REFURB VS. NEW BUILD
Martin Crews, development director at CityBlock, looks at the pros and cons of conversions and new build
student accommodation projects
JUNE 2018 | BUILDING PRODUCTS 51
Student accommodation remains an
attractive option for investors and
developers alike. Research last year
revealed that the ratio of students to
university beds, at 20 of the main universities in
England, Scotland and Wales, is disproportionately
high, meaning there are more students attending
higher education than there are beds available.
With this in mind, it is clear that the requirement
for high-quality, private purpose built student
accommodation remains strong.
The main question often asked by those
considering delving into student accommodation is:
should I hit the ground running with a new build
project, or take on the challenge of a conversion?
One of the main benefits of a new build project is the
design freedom it can offer. While developers used
to be able to get away with creating bad quality, illdesigned
student accommodation, students are now
demanding more and more when it comes to where
they live. Many won’t go without an en-suite these
days, so having full control over the design gives
accommodation developers a commercial edge.
While conversions are limited by existing building
constraints and, in many cases, heritage restrictions,
new builds can be designed exactly to specification.
New builds provide a blank canvas and offer the
flexibility to dictate the exact layout and room mix
to optimise the living space. This can include the
incorporation of break-off rooms so students don’t
feel overwhelmed, as well as communal areas, for
those who are more sociable.
Another bonus is that new builds can be designed
to include standard products that are readily available
on the market. With renovations, particularly in
listed buildings, bespoke products often need to be
sourced, which can drive up costs and developers
may struggle to find suitable products. In addition,
repairing old buildings can be much more labourintensive
than simply starting from scratch.
The energy performance of new builds is often
better than conversions. Most new builds will
incorporate an energy efficient building envelope,
including wall insulation, new windows and wellinsulated
floors, factors that are much harder to
achieve in a conversion. Moving into a property that
is already geared up to be eco-friendly means that
residents have to do very little in order to maintain
As a rule, it tends to be a lot easier to understand
and mitigate risk in new build properties. In the
same vein, they also offer greater control over costs
as they are designed to a specific budget and don’t
come with the nasty surprises that can be associated
with refurbishment projects. One of the biggest
issues in relation to conversions is getting the main
contractor to take on the risk associated with the
existing building. Without this, the design and build
procurement route becomes less attractive, potentially
forcing the developer to take on significant amount of
risk in terms of both cost and time.
Having said all of the above, there are also benefits
to taking on a refurbishment project. Renovating
a building can give it a whole new lease of life.
Period properties have lots of character and
can be turned into works of art. New builds
however, while convenient in many ways, aren’t
everybody’s cup of tea. Renovating properties
can allow developers to hold on to heritage and
inject new life into nostalgic buildings that might
otherwise be knocked down. If there are existing
features such as high ceilings and stained glass, the
finished building has the ability to be much more
aesthetically pleasing than a new build.
It’s also worth considering that with renovation
projects, there aren’t the same demolition costs that
you would incur when clearing space to start a new
build. Developers need to consider the cost of the
actual demolition, plus the cost of the material to be
As construction costs continue to rise, renovations
can sometimes work out cheaper, where there is
minimal work to do to the structure.
Existing buildings are often in prime locations.
We know that a great location is one of the top
prerequisites of students, so this is a choice that can
often be the difference between filling a block and
being left with empty bedrooms.
Conversions, where simple, can often be
completed in a shorter timescale as the building
is often wind and water tight already, meaning
development work can happen faster. In
addition, conversion projects aren’t subject to the
groundworks typical of new build projects, making
the process quicker.
Ultimately, there are good and bad points associated
with both new build and refurbishment projects.
Renovation properties can be very unique and have
lots of character, whereas new builds tend to be a
little bit more standardised, but simpler to develop
and carry less risk for all parties. The large majority
of student accommodation tends to be new build
due to this lack of risks and the design freedom
associated with this way of working.