Engineering student safety

At a time when the volume of university students continues to rise across Europe, there is great commercial opportunity in the provision of housing to the growing demographic. But with great opportunity comes even greater responsibility. Heriberto Cuanalo of Collegiate AC speaks to HMM’s Sébastien Reed about some top considerations for ensuring the safety and security of student tenants.

“We’re quasi-parents,” says Cuanalo, who set up Collegiate AC, a leading developer and operator of student accommodation, about 15 years ago during the Blair Government’s campaign for bigger and fuller universities as a solution to the UK’s long-existing gap in productivity. This orientation of public policy towards ‘Education, education, education’ aimed ultimately to put 50 per cent of individuals under the age of 30 in advanced education before the year 2025 – an aim whose pursuit has gradually materialised a colossal population of students, each in need of a first home- away-from-home.

The corporatisation of the infrastructure around UK higher education came as a response to the upscaling of education and increased number of students as a funding solution. This is more or less where Collegiate AC fits in, combining experience in academia and hospitality with the aim to provide a “high-end student experience,” offering perks like gyms, pools, and other luxury amenities to its tenants. Keeping students safe, however, remains a leading concern.


The safety particularities setting student accommodation apart from other types of housing are twofold: vulnerability and density. Well seasoned in the sector, Cuanalo has developed an empathy for his tenants and the specific circumstances they face:

“Our residents are often away from home for the first time – long passed are the days when significant numbers of university students have already been to boarding school.” It’s crucial for management to recognise the novel experience of life without parents and families, and acknowledge how this can make them more vulnerable than most as tenants.

From a building perspective, student accommodation is unique in that not only is it perhaps the most densely inhabited type of property that exists, the buildings tend also to be very large in scale. Cuanalo remarks that some complexes have up to 1,000 beds – “no other sector of property is quite like it. Not hotels, not even blocks of flats – so safety is of utmost importance.”


The biggest risk for such buildings is fire. Given the density of rooms, appliances, and human bodies, it’s essential to establish a “meticulous feedback loop of checks” to ensure both the safety of the building’s users and compliance with regulations.

With both new builds and refurbishments (anything that delivers a revised or new interior floorplan), building control consultants should be commissioned to oversee the design and development of the project. Fire strategy consultants should be employed to advise on internal checks, and external fire risk assessments should also be carried out and signed off by external bodies. Alarm, exit, and evacuation strategies also need to be implemented and, in terms of the operation of the building, inspection rotas should be established so that staff are consistently checking the building for potential fire hazards.

“There are dangers, and we can’t afford to not be paranoid about them”, says Cuanalo, “we’ve got to overengineer.”

With the relative density of building, potential of fire occurrence and harm caused by fire are dramatically increased in student accommodation, the maintenance of a single clear entrance and exit is also pivotal – “you need to design safety into the way people enter buildings and leave buildings,” comments Cuanalo. Local staff should also instil safety into their management structure, getting to know the tenants by name and face, and controlling access to non residents. Management teams should know how many individuals are in the building at all times.


Cuanalo also stresses getting the right message across to tenants as key to increasing levels of safety on site. Establishing a “network of trust,” as Cuanalo puts it, at each property is essential. Beyond face-to-face conversation between staff and tenants and printed material such as leaflets, communication can be made through social media and email.

Arrival events for incoming students are also praised as good opportunities to educate individuals about potential risks, standard procedures and safety strategies, as well as to foster a sense of community among tenants themselves.

“This is the online generation, and what they tend to do is buy everything online,” Cuanalo observes. Having separate post boxes or pidgeon holes for each student can serve as a signifier of specific tenants’ levels of activity as uncollected post and parcels accumulate implying potential concern. “There are a number of little touch-points that can build up the picture,” says Cuanalo “and our managers know to look out for these things.”

“We also want tenants to look out for each other,” says Cuanalo. He notes how students are more prone to feeling lonely, even unstable, when they first leave home.

“Trust at the more informal level, led by student wardens in cooperation and local staff is also ideal – it’s not just about the personal safety, but also the general well being of the students.”

Heriberto Cuanalo is the CEO of Collegiate AC