Rachel Withey, Associate Director at 74 – the Manchester-based architects, interior designers and placemakers – kicks off the first in our series of healthy buildings profiles with an inspiring Q&A interview on recent project, Hox Haus.
Rachel, can you describe the Hox Haus project in a nutshell?
Hox Haus is an extended and remodelled Grade II-listed, Victorian brick building in a semi-rural location in Englefield Green, just outside Egham. The repurposed 453 sq m former gymnasium building is now the central focus, clubhouse and social amenity for the Hox Park student campus for students attending Royal Holloway, University of London.
74 realised the client Moorfield Group’s original vision for ‘Hox Haus’ by encompassing a number of important practical, social and unifying functions for its student users. As the trend is that room sizes are shrinking, it is increasingly important that common areas include space designed for social interaction, with a focus on student wellbeing. Hox Haus serves, for example, as a welcome point and gatehouse; a parcel pick-up area; a workspace for single or group study and a downtime amenity with TV and games lounges, offering video-gaming booths, pool and table football. The building also serves as the campus hospitality hang-out, offering free soft drinks, tea points and vended snacks and has also been flexibly designed for easy reconfiguration as a special event space, with moveable furniture and built-in bar points able to house pop-up catering. All of this is to encourage the student body out of their rooms to mix and connect.
Was the students’ wellbeing part of the client’s brief?
We were originally brought in to look at the interiors of the student accommodation – a speciality of our practice – and, whilst looking at this, we became aware that the student amenity provision outlined for the site, based on its rural location and number of students, felt inadequate. We took the lead in this instance by suggesting that more provision should be considered for the wellbeing of the student body.
The client was immediately on board with this and we were subsequently engaged to explore the potential of this unloved gatehouse building on the site, having initially determined the need for an appropriate amenity provision. We then rescued the building from decay, whilst also providing a much-needed focal point for this large-scale, semi-rural student accommodation development.
Can you give us an idea of the design features you have integrated to enhance the building users’ wellbeing?
It was an important part of the scheme’s design that natural ‘collision points’ for interaction were encouraged. We considered social psychology throughout the planning stages of the interior. Whilst students spend as much time as they wish on their own in their individual rooms, the idea here was that individual activity would always have a social aspect, so that no one feels isolated by their location. Gaming booths, for example, have been designed with glazed screens and without doors in order to retain connectivity at all times. We have introduced several planting elements within the scheme additionally to introduce a strong biophilic aspect and enhance students’ sense of wellbeing, as well as new glazed extensions that increase natural light throughout.
You talk about ‘considering social psychology’ within your planning process –how did you approach this?
We approached this by undertaking careful analysis of the site and its end users, whilst also researching the latest information published regarding design and its effects on social psychology. As part of this research, 74’s original site analysis was expansive, not only looking at the building and the site, but the wider area and national picture, including calculating distances from local transport and other amenities and comparing site provision to the on- and off-site amenities at more central or urban campuses nationwide. The analysis made a strong case to the client for a better dedicated social and wellbeing space on campus, but highlighted that the existing gym building was slightly undersized to provide the required functions. The decision was therefore taken to increase the volume by 32%, which allowed for the creation of the new gatehouse and terrace structures, meaning the amenity provision was enhanced significantly. The building blocks were then set for us to move forward and implement an interior design scheme that would enhance the student user experience.
Were the students surveyed or consulted at all as part of the design process?
As this was a brand-new, purpose-built site, there was no current student population to consult. However, one of the key reasons we were appointed was due to our extensive past experience of designing student amenity spaces, which we had of course been able to see and assess in terms of gauging benefits post occupancy. These insights have helped us take the ideas and successes of wellbeing design forward into future designs.
We know that students have and always will have the major adjustment of leaving home for the first time, especially for overseas students who are also acclimatising to a new country. In recent years there has been a shift towards students largely residing in PBSA (purpose-built student accommodation), which has resulted in the loss in the social interaction of the traditional shared house. This is why amenity spaces are increasingly important.
Is this project – its aims and ambitions and objectives from a wellbeing perspective – unusual for a building of this kind?
Yes, it was unusual (aside from the uniqueness of the building) in the sense that the client had the vision to create an amenity space for the students which was not part of the original scope and site requirement. We would argue that rather than looking at the sq ft of requirement outlined, clients should be focusing on end users, their location and their numbers to determine what space they need to thrive within their accommodation setting, even if this means increasing the space allocation of amenity.
What arguments would you make to convince other clients with similar projects to adopt this way of thinking?
Design for wellbeing should be integral to the planning process and the correct space allocation should be provided to be able to implement it correctly in order for it to have the impact it needs. Physical comfort and mental wellbeing should be key considerations for all such designs.
And, finally: Is the wellbeing agenda starting to drive projects you’re working on?
Absolutely. The well-being agenda is becoming integral to most of our projects, whether architecture or interiors, commercial or residential. Improved understanding of the relationship between mental health, wellbeing and the physical environment, means that wellbeing is now shaping the design of developments and amenities. Developers are also becoming increasingly aware of the importance of wellbeing within all aspects of a project. Their targeted end users are also now expecting more from their workspace or accommodation and will ‘vote with their feet’. The rise of social media is also driving this increased understanding of mental health and how design can impact this, so that employers and developers are having to take serious note and invest in considered design with an integrated wellbeing agenda.
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74 are architects, interior designers and placemakers who work in close collaboration within the practice, which specialises in student living, workplace and hospitality projects. The practice is Manchester-based and offers clients a design-led, commercial approach and a thoroughly integrated mix of disciplines.
*Photography by Ed Kingsland
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