It’s not just you, your student accommodation is making you miserable

Motley’s Niamh Browne speaks to Willie Carey and Henrik Wolterstorff – of O’ Donnell + Tuomey Architects – no strangers to UCC, designing Cavanagh Bridge, the Hub, and the Glucksman. The firm is currently working on major projects such as the V and A museum in London. Carey and Wolterstorff talk about well-being in your house and why student accommodation just doesn’t spark joy. 

We spend more time inside the four walls of our home than anywhere else in the world; more than ever now in a post-Covid world. Yet we seem to give very little thought to what makes us happy in housing. What do we need to be mindful of when we are constructing housing, what’s the difference between a cell and a home? 

“You’re asking a lot of questions about well-being in your home,” says Willie “and it’s all interlinked, it’s a difficult combination. Yes, it’s social, it’s economical and it’s governmental policymaking.” Carey continues, “Two of the most amazing sites in Cork City – by Peace Park and Fitzgerald’s Park – have become student housing. Those students will hopefully become integrated into city life, but they may not. It’s also about profit, so it’s more profitable to make fifty single bed units then it is to make ten 3 bed family homes.”  Of course, the other advantage with short term student lets is that they can be used as accommodation for tourists. This is also short term and lucrative, but does little to contribute to the soul of a place. As Willie says, “It doesn’t build community because it’s a transient community”.

With coronavirus, we now have to rethink our spaces more than ever – they are not only our homes but our offices, study rooms, our college libraries, and wet pubs. “Definitely, everyone is talking about how Covid has pushed us towards working from home as the new normal,” (this interview was conducted over Zoom for example).

Maybe housing should be seen as an exercise in how to provide a human right in the most beautiful and comfortable way possible, rather than a mere financial investment? “One interesting thing about that,” Willie begins, “is that there is a whole set of rules, according to the government if you follow certain criteria and fulfil certain dimensions, de facto, you’ve taken care of a person’s minimal needs for a healthy home.” He pauses and continues: “But I think it’s what we all suspect are the important things like spaces that are light and airy, that are adaptable, robust.” He illustrates his point further: “We are working on a housing development in Dublin at the moment, it’s a high building. One of the innovative things we are proposing is that we would bring natural daylight into the central circulation areas. So you know when you go into an apartment building and you walk into a dark corridor and the lights turn on? We were proposing that all those spaces become lit by bringing daylight right into the centre of the building and into the circulation areas. We need to challenge these norms for minimal requirements which create a minimally suitable world.” The difference of waking up every day and walking to do your laundry through lit corridors, or going to work and seeing some light before the injurious loudness of the city centre, would surely impact the human spirit? Dual aspect apartments (where windows would allow light in from two sides of the room), are also notoriously difficult to convince developers to build.  

Finally, should we prepare for the fiery hellish inferno of awfulness that the pandemic has brought on? Should we just start building bedroom units from a perspective of disease control, do a Stockholm on it, where as many of us as possible live alone in studios? The pair guffaw. “I hope not,” says Willie decidedly. Henrik adds “Building and construction, all these things take a long time. Covid is a blink of a second- hopefully, even if it takes a few years.” Thanks, lads. I needed to hear that.