Greener Student Living: Sustainable Refurbishment in Purpose-Built Student Accommodation


    The landscape of student accommodation in the UK is undergoing a significant transformation. With over 2.8 million students enrolled in higher education institutions, the demand for quality, modern, and sustainable housing is more pressing than ever.

    Refurbishing student accommodations has become a focal point for universities, providers and investors. It is crucial for maintaining modern, safe, and appealing student living spaces. This blog explores the driving forces behind this trend and the environmental implications of student accommodation refurbishments. We also look at how to find the balance between upgrading facilities and sustainability.

    The State of Purpose-Built Student Accommodation

    The student accommodation sector in the UK has seen substantial growth over the past decade, with demand continually outstripping supply. Purpose-built student accommodations (PBSA) continue to be a preferred asset class for investors, with an estimated £14 billion of unspent cash reserves committed to the sector.

    Purpose-built student accommodations have become the preferred housing choice for students, offering a range of amenities and a sense of community. However, a significant portion of existing student housing stock now requires refurbishment to meet modern standards and expectations.

    Why Refurbishment?

    Several factors drive the need for refurbishing student accommodations:

    Ageing Infrastructure: Many student housing facilities were built decades ago and face issues like outdated facilities and poor energy efficiency.

    General Wear and Tear: Students are often living away from home for the first time, and may not be the most careful tenants, leading to significant use-related damage.

    Changing Student Expectations: Today's students demand high-quality living conditions with modern amenities, reliable internet, and comfortable study spaces.

    Regulatory Compliance: Changes to building regulations and safety standards require upgrades to existing structures.

    Sustainability Goals: There is increasing pressure to reduce the environmental impact of buildings, aligning with a sustainability focus created by government institutions.

    Case Study: Unite Students’ Refurbishment Projects

    Unite Students, a leading provider of student accommodation in the UK, has recently undertaken significant refurbishment projects, enhancing the quality and sustainability of properties in their portfolio.

    Last year they announced a £24 million investment in refurbishing three properties: Station Court in London, Oak Brook Park in Birmingham, and Bridge House in Edinburgh. These refurbishments include the installation of solar panels, smart heating systems, and the creation of new social and study spaces. This refurbishments are all aimed at improving the student experience and reducing environmental impact.

    Additionally, in Manchester, Unite Students committed £65 million in 2022 to refurbish Parkway Gate, Kincardine Court, and New Medlock House. These projects include creating over 100 new student beds, enhancing fire safety with upgraded cladding, and installing air source heat pumps to improve energy efficiency.

    Environmental Costs of Refurbishment

    Whilst refurbishment is a key part of the PBSA sector, this type of project does carry an environmental cost with it. These projects often involve the removal and replacement of building materials, fixtures, and fittings, which has several environmental impacts:

    Material Waste: Large quantities of materials, such as concrete, metal, and plastic, are discarded during refurbishments. These materials often end up in landfills, contributing to environmental pollution.

    Energy Consumption: The refurbishment process uses a lot of energy, involving heavy machinery, transportation of materials, and construction activities, all of which contribute to carbon emissions.

    Resource Use: Refurbishing a building requires significant natural resources, from raw materials for construction to water and electricity during the building process.

    Making Refurbishment More Sustainable

    Although there is an environmental impact from these activities, sustainability is often at the heart of modern refurbishment projects. Here are some ways that PBSA providers can enhance the sustainability of their refurbishment projects, and improve the eco credentials of the building:

    Sustainable Materials: Using eco-friendly materials during the refurbishment, such as recycled steel and sustainably sourced timber, reduces the environmental footprint.

    Waste Management: A robust waste management plan during refurbishment helps to ensure that demolition and construction waste is minimised and recycled wherever possible.

    Energy Efficiency: Upgrading insulation, installing energy-efficient windows, and using smart heating systems can significantly reduce the energy consumption of the building. Additionally, renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, can also be integrated.

    Water Conservation: Implementing water-saving fixtures and systems, like low-flow showers and dual-flush toilets, can conserve water. Rainwater harvesting systems can also be installed for non-potable uses.

    Green Spaces: Creating green roofs, walls, and communal gardens can enhance biodiversity, improve air quality, and provide recreational spaces for students.

    Smart Technologies: Incorporating smart building technologies, such as automated lighting, heating controls, and occupancy sensors, can improve energy efficiency.

    As the focus on sustainability intensifies, a key development seen in future refurbishment projects will be more innovative approaches to construction. Modular construction is a great example. Prefabricating sections of buildings off-site and assembling them on-site reduces waste and construction time.

    Additionally, building material technologies will continue to develop. Materials such as carbon-neutral concrete will further enhance the sustainability of construction.


    Refurbishing student accommodation is a multifaceted process driven by the need for modern, sustainable living spaces that meet the evolving expectations of students. As universities and private investors continue to invest in refurbishing student housing, the focus on sustainability will play a crucial role in shaping the future of student accommodation in the UK.


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    The information contained within this blog is provided solely for general informational and educational purposes and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice. Before taking any actions based upon this information, we advise the reader to consult any and all relevant statutory or regulatory guidance and where felt necessary to consult a qualified fire or industry regulation professional. The use or reliance on any information contained herein is solely at the reader's risk.