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New look needed for student accommodation

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Perfect opportunity to redesign housing to provide facilities for people to remain on campus during potential future pandemics

The shortage of student accommodation has been a burning issue in South Africa for years but the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for accommodation that is also equipped for uninterrupted student learning.

Two-thirds of the country’s student population has been forced to stay home due to lockdown restrictions and those without access to laptops, wi-fi or reliable electricity will be unable to complete the academic year via online learning.

Well-designed and affordable student accommodation could, however, hold the key to the future of higher learning in the country, says John Schooling, director of student accommodation group STAG African. In preparing for the “new normal” in student housing, he says residences must be designed to allow students to remain on campus during pandemics and also be affordable so students and their families can continue to pay tuition and accommodation fees, even during difficult times.

If the country falls into a rhythm of sending students home every time infections spike or a new threat emerges, he says tertiary education, and the country, will enter a state of stagnation. “This will result in fewer university graduates, particularly from previously disadvantaged groups.”

In addition to building accommodation that allows for social distancing, providers of student housing need to start looking into innovative solutions. “For example, adding isolation wards within a residence, so that sick or infected students can remain on campus and receive care. To administer this care, universities can assign a nurse as well as a house parent to each residence. While this kind of design may cost more initially, it will save lives and ensure students can remain on campus throughout the academic year,” Schooling says.

Covid19 has also highlighted the importance of space, says Caspar Lee, co-founder of student accommodation provider Proper Living. “With us spending so much time in lockdown, the space that we find ourselves in impacts greatly on our mental and physical health. It’s become important to have measures that help to reduce the risk of tenants contracting the virus, including emphasis on hand washing and hand sanitising as well as having other appropriate systems in place.”

In addition to safety, he says comfort is key, especially if tenants are expected to remain indoors during future pandemics. Co-founder Benji Schaffer adds that while the pandemic has taught designers and developers a lot, it has also created many challenges.

“We have had to change all of our biometric systems to a solution where one doesn’t necessarily have to use touch. The tenant will be able to open all of their doors through an app, RFID card, key code or an actual key. This had cost implications but we wanted to be as ‘Covid-proof’ as possible.”

Lee adds that, as young people themselves, he and Schaffer have witnessed student accommodation being put forward as a product for young people. However, when this is done, immature designs are often used and therefore not appreciated by students. “Young people want something proper, something that anyone would be proud to live in. That’s why we have opted for modern, clean designs.

“We appreciate the roles that community interaction and collaboration play in a young person’s life from first-hand experience, and this should inform aesthetic and design.”

He says tech also is essential to daily student life and plays a role in ensuring confidence in security. Echoing Schooling, Schaffer says the pandemic has highlighted the need for affordable, well-designed student accommodation which enables students to remain in their housing in challenging times.

While it is still “early days” in learning from the pandemic, David Ludditt, chief executive of Abacus Development Company says, the need to use technology strategically in student accommodation is evident. This can be in remote collaboration with lecturers or having facilities to record, practise and perfect presentation and public speaking.

“Developers really do need to think differently, and immediately.” Currently, he says, there is a vast range of accommodation available to students although, even before the pandemic, demand outweighed supply.

Accommodation ranges from student residences and hostels that are pretty basic in terms of facilities and room sharing, right up to high-end two and threebedroom apartments. New offerings from the company will cater for students who require a home away from home, and offer comfortable apartments with fully-fledged amenities which cover all aspects of study and entertainment at affordable rents.

“The intention is to create a student community environment which seems to resonate with the ‘Gen Z’ members. Born into the era of internet, social networks and mobile systems, it is very important to incorporate these facilities into their everyday lives.”

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