The Vita Student project at Lawrence Street, York, designed for Select Property Group by Fuse, was completed in September 2017 – on time and on budget and with a remarkable 99% occupancy. Located within the grounds of the former Grade II listed St. Joseph Convent, the new “Student Village” provides 644 bedrooms across 15 new and 3 listed buildings. The project is Select Property’s largest completed student development to date.
Fuse began design work on this exceptional site in 2014; when the remaining Sisters relocated to a smaller and more manageable property on the outskirts of York. The site presented a unique challenge: it is enclosed by a tall listed brick wall, contains a nationally registered orchard, numerous tree preservation orders, other listed buildings/structures and slopes approximately 7 metres from north to south, across its 200 metre length.
Working constructively with the City of York planning officers throughout the design period, the team were able to secure planning approval and listed building consent in February 2015. In particular, Fuse collaborated with Re-form Landscape Architects in the creation of a masterplan concept which responded to and respected the site topography and existing landscape features.
St Joseph’s Convent is located within sight of York City Walls and is therefore within easy walking of the city centre and its amenities. The surrounding area has predominately residential use, with buildings generally varying in height between 2 to 4 storeys. The 6.5 acre site is in a single ownership and its boundary is defined by a continuous listed brick wall: approximately 4.5m in height. Existing pedestrian and vehicular access to the site is taken from Lawrence Street, a local distributor road that runs from east to west into the city centre.
The site is well positioned to take advantage of public transport links and it is ideally located for student accommodation use: being central to and within easy walking and cycling distance from a number of the city’s higher education institutions. The site is also within easy walking distance of cafes, convenience stores and a large supermarket. Given its previous use and tall perimeter wall, the site benefits from not being overlooked by neighbouring properties.
This is therefore a perfect location for student housing.
In 1864 the flourishing Order of Poor Clares in Bruges, Belgium, were asked by Lady Herries of Everingham Hall, York to establish a convent in the City. In 1870 Lady Herries obtained and gifted land on Lawrence Street to the nuns for the site of a new, purpose-built convent.
Work began in 1870 and the north range was complete by June 1872, along with the walls. By 1873 the main cloister building was complete, up to the Chapter room on the east range. Between 1873 and 1874 the remainder of the three sides were complete. In 1874, a Chapel was added and completed with additional funds from Lady Herries and in 1875 the Priest’s House and Extern House were built.
Between 1875 and 1911 the site was expanded three more times:
The 1930’s saw the convent at its most self-reliant, with approximately 70 nuns living there. Since that time, the convent’s population had steadily fallen until the upkeep of the buildings and land became unsustainable and a new use was required.
The property was marketed for sale in 2013 and Select was selected as the preferred developer at the beginning of 2014.
The overriding brief given by Select to Fuse and the rest of the design team was to create a sustainable new student village that would become an important and complementary part of the existing neighbourhood. For the city, the site was an opportunity to create a scheme that houses students in one managed and secure environment, which could help decrease the number of students living in private housing in the Fishergate and Hull Road wards.
The project brief called for a comprehensive and sensitive re-development of the whole former convent site; including full re-use of the existing listed buildings. High quality student accommodation was to be provided in the existing grounds in two forms: self-contained studio apartments and groups (clusters) of study bedrooms around communal kitchen/living facilities. The proposed new buildings on the site were to complement the setting and scale of the listed buildings and surrounding housing; whilst also being representative of the Vita Student brand in their contemporary architectural language.
At the outset, part of the brief given to the design team was to place the main existing convent building at the heart of the development by refurbishing it to provide student living accommodation and importantly, to house The Hub, the main communal and social space within a Vita Student development. The client asked the team to design a new student community that would enjoy a car-free environment. Vehicular access to the site was to be limited to general servicing and emergency vehicle access only. The ability to manage the beginning and end of term time drop-off and pick-up by car within the site boundary was required but no full time parking on the site for students (other than a small number for those with disabilities.)
The wonderful existing mature landscaping was seen as a hugely important asset for the site and neighbourhood. The client wanted to retain as much of the existing planting as was practical and feasible, as this would help provide a sense of “maturity” to the site from the outset. It was also anticipated that a strong landscaped setting would provide excellent amenity use for future students and a clear differential within the local market.
Fuse worked collaboratively with Re-form (landscape architects) and Purcell UK (heritage and conservation architects) to develop a coordinated design approach across the site; harnessing the skills of each, with the input of several other specialist technical consultants. The master plan design evolved through a series of design workshops and importantly, through direct and constructive dialogue with planning officers and other stakeholders, such as Historic England.
This collaborative process included a public consultation event held near the site in September 2014. Here parties from the CYC, the Diocese of Middlesbrough, York Civic Trust and surrounding neighbourhood were invited to view the design proposal and raise any questions with Select Property and members of the design team.
Comments from attendees were collected and most were generally favourable. The master plan design also evolved as a consequence of some comments that were made, including reducing the height of some of the new buildings in certain locations.
Following the grant of planning and listed building consents, the project was competitively tendered and the building contract was awarded to Wates Construction, under a Design & Build contract. Work commenced on site in early 2015 and was successfully completed at the end of August 2017: ready for the start of the new academic year.
1 Constrained existing vehicular access; 2 Recently Grade II listed buildings; 3 Perimeter & internal listed walls to be retained
The existing perimeter wall is to be retained, as are a number of those that define spaces within the site. 4 Current sense of order & enclosure; 5 Retain access to Cemetery in south west corner; 6 Existing fruit orchard; 7 Formal convent gardens & mature trees; 8 Close proximity of residential areas; 9 Influence of site on Lawrence Street; 10 St Lawrence C of E Primary School; 11 Growing numbers of students inhabit Fishergate & Hull Road wards; 12 Existing biodiversity
1 Use existing topography; 2 Maintain containment of the site; 3 Sensitivity to proximity of residents; 4 Location of vehicle access; 5 Retain landscape features/trees; 6 Preserve internal walls; 7 Make best use of internal spaces within retained buildings; 8 Deliver high quality accommodation synonymous with Vita Student; 9 Provide range of studio sizes to accommodate singles, couples & friends; 10 Student facilities & Hub space providing meeting spaces, work rooms, gym, coffee shop
An early design decision made was to use the site’s natural and existing features to sub-divide it into a number of “zones.” Each of these zones would have a distinct character to help give the masterplan legibility and give the residents a sense of place. Each character zone would be connected to others through existing routes or newly defined ones. Each zone is intended to be its own smaller community within the overall student village. This zonal arrangement gives the opportunity for an informal site arrangement, which complements existing features. In massing terms, the taller buildings are positioned away from the site boundaries and the existing buildings. The slope of the site to also used to reduce the potential impact of the taller buildings.
In order to reduce the perceived scale of the development and to help retain the individual character of the different areas of the site, distinctive developments zones were created using the existing topography to define their boundaries. These zones are intended to provide a collegiate sense of place. Wherever possible an informal building plot arrangement was adopted within each zone, to marry with existing features and topography (see masterplan right). The site is divided into five zones:
In order to help subtly define the different character areas, whilst maintaining an overall cohesiveness, a number of complimenting external cladding materials were selected for the buildings. The majority of the new buildings are clad in high quality facing brick work; with the exception of the Park buildings which are clad in pressure treated Scandinavian Redwood. The treatment helps retain the original timber colour and prevent the natural greying which the client was keen to avoid. The protected nature of the student village allowed an opportunity to develop distinctive external staircases for each block which allow the residents to experience the landscaping and views across the city of York. Full height powder coated aluminium leaf pattern panels partially enclose the stair.
The Plaza is the first area encountered by the visitor and a large open space has been preserved to provide a fitting setting for the listed convent building.
A new vehicular access has been provided from Lawrence Street – utilising an existing opening in the listed wall. This serves as the student drop-off and pick-up at the beginning and end of term, and as service vehicles and emergency vehicle access.
A security and management suite sits between the pedestrian and vehicle access points, facing Lawrence Street, providing 24 hour, 365 day security across the site. Vita’s interaction with their residents is paramount and the front block to the site, Colletines House, was designed to ensure all students interact with the reception. A central refuse collection point and energy centre is also provided close to the site entrance.
New buildings have been introduced into the north and west perimeter of the existing orchard area. In this way, a large part of the existing orchard area has been maintained for biodiversity, amenity and visual benefit. Hard surfaces in this area have been kept to a minimum. Due to the proximity of existing buildings, rooms are orientated within the Orchard buildings to prevent overlooking of existing residential dwellings.
Within this area, internal and perimeter walls are fully retained and the existing Apple Store has been converted into a secure and enclosed bicycle store. A number of existing fruit trees and other key trees are also retained within the orchard.
A large landscaped area within the site’s south-east quadrant provides opportunities for students to relax and play in an external setting. A secondary Hub facility (a gym) acts as an alternate meeting space for students within the centre of the site. In good weather, it is proposed that facilities here will compliment external uses nearby.
Whilst the majority of student accommodation on the site is self-contained studios; the residential offer has been widened by providing cluster type living, where student bedrooms are grouped in 4, 5 and 6 bedroom “clusters” with a shared kitchen/dining/living spaces for each cluster (see plan below left).
The cluster buildings are located in the south-east corner of the site and vary in scale from three to four storeys.
A tighter urban grain has been generated in the south-west corner of the site. The buildings here have been carefully positioned to create a series of informal landscaped areas facing existing walls to the perimeter and a harder street zone within the centre of the space. Responding to the existing site’s geometry and topography creates building forms that enhance the village concept.
The buildings here are 3 and 4 storey in height. In contrast with the Park buildings, the Street accommodation is in the form of individual studios.
The main communal student space, “The Hub” is located within the ground floor of the existing main convent and chapel building. The Hub provides a range of accommodation including group and individual study rooms, movie rooms, gaming rooms and private dining rooms, arranged around the original cloistered courtyard (right). The building also contains a small number of studios which enhance the mix and variety of accommodation offered on the site. Fuse worked with Select’s own in-house designers on the eye-catching design and delivery of the refurbished listed building.
A poor existing utility building to the south of the convent has been replaced by a new building Goldie House) housing student studios. Students living in these studios enjoy a marvelous landscaped setting and views over the retained formal gardens.
Key mature trees and other significant landscape features are retained and enhanced with new planting in a restored formal garden to the south of the main convent building. This offers a different, more reflective/contemplative external space for students.
A big thank you goes to Fusiliers David Hall, Tom Smith, Stephen Brewer, Nathan Sykes and Rob Moules, who were largely responsible for all the design work on the project. Occasionally our Director Mike Harris tried not to get in their way!
We would also like to thank the other members of the design team, Select Property Group and Wates Construction, in what was the successful delivery of an outstanding project.
Select Property Group
E C Harris
Client and Interior Design
Masterplanners and Architects
Heritage & Conservation Architects (Planning Stage)
Building Services Engineer
Civil, Structure and Drainage Engineer
Thanks too to Hufton and Crow for the outstanding exterior photography and to Select for allowing us to use their interior photographs here.