How research drove the design of our latest development in Nottingham
18 October 2023
Our latest flagship development, Morriss House in Nottingham, has welcomed its first students after opening in September 2023. The property, adjacent to the University of Nottingham’s Jubilee campus, is the first of the Group’s properties to feature a new interactive welcome desk, extra study spaces, a shared social hub and outdoor theatre.
Here, we chat to Dom Thomas, Operations Integration Manager, about how we used research and experience to design the property’s features and amenities with students in mind.
Q: Can you introduce your role in Unite Students and your role within the Morriss House build?
A: My title is Operations Integration Manager, and this is a role that sits within our Central Operations department. Essentially, I’m the operational representative throughout the planning, construction and handover stages of a new development. I’ve been working on our Morriss House property in Nottingham for the last two years alongside Adrian Muir, the Project Manager, ensuring every decision or aspect of the development prioritises students and our employees.
Q: Tell us about what your role entails, and how you came to be Operations Integration Manager at Unite Students.
A: I joined Unite Students in 2014 after previously working in retail after leaving University. I started as a City Manager in Newcastle and during my time within that role, we expanded to Durham through a national acquisition and later introduced three new developments across both cities.
Following the completion of Newgate Court (Newcastle), Rushford Court and Houghall Court (Durham) in 2018 this role became available and, after experiencing the operational handover as a City Manager, I was accountable for driving operational efficiency, safety, performance as well as customer and employee experience within our Newcastle and Durham properties, I had the desire to try something new and improve a critical process within the business. Over the last four and a half years the role has evolved with participation commencing at the planning phase, where we can be more effective in our decision making.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about some of the new design features in Morriss House and how those features came about?
A: The focus from various stakeholders on every new scheme tends to be the amenity space as we know, the rooms and studios are to the same specification that we’ve delivered for the last four or five years.
Our new reception layout is a step change from the typical reception desk we have throughout our portfolio. It removes the barrier that the standard reception desk poses, and creates a meeting point which the students can engage with our teams when required. The teams will operate touch screen devices which they can use around the building, opening up the opportunity to complete a sale or any operational tasks without having to go back to reception.
In addition to the welcome bar at reception, we’ve also introduced a marketplace café which provides an area in which students can meet, eat and socialise together. The purpose for the space is to encourage the students to engage with one another whilst they tuck into their Deliveroo rather than heading back to their rooms in isolation. To ensure the space is used to its potential, we’ve worked with a new supplier who are providing both traditional and smart vending machines along with coffee machines. In this area and throughout the amenity space there are plenty of charging points, which we all know are essential given the importance of technology and keeping our mobile devices and laptops charged.
Furthermore, there is a vast amount of study space on the first floor which will cater for every student and their learning style. Over the years of delivering new schemes throughout the country, we know that study spaces are becoming more of a priority to our students – in particular smaller, more intimate areas which accommodate 3-4 people at a time. For Morriss House, we’ve gathered feedback from previous developments and large refurbishments and improved the furniture, joinery and general aesthetics of each space, which we know will be popular upon check-in.
The last thing to add, which again differs to what we have produced previously, is that there’s an outdoor theatre space at Morriss House, which will house a large projector screen and surround sound. This provides a space in which the teams or students can host events such as movie nights or sporting contests, whilst we’ve included a large pagoda to provide shelter from the unpredictable British weather. We’re all looking forward to seeing how this space in particular is used.
Q: What importance does consumer research have in your role?
A: The feedback we receive from our teams onsite, our university partners and students, collated through student surveys at check-inis factored into every decision made through the journey of a new scheme or acquisition. A key driver for me in particular is to ensure that we deliver a fully operational and efficient property which includes everything that both the business and our students require, and prepares the team to deliver our commitments to students and university partners in providing students with a Home for Success.
Q: What are some of the key considerations when you’re preparing to open a building to students?
A: At the point of handover and prior to occupation, our focus is to ensure the teams are comfortable operating the property, having received extensive training and demonstration of all aspects of the development. Throughout the construction phase, I encourage all internal stakeholders to visit, contribute and provide feedback and, as we draw towards completion, those visits become more frequent in order to be as familiar as possible with the build. Finally, the focus moves to fine-tuning our intake strategy to ensure that it’s a smooth process with minimal disruption, typically in a new area that we’re unfamiliar with.
Q: How has your experience of working in our buildings influenced your approach to getting them ready for students?
A: I stay up to date with student data, both internal and external, and regularly engage with my colleagues within Central Operations to ensure that current or future business requirements or trials are considered for every scheme going forward. I firmly believe I couldn’t be as effective in this role if I didn’t have the experience of working with our customers and employees in the city team, and I’m sure that is evident in what we continue to deliver each year.
Q: Now Morriss House is open, what’s next for you?
A: Well, I’ll be still spending a lot of my time in Nottingham as we’re currently under construction in the city centre for Bromley Place – a 271-bed scheme which is tailored towards postgraduates. Again, a step change from our usual specification, and a lot of time over the last year has gone into getting the design right in preparation for sales launch in November. In addition to this, I will be moving forward with the design and operational requirements for our developments which open beyond 2024.