  laundry – or take it back for mum to do it.

With a foot still in both camps, students  maintain a  deeper sense they belong and ‘live’ ‘somewhere else’. Their formal ‘home address’ (if not estranged) is the family ‘home’.

The family home  is ‘home-home;’ a distanced but ever-present place of comfort and  security.

Unlike ‘home-home’, occupants may have to carry their own towels and toiletries from their room back and forth to the bathroom. Also, in their room  they may keep their own ( borrowed from ‘home-home’) cutlery, crockery, pots and pans. 

Although you are sharing the space with friends there may be a limit as to how much you want to share personal things – your toothpaste, your towel, your favourite mug.

When you first live away from  ‘home-home’ you  start to need, and acquire,  proper grown up ‘things’.

There comes point where you are embarrassed about ‘making do’. Drinking wine from a chipped mug soon loses its appeal.

You want to have nice things.

When you want to invite friends over for a meal three items of cutlery quickly become a full set… one pan becomes three.. one plate become six.

Then you are start asking for household equipment for Christmas. Excited to own an air fryer! 

student rental accommodation bedroom

With soaring rental costs students have been hit hard. 

Student rentals in Bristol, Exeter and Nottingham have caught up with London prices.  Even working part time and a maintenance loan,  students are finding it difficult to make ends meet.  

Some students are having  to give up the course and uni of their aspiration and choice. Rising costs means they are forced to choose a uni close to the family home.

Home has its upside, but they are missing out on the full student experience and the personal growth of learning to live in a new city.

Perhaps, what we will soon see is that only be the richest students will be able to afford to attend certain universities. The student body will be a privileged and narrow  demographic that skews educational experiences, and limits opportunities for all.

If the lowest level student rental accommodation becomes too expensive, where can students live?  

PBSA’s are backed by investors who are now getting in on providing student accommodation that was once the exclusive domain of the university. The projected returns are on a scale with which a private landlord cannot compete. 

The ‘studentification’ in areas where PBSA’s exist alters the cityscape and shifts the demographic of local neighbourhoods – ie. The Holylands Mark 2. But being close to uni it has advantages. It provides new students with a safe environment to live when they first leave home.

PBSA may be a more comfortable  (and compact) environment than SRA

But, it’s a bit like living in a hotel room.

Here, ‘everyone’ lives in exactly the same style and quality of environment; the same finishes, in the same space-saving contract furniture.  

The day to day experience is more like an up-market  boarding school for adults than a true age-specific  ‘dwelling’ experience. 

It must be a bit like stepping into a spacecraft, a closed community where everyone is of the same age, living in the same small type of cabin-space.

A version of  Le Corbusier’s modular living, this accommodation is a functional, ordered, systematic, controlled way of living. But with such uniformity throughout, by design it limits the occupant’s exposure to a wider range of materiality and styles.

It would be interesting to know how living in a PBSA’s affects students’ view of aesthetics?

They are visually neat, ergonomically comfortable but homogeneous in the choice of furniture, materials, textures and colours.

I know of one student, who on returning ‘home-home’, was so, so happy to be able to sit on a comfortable soft seat and a sofa!

Student bedrooms certainly look nice but they are designed to a regulated way of living. Sit here, sleep there – and here’s the shelf for personal belongings. Often people crave the variety of ordinary ‘real-world’ everyday experiences, different materials and the opportunity to move around and organise the space to suit.

Campus living has always been thus. Except now, it is situated in the city and privately operated.

PBSA’s are neat and tidy and convenient – and just one step removed from a collective city dwelling

Is this a glimpse of what could be the new normal?

PBSA may aim to be the first choice for international students because of its higher end amenities. Having your own private bathroom has a lot going for it. With all costs up-front it is easier to budget and pay as you go. When you are not sharing the cost of all incoming bills with others you won’t face a huge bill because someone left the immersion heater on!

Many people prefer the certainty and knowledge of particular standard and quality of interior. Seasoned budget travellers in the UK will know the difference between a Premier Inn and a Travelodge. The quality of the interior will matter more to you if you have to stay there weeks, months, years.

As the cost of rentals across the UK continue to surge we can anticipate shifts in the demographics  –   who lives where.

People have to adjust their idea of what is ‘ desirable’ to what is ‘acceptable’ in terms of quality of accommodation.

With increased pressure on the availability of local  housing stock councils are finding it difficult to house refugees and the homeless. The bottom line is: there isn’t enough accommodation to go round.

Suddenly, student rental accommodation may not be the lowest level of housing.

Living away from home is a gateway to new experiences;  from childhood to adulthood, to full independence. 

Good experiences and bad, and everything in between.

Being able to create a space of your own is important to mental well-being.

It’s about having personal and creative choice.

In a non-modular space you have the opportunity to personalise the space with different elements, materials and arrangements. Being surrounded by your own things makes a difference as to how the space looks, feels – and is experienced.

When we have control over our surroundings it strengthens our connection to space and place.

If young people come later to experience living away from home and sharing rental accommodation, they will begin to acquire their own household goods at much a later age.

Student accommodation represents a stepping stone in personal growth. It represents a significant threshold experience.

When students graduate and enter professional careers it becomes a very different stage of their lives.

They will be able to afford – and want – a nicer space to live.  They may also want the comfort of their own mattress, bed, TV or sofa. They may make a shift from second-hand to new pieces and from shared accommodation to their own space.

Moving away from the family home is a pivotal life moment. A time of experiences shaped by where you live and how you live.

You start off with nothing, but along the way you end up with miscellaneous household objects, products, and equipment.

With every house move these things will move you. Until you upgrade, to move forward in your life. Redesigning your life by design.

student rental accommodation cooker with teapot.

All photos by NR featured in previous post: ” We all do nursing at uni..”

This post was informed by:   Purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) and student housing: research, Published by the Scottish Government, 12 December 2023 

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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