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Degree of safety

Student accommodation has been widely criticised for poor design, including inadequate fire safety. Stacey Collins of International Workplace looks at the root causes

When I was a student, shared halls of residence kitchens were a weekly source of fire alarm evacuations. Novice chefs with much more skill than ambition, a cheese-based repertoire and no concept of cooking times or good catering hygiene, regularly turfed each other out onto the lawn in their dressing gowns after a late-night post-pub toasted snack burst into flames.

Not much has changed in students’ culinary abilities. And occasionally there are serious consequences. Just last month, hundreds of students were forced to flee a high-rise accommodation block after a fire broke out at the Unite Students Parkway Gate halls in Manchester at about 10.45pm. Mercifully, no one was injured. And generally, this has been the case for fires in student accommodation: the emergency precautions work well, but the fire risk potential is still pretty high. Put young people, booze and amateur cookery together and the potential for catastrophe is there – all the more so if the property management is poor.

Nottingham Student Lettings, a student accommodation provider, received a suspended prison sentence and fines and costs of close to £200,000 after multiple fire safety breaches, including inadequate means of escape, fire detection equipment and emergency lighting. The potential consequences do not bear thinking about.

In advance of the inquest into Grenfell, the education sector is just one of a great many accommodation providers that have been compelled to look carefully at the structural and fire provisions of their buildings. Each summer, universities and colleges embark on an intense round of building construction and refurbishment to get ready for the October intake. So an added complication this year has been the need to dismantle interior and (especially) exterior building components to see if there is a chance that the level of fire safety performance is not up to spec.

Student digs are big business. An article in The Guardian in May pointed to the fact that UK student accommodation is an attractive investment for property fund managers, worth £46 billion, according to Knight Frank. This year was a busy one. Despite concerns over Brexit reducing overseas student numbers, £4.7 billion was spent on new developments. A follow-up in The Guardian’s architecture section strongly suggested a perceived mismatch between the value of the investment and the quality of the digs. The word it used for new accommodation was ‘shoddy’.

Being an architecture blog, the newspaper’s principal criticism was the ugliness of the exterior. But worryingly, from a safety point of view, the reason for the quality gap between student accommodation and other types of residential development was put down to the assignation of a use class of C1 or C2 by local authorities (the same as a hotel or care home). The implication is that less planning rigour is being applied to developments for students than would be allowed for dwellings (a house or a flat would be C3).

It may be the case that some local authorities interpret the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 as a guide to the quality of a development. But it was certainly not intended that way. The point of use classes is to ensure the correct urban mix of property. The quality standard of a development, for architects, mainly resides with the building regulations, not the planning use classes. And there is no evidence to suggest approved student accommodation is being constructed that does not comply with those.

But after Grenfell, what we do have is a degree of public distrust that the building regulations are sufficiently tough. The concern is that an initial design by an architect, approved by Building Control, might be later modified by the process of ‘value engineering’, thereby sacrificing some elements of quality in order to reduce cost. Value engineering has probably saved a few construction projects where costs were in danger of spiralling out of control. But equally it is operating in a grey area where choices may be made on the basis of cost on the assumption that all other things are equal. Where safety is concerned, and fire safety in particular, that grey area is now the focus of intense scrutiny.

In order to get some perspective on this, I emailed my son, currently an undergraduate at Nottingham University and a former alumni of Coventry. He concurred about the ugliness of buildings, such as those by Unite. But he and his mates were far less bothered by that than interior issues – principally the acoustic performance, which in his experience has been woeful. “The walls are extremely thin and don’t block much sound.”

This is a valid issue if we expect young people to enjoy all the well-appointed entertainment facilities laid on at university, and carry out the private study now required by courses. Building Regulations Approved Document E on acoustic performance is one of those regulations with enough grey in it to practically see through. Acoustic attenuation of 43dB (with not much guidance around frequency response) is not a hard target for a designer to hit. But you can bet that the walls of a meeting room in a government office, or the board room of a bank, are plenty better than that. The thickness of a wall is a very good yardstick of quality, insulation (both energy and acoustic performance), and often fire resistance as well. Thinner things burn better, as any fire engineer will tell you.

One location in particular that came in for criticism was The Student Inn company. “There’s one above a Primark in Coventry, and I’ve been told how poor a standard the rooms are, despite it being a very new building,” said my son. He also pointed out that the cost equation needs to factor in the location of the university. Outside central London and Manchester, private housing is pretty affordable; private landlords offer a competitive alternative to halls.

This puts things in an interesting light. Halls of residence accommodation for most students lasts just a year. Private landlord accommodation is very common for second and third year students. And there is little or no regulation to ensure the same level of quality, safety and performance across every private landlord renting to students, compared to halls. Our young freshers may be at some risk in one of these high-rise developments – but at potentially greater risk still in a grotty bedsit the following year.

Consider also the way in which landlords communicate (or not) guidance and advice to young people about fire safety. A leaflet on a noticeboard in a hallway somewhere might tell you, for example, what Liberty Living strongly recommends you know about using chip pans. But you’ll find it underneath the leaflet for a pub crawl. The government’s own online advice for students regarding fires is now 10 years old. Fire safety starts with educating people about fire, and we’re not doing that enough.

Lastly, it should be noted that the choice to include sprinklers is nothing to do with use classes or we’d all have one in our house. In fact, the main difficulty for sprinklers is the lack of trust in the technology, leading to a misunderstanding: that one doesn’t want all of one’s worldly possessions lost in a single flooding event. Hence hotels, commercial offices, hospitals and indeed some care homes will have sprinklers; dwellings not so much.

Arguably, if the use classes could have an influence, it would be in requiring a C1 or C2 classification to be sprinklered by law. You’d soon find student digs being classed as C3 after that. A Freedom of Information Act request by The Independent found that of 70 high-rise student blocks in nine universities, only one had sprinklers. If, as we expect, the Grenfell public inquiry points strongly to the efficacy of sprinkler systems, a great many universities and colleges could be cramming retrofit pipework as well as thick fire retardant insulation into the walls, floors and ceilings of student digs during those tiny summer windows of opportunity.

About Sarah OBeirne

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