A consultation meeting concerning the new Imperial hall of residence was held last Wednesday. The plans for the hall, currently called One Victoria Road and located in North Acton, some five miles away from the South Kensington Campus, were first announced early last year. The outer shells of the buildings have now been built and, when fully completed in 2015, the hall will provide accommodation for 693 undergraduates in 659 en-suite rooms. However, the initial reaction to the new hall was broadly negative, focusing mainly on the distance from the new site to South Kensington. The Student Union launched a large scale ‘Against Acton’ campaign, which prompted a direct reply from the College Management Board aimed at reassuring students.
Since then, the College has tried to be more open about its decision making, and incorporate more student feedback into its plans; with Wednesday’s meeting being the latest step in this new consultation process. The meeting was led by Toni Byrne-Price, Project Director from Berkley First, the company responsible for building the new hall. Also attending from the College were Professor Debra Humphris, Vice Provost (Education); Jane Neary, Director of Campus Services and Paul Noke, Head of Residential Services. The Student Union was represented by the Sabbaticals and a number of staff members. Despite the event being well advertised by email, and on the Union website, only some half a dozen students attended.
Toni Byrne-Price begun by outlining the current state of the project and the plans for the future. The site of the hall is located 200 metres away from North Acton tube station and across the road from The Costume Store – a hall of residence for the University of Arts London that was also developed by Berkley First. Byrne-Price stressed how the experience of developing The Costume Store had taught Berkley First many lessons relevant to its work on One Victoria Road.
He also said that he hoped that the two halls could potentially share services, with Imperial students using The Costume Store’s arts facilities and University of Arts students using the bar and restaurant that are planned for One Victoria Road.
As per the requirements of the planning permission obtained by the College, one of buildings of the Imperial development, designated Building A, will consist of commercial facilities, including the restaurant and the bar, as well as offices that will be let out to private companies. A number of other, connected buildings, ranging in height from 7 to 19 stories, will house the hall itself. The upper floors will house the student bedrooms while the ground floor consist of communal facilities. These will include music practice rooms; a gym; a dance and martial arts training studio; study spaces and a 259 square metre common room – which will be more than twice as large as the Southside common room. The College hopes that these facilities will enable students staying in Acton to have the same experience as those living in South Kensington.
Jane Neary was keen to point out how a lot of effort had been put into ensuring that the hall would develop into “a wider community”, stressing in particular the importance of the wardening system. The hall will have two wardens and twelve sub-wardens. A dedicated wardens’ office on the ground floor would give residents a private, safe space to meet members of the wardening team and it is envisaged that wardens would hold drop in surgery sessions. Paul Noke also stressed that the hall would operate a “freedom of movement” system – with residents being able to move around the entire complex and visit friends in other buildings and on other floors, thereby bolstering the community feel.
The meeting was then opened to questions and feedback. While the opinions about the design were generally positive Alex Savell, incoming Deputy President (Finance & Services), raised the concern that access to the common room would be primarily through an external covered colonnade. Neary and Byrne-Price replied that it might be possible to consider having glazing put in along the walkway.
Others raised the concern that, at 140 square metres, the planned gym might be too small. Neary and Byrne-Price replied that the College is considering moving the gym to a larger space on the first floor of Building A, thereby also freeing up more space on the ground floor of the other buildings for a larger dance studio and more study rooms. The terms of the planning permission, however, would then mean that the gym would have to be open to the public, not just hall residents.
The Union Central Services Manager, and Yas Edwards, current Deputy Presidents (Clubs & Societies), also asked if it would be possible to open up the shared, ground floor spaces to clubs and societies, and to individual students who were not residents. The College representatives confirmed that this was an option that they were actively looking at.
Neither Jane Neary nor Professor Humphris were able to confirm exactly how much the rooms would cost, explaining that the final decision on this would be made in the coming fortnight. However, previous indications suggest that twin rooms will cost in the region of £125 per week while single rooms will cost in the region of £150 per week. Alex Savell suggested that this price might be excessive given that students could easily find single rooms at £125 per week on the private market, while Kieron Creagh, current Deputy President (Finance & Services), indicated that such high prices might put off less well off freshers. Jane Neary replied that the additional cost accounts for the pastoral support and communal facilities that living in halls provides. Professor Humphris added that the College’s dedication to transparency meant that it would publish a full breakdown of how the rent paid by students is used and reminded those present of the College’s generous bursary scheme for lower income students. The College representatives concluded that, while the price might appear to be high, it was fair and realistic given the location and facilities.
In general, the meeting was productive, with Neary and Byrne-Price promising to incorporate many of the student suggestions into the plan for the development. They will also be launching a online student survey about the plans. All the College staff members present stressed how important student feedback was to them and how they hoped as many people as possible would fill in the survey.