In Conversation With: Claire Barber, Asset Management Director
2 November 2023
Claire Barber, Asset Management Director, joined Unite Students in January 2023. Here, she discusses her experience, current role, this year’s key asset management work and major projects for 2024.
What’s your career background, before Unite Students?
I’ve always been in commercial property, primarily retail and latterly more mixed use, so offices and residential as well. I started in general retail and then moved into retail development. My roles have been very customer focussed, creating experiences that put the customer at the heart of everything.
As Director at Terminal 5, Heathrow Airport, my job was the leasing and delivery of the retail, car parking and all the non-landing fee income. After that, I joined British Land where I stayed for 13 years. I absolutely loved it – my role was all about repositioning assets, across the country and in the City of London. I then went to Cadogan as Director of Asset Management, where the quality of work was fantastic, but there was something about Unite Students that I was really attracted to – the culture.
I also wanted to learn something new after focussing on commercial property for so long and Unite Students looked a great opportunity. I think the company cares about its employees and puts its people at the centre of everything. I’ve been able to bring a new perspective to the business and different experiences to address challenges in our sector.
What does your role entail on a day-to-day basis?
The team has been working to identify an asset management pipeline going forward. This includes the assets we want to invest in, how we could potentially segment our offer to appeal to different types of students and the level of return the investment would create. That pipeline takes a lot of time to work through – there are planning consents to consider and we’re selling rooms a year in advance, so we need to know what product we are offering our students before the rooms go on sale.
I want to create a strong pipeline, be very clear on what we’re doing and spend the time understanding the buildings so we can create the best possible offer for the customer.
But also, to do this in a way that’s carefully thought through, so we’re spending money sensibly. It is about making the right level of investment, which will be different for each building. It’s about setting ourselves up for success for the future.
How does design and sustainability tie into our AMI (Asset Management Initiatives) projects?
We are trying to take a holistic approach to investment in our properties, so any projects identified, be these ‘value add’ asset management initiatives (refurbishments or extensions), estates work, cladding façades, fire impairment – we want to link it altogether, so we only impact the customer once. In all our projects, sustainability is of paramount importance and we have a clear path to carbon net zero by 2030. There is a planned programme of works to achieve this. We are also working more closely with the sustainability team to co-ordinate on wider projects to minimise customer disruption.
We’re developing a matrix of specifications with our new generation design specification, which is still being developed and tested. This year, we have a hybrid between our existing Turnkey specification overlaid with some elements of the new design. This includes well-designed kitchens, geared more towards our students having space to socialise and eat together. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but there will be a clear evolution of the Unite Students look and feel, including amenity space, which you can see in our new builds like our 705-bed Morriss House in Nottingham.
Why do we need to invest?
It is important we provide students with value for money and this requires investment in our buildings. I am leading the business’s Estate Transformation project, which will see around £1 billion of investment into our estate over the next five to seven years to ensure we deliver a portfolio that we are proud of and makes us the home of choice for students.
We want to increase the visibility around investment into each property, so our city teams know when their buildings have investment planned. Of course, the level of investment will vary from building to building.
What have been this year’s major projects and what have they meant for our stakeholders?
We’ve been working on three major projects in 2023: The Bridge House in Edinburgh, Oak Brook Park in Birmingham, and Station Court in North London. The £24million scheme covers 1,200 beds across the three properties.
From a student perspective, our work is really important because it’s going to enhance their experience. Particularly with the bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens. But we’re also thinking more about how students actually experience the spaces they’re in, so we’re being more considered and thoughtful about how they can meet as a group in a flat. We’ve also tried to understand what amenity space is well used in our buildings to meet students’ needs, for example, smaller study areas.
London, Bristol and Edinburgh are really strong markets for Unite Students. These projects demonstrate our capability in asset management and the value that it adds both financially, in terms of increased rents, but also offering an improved experience for the students living in our buildings.
Oak Brook Park needed investment, given its age and increasing student expectations around quality. Similarly with The Bridge House – it’s an impressive location and great market, so our investment has a big impact on how the brand is seen. The Bridge House also underwent a cladding project at the same time, so the building has been completely transformed both internally and externally.
What will be the major works in 2024?
Three projects are must do’s: Thurso Street in Glasgow, plus a section of Merchant City House in Glasgow. The element being refurbished at Merchant City House is a beautiful, listed, old department store that has been off sale for a few years. Subject to the relevant planning and listed building consents, we are seeking to reposition this space to create 34 studios.
We are also looking at the feasibility for Cathedral Park in Bristol. This, again, is a lovely building and it’s in an incredible location. The Bristol market is so strong that we think we can make this a premium property.
As well as these three schemes, phase two of Oak Brook Park will be completed, which will see upgrades to a further 281 bedrooms. We’re also looking to complete the refurbishment of Cedar House at Unite Student Village in Liverpool, plus various projects to create new amenity space for students at a range of properties in London.
How do these projects offer a Home for Success?
We are creating spaces where our students want to live, and where they feel they belong. A huge amount of thought has gone into our new designs and this really addresses how we can improve the student experience – the feeling of more space in bedrooms and space to socialise and relax.