Trends Shaping Housing Design

Colleges can benefit from these 10 strategies to keep students living on campus.

Living in residence halls can be an integral part of the college experience. Students who not only attend classes on campus, but also live, eat and socialize with fellow students can develop a feeling of community that often can't be found living away from school.

But over the years, many students have decided that residence halls don't offer enough to remain there throughout their college years. Many often move off campus as soon as they can.

Colleges and universities that recognize the benefits students get from staying on campus have tried to improve residence-hall life by upgrading facilities, offering more options and providing more amenities to the modern student. Here are 10 steps that schools have taken to make their campus housing more appealing:

  • Living-learning environments

    As colleges and universities recognize that much of what a students learns takes place outside academic classrooms, many schools try to connect classroom instruction with out-of-class experiences. The Association of College and University Housing Officers (ACUHO) refers to this as the “residential nexus.”

    “Tremendous opportunities exist for residential programs to become strategic partners in the enterprise of student learning — particularly where in-class instruction merges with the out-of-class experience,” says a report from ACUHO's Residential College Task Force.

    The report cites several examples including residential colleges, where students and faculty live and work together; living-learning centers, in which a residential program has direct connections with a specific academic pursuit, such as foreign language or pre-med; theme halls, in which students with special interests live together; and residential learning communities, in which students who live together attend classes together.

  • Electricity

    Years ago, when a student arrived on campus to claim space in his or hers residence-hall room, each person might have had a few appliances that required electrical outlets.

    Today's student could use up every outlet in one of those rooms with just one computer and accessories. That doesn't take into account the stereo system, DVD player, television, cell-phone charger and other gadgets.

    “The electrical needs in residence halls are dramatically different from when they were built,” says Greg Block, assistant director of housing and dining services for New Mexico State University, Las Cruces.

    As New Mexico State renovates its student housing, a top priority is making sure that rooms have enough electrical capacity to meet student needs.

  • Computers

    Ten years ago, when Georgia Tech was planning residence halls that would serve as the Olympic Village for the 1996 games in Atlanta, officials decided to install “a port per pillow” — a computer connection for every resident. At the time, says Gary Schwarzmueller, who worked at the university at the time, “people thought we were pushing the envelope.”

    “Now,” says Schwarzmueller, executive director of ACUHO, “it's a reality everywhere. And it has happened a lot faster than people thought.”

    Students in residence halls typically get free high-speed access connected to the college's main computer system.

  • Amenities

    College freshmen typically come from homes where they had their own room, so they may expect more than a bed, desk and dresser. Many schools are providing such amenities as cable-television connections, private bathrooms instead of gang lavatories, air conditioning, carpeting, washers and dryers, and fitness rooms. Residence halls often have coffee shops or cafes where students can gather instead of heading for a similar spot off campus.

  • Variety

    Instead of the standard two-person room, schools are offering a variety of living arrangements to appeal to students and persuade them to keep living on campus. Many of the units are comparable to the kinds of apartments students would be renting off-campus. They may come with a living room and kitchens, and accommodate three or four to a unit.

    Other students prefer the privacy of a single room. Block says that New Mexico State is trying to have more single rooms available, and students and their families are willing to pay extra for the convenience.

    “People want more privacy, fewer people sharing the bathroom,” says Schwarzmueller.

  • Sustainable design

    Many students who arrive at college have concerns about the environment and want to the places they live on campus to take those concerns into account.

    At Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., the school's newest residence halls have incorporated numerous sustainable design features. A large geothermal well field with 24 wells more than 400 feet deep take advantage of year-round 55° F ground temperatures to reduce energy use significantly.

    The buildings also use passive ventilation, energy-efficient lighting fixtures and large numbers of windows with insulated, low-emissivity glazing to reduce the dependency on the heating and lighting systems.

  • Fire safety

    More colleges and universities are putting added emphasis on fire safety in their residence halls. Last summer, the University of Maryland in College Park installed sprinkler systems in five residence halls as part of a four-year, $10.8 million plan to update safety features. Fire codes typically require sprinkler systems for new construction, but many residence halls were built before the requirement was in effect.

    Many schools were spurred to action by the January 2000 fire in student housing at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., that killed three people. State lawmakers responded by mandating sprinkler systems in residence halls of every college, university and boarding school in the state. In December 2000, a fire broke out in a garbage can in the same Seton Hall residence hall where the fatal fire occurred. The fire activated the new sprinkler system, which quickly extinguished the flames.

  • Flexible furniture

    Students want to be able to rearrange room furnishings so they can personalize the space. That wasn't always possible with heavy, fixed furniture that was found in residence halls of years past. Now schools try to provide furnishings that let students customize their rooms.

    “If students like the way their room is arranged, they are likely to take better care of it,” says Schwarzmueller.

    In some case, that means lofts, but many schools do not allow lofts because of safety concerns. At New Mexico State, the school provides furnishings that try to maximize the space in a room with lots of drawers and shelves.

    “Lofts are so dangerous, so we try to allow students to utilize some of that space and still maintain control over how they do it,” says Block.

  • Dining options

    The traditional dining plan used to consist of a lump-sum payment and 20 meals a week, whether a student ate them or not. Now, with campus cards and declining-balance accounts, students can pay only for the meals they eat and can dine at different facilities on campus without a lot of bureaucratic hang-ups.

    Schwarzmueller says that at some schools, students can seek out the cuisine they prefer — one facility may offers vegetarian fare; another could specialize in pasta dishes.

    “Schools are finding ways to cater to students' tastes,” he says.

  • Security

    Colleges and universities have worked to improve security in their residence halls. Technology has allowed schools to control access to buildings with swipe or proximity cards. At New Mexico State, renovations have included installation of access cards for individual residence-hall rooms. The systems allow schools to better monitor who get into campus facilities.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.

Architect for the NYU project is Cetra/Ruddy Incorporated. Architect for the Northern Illinois University residence hall is Solomon Cordwell Buenz & Associates.

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