Moving home? The social and spatial (re)configuration of student accommodation

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

University campuses up and down the country are looking rather bare at the moment, but at the end of the month the students will descend once again, moving into halls of residence and shared houses or flats. This important rite of passage into adulthood is seen as a means of teaching young adults domestic skills. However, Holton’s (2016) paper in the most recent issue of Area suggests that shared student accommodation is perhaps not the best environment in which these skills can be learnt, providing some thought-provoking findings that may be of interest to students this autumn as they prepare to move.

There are subtle differences between ‘house’ and ‘home’, although we almost invariably use them interchangeably. In general, a house is simply a building, a space which is bought, occupied, and sold. Its foundations make it a permanent space, but its use is transient and ever-changing. A home, then, is more than just bricks and mortar; it is a house with meaning, a space in which we can express identity, a tool for fashioning familial relationships, and a means of fostering a sense of belonging. Houses become homes when they become lived spaces, spaces which define us and mean something to us. That is what makes a house a home.

With this definition in mind, then, students moving away to university leave their homes and move into houses (or flats). This, as Holton’s (2016) work suggests, raises the question; can students really call their student house a ‘home’? He considers the micro-scale geographies of student interactions in shared accommodation, interactions which are spatially mediated. Shared student houses, he argues, are dynamic spaces in which multiple, fragmented identities are performed and different versions of ‘home’ are embodied.

In moving into shared accommodation, students are thrown into hybridised spaces, very different to their home environments. They try to make their new abode a ‘home from home’, taking with them things from their home life; a few photographs, clothes, and books, but also, more importantly, Holton (2016) contends, taking preconceptions of how ‘home’ should be lived. All of a sudden, the ways in which they behaved in various spaces at home are challenged in the new environment of student accommodation. In their new residence, students have to renegotiate their time-space routines, changing the ways in which they use space, the habits that they have acquired, and the norms in which they believe.

With each student having their own individualised behavioural norms, house-sharing inevitably involves compromise. Whilst a lot of students who live together get on like a house on fire, tensions arise when conflicting norms clash and compromise is unheeded. Such tension, Holton (2016) identifies, is spatialised, arguments invariably being caused by the (mis-)use of space; leaving dirty dishes on the kitchen side, not taking the bins out, or being inconsiderate and noisy whilst others are studying. These are just a few clichéd examples, the point being that space has an important role to play in student relationships. Appropriate behaviour is judged based on its spatial location, variously deemed ‘in place’ or ‘out of place’. For instance, it may be acceptable to be untidy in your bedroom, but, relocate this behaviour to the living room, and it becomes a misdemeanour.

Thus, in student accommodation, it is the shared spaces in which most problems occur. Holton (2016) refers to these spaces as ’24-hour spaces’, flexible and communal, facilitating constant interaction and socialisation. In the lounge, for instance, students watch TV, play video games, drink, and chat. In the kitchen, they may cook or eat together and, when hosting house parties, the whole house can become a space for social interaction and general merriment. These shared spaces are a contrast to the relative privacy of students’ bedrooms; very individual spaces. Bedrooms become personalised with posters, photographs, and other keepsakes reminding students of home, but they also personalise these spaces with their behaviour, the only space in which they can do as they please. Nonetheless, this is all within reason, an inconsiderate use of these personal spaces also causing many arguments in student houses, where walls are thin and noise can travel.

So how do students resolve the conflicts that seem so inevitable? It is quite possible that the reason behind students being untidy and inconsiderate is not that they behave like that at home but, rather, because in their shared accommodation there is no authority figure to map out and implement domestic norms. Thus, Holton (2016) identifies that some student houses create house rules or rotas, in an attempt to keep order. In other student houses, Holton (2016) states, students adopt almost familial roles, some becoming ‘parents’ in order to enforce behavioural norms, in the formation of an albeit fragile hierarchy. Other houses still may resort to, what Holton (2016) has termed, ‘boundary-making’, students locking themselves away in their rooms and dodging shared spaces to avoid confrontation.

The student house, then, is a complex space, simultaneously facilitating and thwarting social interaction through the use of space within it. It is, thus, a halfway house, not quite home, but more complicated than most houses. Holton’s (2016) article hammers home just how vital compromise is to inter-student relationships. Thus, whilst not a true reflection of domestic life, living in shared accommodation teaches some very important life-lessons of its own.

books_iconHolton M 2016 Living together in student accommodation: performances, boundaries and homemaking Area  48 57-63.

60-world2Cahalane C 2016 Halls or Houses: where will you live at university? The   https://www.theguardian.com/open-days/2016/sep/05/halls-or-houses-where-will-you-live-at-university

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