Home Away From Home

Many students are selecting colleges or universities based on a sense of community. Here's how administrators can attract them.

How important is a sense of community for today's college student?

According to a University of Chicago study, residence halls are the primary focus of student social life - 50 percent of students cite their social lives as an important factor in their university experience, and 40 percent of students cite housing as having a positive effect on their experience.

In the competition for the best and brightest students, administrators are seeking to offer a higher caliber of "residential experience." Most of these students are accustomed to having private bathrooms, phone lines, PCs, TVs and cable - all in their own bedrooms. A residence hall room in a high-rise, with communal bathrooms down the hall and a cafeteria on the main floor, no longer attracts these students.

When planning their next housing projects colleges and universities must consider the importance of housing to prospective students. They need to know how to design for students' evolving needs and how to plan the site. They should be familiar with building design issues, the concept of nesting and the future directions of student housing.

A continuum of offerings Residential policies often mandate that freshmen start out in traditional residence halls and move on to more "responsible levels" of housing as they mature. As students advance in their academic careers, colleges and universities must maintain different kinds of housing to accommodate students at every stage of their development. A continuum of housing helps a college attract and retain students.

For many first-year students, living away from home begins in residence halls. Suites are the next step - their tenants are generally sophomores and juniors. These units usually contain individual bedrooms, shared bathrooms and a central living space. Suites rarely include a kitchen.

Most juniors and seniors want to move into apartments, which typically contain individual bedrooms, shared bathrooms and a central living/dining/kitchen space.

For graduate students wanting more independence, units commonly include two bedrooms and two bathrooms, as well as a central living/dining/kitchen space. Some universities also offer one-bedroom plans and efficiencies.

Family housing appeals primarily to students who are married or have children. These units resemble traditional apartments. Most are either two bedrooms with one bathroom or three bedrooms with two baths, and they usually are isolated geographically from other housing - a strong preference of this student group.

Location, location, location In addition to accommodating diverse student lifestyles, administrators should factor site issues into housing facility plans. The ideal location for a residence hall is right on campus. If an on-campus site is not available, seek a location close to campus or along a public-transportation route.

Students also want convenient parking spaces and bicycle racks. One auto-parking space per bedroom and one bicycle space for every four students is standard on most campuses.

Colleges should strive to provide community facilities - formal and informal gathering spaces, central courtyards, recreational spaces, postal facilities and management offices. These amenities promote the university's goal of student involvement and interaction. Other common offerings include sand volleyball, swimming pools and sunning decks, outdoor barbeque areas and sports courts.

On the inside Each space within a student's living unit should be designed to accommodate a variety of preferences.

Parity is a major objective when planning interiors. Within a plan, each bedroom, closet and bathroom should be the same size. Rents generally are based on the number of bedrooms, so parity within a unit type is desirable.

Arrangement also is important. In a four-bedroom plan, two bedrooms and one bath are usually situated on either side of a central living/dining/kitchen area. The kitchens are minimal, usually containing a small sink, base cabinets and space for a microwave and small portable refrigerator. A small laundry room may be provided within the suite or elsewhere in the building.

The typical bedroom, approximately 9 feet by 11 feet, accommodates a full-size bed, upright dresser and desk, and contains a small closet.

Bathrooms generally are compartmentalized, with two sinks in one area, and a toilet and bath in another compartment. This allows two students to use the facility at the same time.

Living and dining spaces, typically smaller than conventional apartments, often are combined. They may be augmented by community spaces elsewhere in the building.

Centrally situated for easy access from all units, community spaces generally consist of a multipurpose room (wired for the Internet and audiovisual presentations), classroom space, a recreational room with pool tables and entertainment centers, plus toilets and a small kitchen.

Each bedroom is equipped with the latest technology - at minimum, Category 5 cable, and individual cable TV and telephone lines.

Each front door should be keyed with a lock set and deadbolt. The bedrooms should have passage sets with a separate deadbolt that is unique to each bedroom, so students can lock their rooms for security and privacy.

Bedroom and living and dining room furniture should be durable and attractive. Apartments usually have washers and dryers, too.

By designing each space with students in mind, colleges and universities can attract students who have varying personal housing priorities.

Nesting As administrators develop planning and design guidelines, they need to consider ideas that strengthen the sense of community.

Nesting is a pivotal design concept in student housing that defines small, then increasingly larger, levels of community. Private bedrooms nest within four-bedroom, two-bath suites. Suites huddle around shared lounges. In some residence halls, two-story lobbies connect adjoining floors. Additional, well-designed gathering spaces - recreation rooms with pool tables and wide-screen TVs, swimming pools and spas, patios for barbecuing, laundry rooms, mailrooms, study rooms - enable students to "nest" in style. Benches, decks, courtyards and sports fields - when nestled between buildings - encourage the sort of impromptu rest and recreation that students have come to expect.

Future trends Designers will continue to refine and adapt housing to students' needs. Several well-established trends may affect the character of campus housing in the years ahead.

- Shared interests: More universities are offering students the option of living with others who share their interests - all architecture students, or pre-law majors together, for example. Often, this special-interest housing is near the academic buildings where students attend most of their classes, and the residences themselves are tailored to students' unique needs. For instance, some art-student housing has concrete floors and no carpeting.

- Mentoring: Schools increasingly are combining functions that previously were separate. For example, most new residences also contain study rooms and lecture classrooms. Similarly, groups once separated - students and faculty, for example - increasingly share the same living space. The occasional larger apartment tucked within a student residence often attracts university staff and faculty.

- Distance learning: Every space has been or is now being wired. In place of the classroom, chat rooms may suffice for some courses. Some online degree programs require that students attend classes in person only two weeks per semester, and some universities already are building extended-stay, suite-type hotels. These small one-bedroom apartments are perfect for the occasional but intense student.

- Returning students: In many cases, adults returning to earn additional degrees have families, career positions and other responsibilities. They can't just pack up and relocate for the duration of a degree program. Distance-learning options and extended-stay housing facilities also will serve this group.

While these trends will continue, what is equally certain is the continuing growth of housing on college and university campuses.

Private help With steady growth predicted for many universities, administrators are looking to the private sector for help in developing new student housing. These experienced private developers have the ability to deliver facilities more productively and economically, while offering creative solutions for financing.

Experts agree that residential construction on college and university campuses will continue for the foreseeable future. As baby boomers' children head off for college, administrators prepare - as they did a generation ago - for yet another wave of bright, ambitious and demanding students.

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