Could the answer to student housing ‘crisis’ be in the shop window?


TRANSFORMING vacant city centre buildings from retail to residential purposes could help ease the student housing crisis, the president of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) has said.

It comes amidst a severe shortage of student accommodation, with recent reports of up to 70 students at one Scottish university seeking help for homelessness. Much of the blame has been put down to soaring rent prices, but universities such as St Andrews have begun building new accommodation to ease the ‘unprecedented’ levels of demand.

With Glasgow City Council recently announcing it is ‘considering’ findings in a report which outlined the potential of buildings once used for retail and commercial in the city being repurposed into residential developments, Project Scotland asked Chris Stewart, who was elected RIAS president in June, if this could be a realistic blueprint moving forward and if it could help meet the increasing demand for student accommodation.

“I do not see why not,” he replied. “There is a whole series of reasons as to why that would be quite good. There’s a lot of factors that’ll determine whether it’s realistic.

“Students bring a bit of vibrancy to city centres. At certain times of the year and day some city centre spaces can be quite quiet, but if students are there that would bring a natural presence and surveillance to streets and squares.”

With many of Scotland’s colleges and universities situated in city centres, the architect added that student accommodation would also lend itself well to targets of reducing car-reliance in such spaces – with many students not requiring car parking provision, and their places of learning being within walking distance.

“I’m also aware that there’s often a lot of student accommodation that gets built in peripheral areas – not the city centre but areas around the edge such as Partick (in Glasgow) and Morningside (in Edinburgh) – and from my own experience they are not that well received by the local communities,” Chris explained. “They’d rather see some affordable housing or housing for the community, rather than more student accommodation appearing.

“If you had more student accommodation in the city centres, then that’s obviously going to take some of the pressure away from these areas and that would help the city more broadly.”

With many students returning home during the summer months, Chris added that student accommodation could be used by tourists during this time – something he said is common practice in many European cities and would help bring footfall to currently barren areas year-round.

He pointed out that it’s hard to identify what a ‘typical’ vacant retail building is, as they all feature different elements, sizes, and design. However, he said that most do present difficulties in transitioning to residential, due to the task of getting services required for accommodation – such as drainage – throughout the entirety of the building.

Highlighting the plans to demolish Glasgow’s St Enoch Centre and Buchanan Galleries to replace them with a mix of new build commercial and residential buildings, Chris said it would be good practice to ensure such new builds are long-life and loose fit.

“If these (existing) buildings had been designed for long-life and loose fit then they would naturally be able to take retail units and convert them into residential and vice-versa,” he added. “Who knows what’ll happen in 30 years’ time? It might be that all of a sudden retail is important again and the buildings can be interchangeable to meet the needs.”

It is not just bringing more students into the city centre that the architect is an advocate of, but those from across the board. “I always think it’s good to bring in a multi-generational and very broad mix of housing into city centres,” he explained. “You start bringing families in and you start to think about how you get schools built into the local area, which I really like the idea of – really rich, mixed-use quarters in the cities; for me, they’re always the most interesting and fascinating.”

Chris stated that cities are growing, citing a UN study which predicts that 80% of the world’s population will live in urban settings by 2050.

“We’re going to get more people living in city centres… so these questions are becoming more pertinent,” he concluded.