For today’s students, it’s hip to be square
For the university digs of the future, think inside the box, says Christopher Middleton
Take three paces forwards. Stop. Turn sharp right and advance another five paces. Now pause for a well-earned rest; you’ve just walked the length and breadth of your Nido student cube.
Your what? Well, Nido (Italian for nest) is the name of the huge new development that is currently being built just up the road from King’s Cross Station, and which is designed to provide 846 college-goers with living pods, or “cubes”, from September next year.
Not so long ago, the two Nido tower blocks were NatWest Bank offices. Now they’ve been bought for £27 million by a big investment company, the photocopiers and watercoolers have been shipped out, and in their place have come hundreds of prepacked, pre-manufactured shower-cum-toilet units, imported from workshops just outside Warsaw.
The cost of the whole scheme is £95 million, and another 1,000 identical cubes are being built just a couple of miles away, in Spitalfields, by the same company. All of a sudden, it seems, student accommodation is no longer the province of dodgy landlords wanting rent in cash, no questions asked, but of global investment companies with billions of pounds of equity behind them.
“This is a sector we very much want to get into,” says Stuart Grant, managing director of the real estate section at the Blackstone Group, the firm financing Nido. “More and more students are coming to London all the time, which means the demand for accommodation is increasing accordingly.”
And what Nido will offer those square-feet-seeking students is a self-contained, single cube (742 available) for £180 a week, or a shared one for £120. “Shared”, it should be mentioned here, means sleeping in the same room, which is something to which American students are much more accustomed than English. Already, one US university is thought to be taking a block booking of 80 cubes, and it’s likely that large numbers of Nido tenants will come from overseas, not least because the project is being actively promoted abroad.
“I’ve been travelling the world with application forms at the ready,” says Maureen McDermott, the project’s student accommodation manager, who has been everywhere from Montreal to Mumbai, from Singapore to Switzerland, drumming up interest among colleges and potential parents. “One of the main messages we’re trying to get across is that Nido is more than just a place to live.”
In other words, these young pod-dwellers won’t just get four walls and a view of St Pancras, but a range of campus-type facilities such as common rooms, study rooms and a free gymnasium. There will also be specially designated postgraduate students, known as residents’ assistants, who (in return for free rent) will each act as information point and social organiser for some 60-70 younger nest-dwellers.
“They will be on permanent call, so if, for example, one of the students has to go to hospital, he or she won’t have to go alone,” says McDermott. “It’s a peace-of-mind thing.”
In addition to a ready-made friend, Nido tenants will also get a personalised swipe card that will serve both as frontdoor key and chargecard, allowing them to pay for (or rather get their parents to pay for) things such cleaning, laundry and essential cups of cappuccino.
“You can see how this kind of set-up will appeal to parents who are sending their children to college for the first time, and are a bit nervous about it,” says Roland Shanks, of University of London Housing Services, which helps students at 30 different colleges find accommodation. “Especially if they’re from abroad.
“At the same time, though, £180 a week is very much at the top end of the rent scale. For that sort of price, you can get a proper-sized studio flat in the centre of town, measuring something like 30ft by 12ft (Nido cubes are 16ft by 9ft). As for a room in a shared flat, we’ve got some on our website for £59 a week in Finchley and £85 a week in London SE16 (Rotherhithe).
“The thing is, the student accommodation situation in London isn’t nearly as dire as people think. Over the past three years, so many people have put buy-to-let properties on the market that there has been a bit of a glut. Students now find they have access to much nicer properties than ever before,” says Shanks.
As well as pointing collegegoers towards flats, the Housing Services Unit also helps steer them towards flatmates, via its house-share noticeboard. Not that parents on the other side of the world (or even the UK) are going to be too keen about fixing up their offspring with a flatful of strangers in East Sheen or similar. Which is where the Nido package starts to look attractive, with its big-money backing and glossy corporate branding (devised by Tyler Brûlé, founder editor of stylebible magazine Wallpaper).
All right, so on the one hand, you’re in a cube that’s only twice the minimum permissible size of a Home Office prison cell. But on the other hand, you’re young, you’re living in the middle of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, and although you’re 15 storeys up in the sky, you’ve got your own pied à terre. D Nido, 020 7778 9273, www.nidolondon.com DUniversity of London Housing Services (020 7862 8880; housing.london.ac.uk) offers an accommodation noticeboard and find-a-flatmate facility.
Through the square window: Nido, the new development near King’s Cross in London will house 846 students in cubes 16ft by 9ft