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Architect Kirstie Reynolds: Why I’m passionate about design

25 June 2024

Kirstie Reynolds, a University of Edinburgh and University of Strathclyde graduate, knew architecture was for her as it was a great opportunity to use her creative and logical attributes.

Here, the Design & Planning Architect at Unite Students describes why more women should join the purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) industry, what keeps her passionate about design, and her projects in Bristol and London.


You joined Unite Students in December 2022. What drew you to the role?

My background is in architecture, I wanted to do something that was creative – but with logic and a purpose. I worked at architecture practices for a couple of years and then for a local authority. Unite Students offers a mix of creative opportunities; designing buildings, plus the more business development side of the property industry – it’s like the best of both worlds.


When did you decide you wanted to be an architect?

Going back to when I was at school. I was the first in my family to go to university and always wanted to do something creative. I didn’t want to do a typical 9am-5pm job. I was also really interested in science. I wanted to do something that would help people and make a difference.

I was really torn between studying medicine or architecture. I ended up on a year-long pre-medical degree and I missed exploring my creative side while doing it. I switched to architecture and I’m so glad I did. I undertook my part 1 undergraduate level at the University of Edinburgh and did a placement year in the Netherlands, and then went to the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow for my part 2. I moved to London after graduating and only meant to stay for a year – I’ve been here for eight.


How have you enjoyed working at Unite Students?

I had never worked for a company like Unite Students before, but I’ve enjoyed it so much. This position is different to the architecture practices I worked at in the past. I’ve gone from responding to clients to being the client – that’s been the biggest difference. I’ve gone from knowing one scheme in a lot of detail to having an overarching view and making more decisions, including financial ones. It’s more of a leadership role and decisions aren’t solely made around building design.

A lot of people go into architecture for the creativity aspect, so to move client side isn’t that common and I’ve had to have more of a commercial head. It’s about balancing creativity with the commercial aspect of a project – and how you can do that while meeting other targets that the business has. Quality of design is essential, and you have to think about the wider picture too.


Does the industry do enough to support women in senior leadership positions?

The property and PBSA industries are traditionally male dominated and more can always be done to support women, such as through role models and education. There’s a book I’m reading, called ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg, that’s all about women in business and it talks a lot about experiences at school and university and how that can affect your future career, which I found very useful to read. I’m also part of Unite Students’ Women’s Network. There needs to be more done generally to encourage women to study Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics degrees as early as possible.


Do you have any tips for budding female architects wanting to join the PBSA sector?

When I moved from working in an architecture practice to working for a local authority, I was very nervous because I didn’t think I would have the skills or knowledge. Then I realised that there is a lot I could apply. It’s similar to when I moved from local authority to Unite Students, again I questioned myself. But actually I did have the experience and relevant knowledge. I always think you should go for something and if you don’t like it, you’ll still learn and you can take that away to the next place you go to – it’s worth it.


What do you do day-to-day and which Unite Students internal teams do you work with?

I brief architects from outside the business and that’s all very different to what I did before. The days vary a lot – I work very closely with the rest of the Design and Planning Team. Also, the Asset Management Team on its pipeline projects and how we can improve our existing buildings. For that, I could do a smaller design study to look at reconfiguring some office space to provide amenity areas, up to demolishing an existing property and rebuilding it. I’m looking at a planning application for knocking down a Bristol property and rebuilding a larger, premium property that has more beds.

I also help the Acquisition and Development Team with its strategy and decision making. For instance, when they’re looking at a site, I’ll do feasibility studies to help them understand the viability of the programme and highlight any planning risks. I’m currently helping them with a planning application in London for about 500 beds.

Day to day it’s often managing consultants, sending them through the information that they need, responding to and viewing the designs to check they’re in line with our specification and what we want in terms of design quality. Does it meet our brief that we set out? I try to challenge how hard the amenity spaces could work because there’s more of a trend now towards providing higher quality amenity space, when we might not have had that in the past.

Also, checking the designs are going to be submitted in line with our programme. I often meet with key stakeholders like local authorities. For example, I met with the Greater London Authority to discuss one of our projects. In the next couple of weeks, we’re meeting with councillors, local resident groups and any stakeholders that are concerned with the affect a building could have on the townscape; existing homes and businesses. We try to build relationships and reassure them that there are great benefits to having PBSA.


What skills do you need to have to be a Design & Planning Architect?

Creativity is a big thing and to think outside the box, particularly as land is becoming more and more constrained. There are more aspects we need to consider including around sustainability targets and factoring those in at the earliest stages. We also need to be able to respond to the site context, to meet policy, our brief and to make sure we are building great places to live.

Also, to be a good people person because you work with so many different consultants. You need to form really strong relationships with your stakeholders, with the councils and local authorities – that all comes into play. You really want to foster good partnerships with your team and try to create good working relationships, which makes it much easier because planning is not an easy process in general. Creating that positive atmosphere is really important.

As there are so many projects, you need to be able to prioritise tasks and take a balanced view of what needs to be considered, as well, when it comes to reviewing designs. You need to be ready to challenge any designs that come in. Having a desire to keep learning, is vital. In the building industry, regulations are always changing, there are always going to be new trends in design, you need to really want to learn and have that desire to keep up with trends and have that passion to stay motivated.


How varied are Unite Students’ designs and how can you push the boundaries?

It varies when you’re looking at existing buildings; there are constraints that you need to consider and because of that you can’t always follow typical specifications. It’s very helpful for a starter for ten to have that specification to work from and understand what the baseline is. At the moment, it can be a hybrid between two different designs. We’re adopting the latest one – for example, well-designed kitchens geared towards our residents having space to socialise and eat together – where we can and on the newer sites.

When you know what the rules are, you know what the constraints are too and what we’re willing to accept. It’s like a pattern that you can follow and that makes it straightforward to understand what we would like as a company. At the same time, we’re still testing different options. There’s more flexibility there I would say. We need to keep on top of what residents want.

I often look at other schemes that have been approved, out of interest and I like to see how elevations have been designed and how they have been made to look nice. Also, what the interior layouts are like, which all helps when it comes to our projects. Having a specification doesn’t limit you.

We will often brief architect consultants we work closely with, after putting projects out to tender, and say, for example, ‘we’re trying to target 500 beds on this site, could you have a look at it. This is our specification.’

We try to design amenity spaces to fit the demand of the project, so it’s fit for purpose – for residents, employees and the property itself. Our older properties quite often have one larger open space, but if you can make them smaller and design them to work better, for example a study space, they’re often used more. It’s the same for our bedroom layouts as well – how can we use that space efficiently so every resident can personalise it as they wish, how can we provide the storage that they would need? You’re trying to create spaces that would suit their wellbeing.


What have been your favourite projects to date that you’ve been involved in?

Working closely with the Asset Management Team and the Acquisition and Development Team on studies has been really interesting because it’s so different to what I’ve worked on previously. It’s challenging and has helped me understand more of Unite Students’ products – what does the company want as a priority, what are the trends? That can be misunderstood – for example, there could be a lack of amenity space in older buildings, when actually more is needed. We’re taking this understanding forward with our newer properties.


How is Unite Students leading in the sector when it comes to design?

Our people are great and I’m learning a lot from them. I’ve always been passionate about defining the built environment. I’ll always want to help ensure that we can design great places to live. The knowledge you gain from working at an architect practice, you can definitely take forward to working for a student accommodation provider like Unite Students. There are so many lessons that you can learn from each project that you work on, that you can take forward to the next scheme. It could be the build-up of a wall to help make that building more sustainable, or it could be the layout of an amenity space that works really well. You could take each element and utilise that.

Just having a passion generally for design and always wanting to learn and apply what you see, reading or walking around cities and other built-up areas. You could be in London and Edinburgh and see a property and think, ‘I want to put that in my building’.

It’s having that awareness that helps. Where we fit in, we can also take a very balanced approach to planning and policy and help identify risks quite early on and help minimise those risks, early in the planning process. It’s not just identifying risks and moving on, it’s more ‘how can we work with this, what can we offer instead of just identifying things that won’t work – what else can we do?’.


How else are you supporting the business?

I’m helping with our Positive Impact (sustainability, wellbeing, community and social impact engagement programme in partnership with the National Union of Students). Asif and I are leading on that from the Development & Acquisition Team’s perspective; we’re working with a charity in Marylebone. They have a youth centre that we are carrying out some building improvements on. It took us a while to build up that relationship.

Last year, we did part of a recreation room. It’s gone really well so far and we’re looking at what we can do to expand how we’re working with the charity. In addition to more building work, including improvements to the existing building, we’re looking at donating furniture, finding work experience, and attending a careers day. It’s very rewarding because it hammers home how lucky many of us are to have a nice place to live and a nice place to work.


What are your aims in your current role and for the future?

In the coming months, I would like to have the planning submissions that I’m currently working on, submitted. To get consent for those would be a really big win for me as they’re my first planning projects for Unite Students. I want to work on as many different projects as I can and to continue building up my knowledge, particularly of trends in student housing. This design and planning role can be very much what you want it to be and how much you want to get out of it.