Overcoming design myths

“Good design is too expensive.” 

“I never have a problem finding tenants so it must be good enough.” 

“Good design is purely subjective – it’s just an opinion!” 

“I’m not a designer, I don’t know what’s best.” 

These are the same myths we hear repeated over and over around design and property investing. Landlords and investors belief of these myths can lead to unfortunate practices in design and property investing, leading to poor-quality student accommodation: not good for your tenants; or your business. 

So, whether you’ve heard these yourselves, tend to agree with them, or are just interested in a deeper insight for better design practice, let’s take a look at them one by one, concluding with the four design objectives that can be applied for better design. 

Myth 1: “Good design is too expensive.” 

If money was no object, it would be great for our properties to look like they came straight off Pinterest, right? 

It’s a common misconception that to design well is too expensive. Where it may cost in time, a good design process can uncover efficiencies and reveal ways to increase capacity or amenities – giving you a more attractive offer for potential tenants. 

We’re not saying good design doesn’t require an extent of financial investment, but even when the initial cost of good design may be higher, the overall cost over the lifetime of that investment, and therefore the return on the investment, must be considered. Higher demand and increased revenue are advantages you can expect to achieve from better designed student accommodation. Even ignoring the human and social benefits, it makes financial sense to design well. 

Products produced with cut-corners to reduce costs often takes the cost and transfers it elsewhere: for example, in the tenant’s experience, upkeep and maintenance costs, marketing to keep demand etc etc. 

Bad design always costs more in the long run. 

Myth 2: “If someone’s prepared to rent it, it must be good enough.”

It is not necessarily unreasonable thinking to presume a property is good enough, based on its ability to generate interest on the market. If people freely choose to rent somewhere, they presumably consider it acceptable. 

The problem with bad design is that it is not often immediately apparent. Problems may only become clear once the property is lived in, that cannot be fairly assessed by marketing photos and property viewings. 

Uncomfortable social space, inadequate privacy, nowhere to concentrate and study: these and other problems are likely to be felt but not necessarily expressed by tenants (as they are not easily fixed like a maintenance problem, so they may never even reach you to be addressed. 

The low standard becomes accepted as the new normal.  Badly designed homes are merely ‘tolerated’ by tenants until they can inevitably move on.

Not to mention, the highly competitive student lettings market and it’s perception of limited supply. This pressure is pushed to the extent that standards of tenants are dropped significantly, in order to secure something, anything, before it’s all taken. 

So, just because someone is prepared to rent it, does not necessarily mean it is good enough.

Myth 3: “Good design is purely subjective.”

Although it’s a great asset to practice and celebrate, personal taste cannot alone be the sole test of good design.

Good design, exemplified in all fields, usually follows certain core principles that can be applied in all property design practice. 

There is also a wealth of research which shows that when spaces are designed in certain ways, they have certain impacts upon people, good or bad. Some design elements are more beneficial to productive study, better sleep or more sociable cooking, for example, than others. For example, considering the tenants ability to sleep can influence design decisions such as providing blackout blinds/curtains, insulating walls against noise, dimmer switches to allow lighting control, and quality furniture: all to formulate a comfortable sleep environment.  

To pursue great design is to utilise and respond to the design principles – derived from four core objectives (coming up in this post!) – whilst also satisfying personal tastes and creativity, thus creating a design that works and is loved. 

Myth 4: “I’m not a designer.”

This is an understandable reason for not engaging fully with design.

Being a designer doesn’t require you to become an artist, rather follow a set of simple principles to achieve better living spaces. 

Some principles will seem blindingly obvious to you (that’s a good thing), whilst some may be new and some may seem counter-intuitive. But all of them are based on peer-reviewed academic research and most importantly – the real-world experience of student accommodation designers, developers, investors, landlords, managers and, critically, students.

You do not need to be a professional designer to practice good design, or for it to be an essential part of your business success. 

So, now we’ve busted these repeated myths… what are the four design objectives that form great design in student homes?  

  • Supporting the wider ambition of the student

Consider how it may support effective study, rest and personal expression of the student to pursue their purpose. 

  • Be a sociable home

Creating a place they want to spend time together with friends. A sense of community creates belonging. 

  • Facilitate and encourage healthy lifestyle choices

Incorporating spaces that inspire cooking and exercise.

  • Deliver value for money 

To minimise financial stress, through the design quality of the physical home and the end-to-end experience of living in it.

Essentially, it means thinking of the home as more than a place to eat and sleep. 

To wrap it all up…

It doesn’t matter if you are on a budget or have never struggled with demand for your properties. Perhaps you have no design experience, or have never heard of core design principles that produce positive outcomes. 

Great design doesn’t need to be complicated, and it’s time we started rejecting these design myths that result in poor-quality student accommodation, and re-thinking how and why we could invest in great design, starting with considering the four design objectives.

Which myths have you heard the most – is there any you recall saying yourself? Or perhaps a myth that isn’t listed here. We’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Extracts taken from our upcoming book ‘Designed for Wellbeing: The ethical property developer’s guide to to creating student accommodation that outperforms the market’ which will be published July 2020 

Philippa and Tom Charrier and property investors and developers and founders of FAT Properties. 

They work with private investors to build long term wealth whilst delivering a positive social impact.