Constructing Community

Two students to a room and a bathroom down the hall — for generations, that was the norm in residence hall design. It was true when World War II veterans on the G.I. Bill began to swell enrollments, and still was the case when the baby boom generation pushed enrollments even higher. As the building boom of the 50s and 60s rolled across the nation, thousands of schools followed this formula for coping with the unprecedented increases in admissions.

Only recently have school administrators and architects begun to question this arrangement. Schools are placing emphasis on creating living spaces more conducive to social and academic interaction among students.

Staying connected

In all too many cases, a residence hall room was only a temporary arrangement, abandoned as soon as students could find an off-campus apartment and housemates. Instead of being stuck with a roommate they didn't choose, this arrangement allowed students to live with friends they had made on campus. Many preferred the privacy, freedom and convenience of off-campus living, including their own kitchens and bathrooms.

Off-campus apartments retain all of those strong attractions, but they also isolate students from campus life. They attend classes on campus, but are more like commuters than traditional college boarding students. They are cut off from the routine interaction that builds a sense of community and a strong identification with a school.

In recent years, educators have come to understand more clearly that students can learn as much from other students as they do in a classroom lecture. This is particularly true as we enter an era of information technology and distance learning. At many schools, students do not even have to spend much time in the classroom; they are freed to learn much of their course material anywhere and anytime. While this offers students flexibility, solo learning can isolate students even more than off-campus housing does.

When we look at ways to create on-campus living space that can attract students and keep them on campus, we must keep in mind that students' needs change as they progress toward graduation. The living space that is appropriate for a freshman will not necessarily serve the needs of a senior, a married student, or a graduate student.

Getting acclimated

In most cases, a modified residence hall room configuration is appropriate for freshmen. As they move from home, where they have probably enjoyed the privacy of their own room, colleges need to make new students a part of the school community. Students need to develop a sense of themselves and where they fit in. The two-person room still has much to offer for these purposes.

Having a roommate begins a student's assimilation into the campus community. The amenities most appreciated by freshmen entering this environment are a private shower and toilet in their rooms. These facilities will be shared by two or more roommates, in most cases, but this is preferred to facilities down the hall where as many as 50 students share them.

In many older residence halls, particularly those with reinforced concrete floors, installing private baths may be too expensive. If this is the case, a common bathroom on each floor or wing will remain, but often new common space can be created. Students would welcome a new kitchen and lounge on each floor. These smaller lounges shared by groups of about 50 students tend to be used more than the traditional lobby on the main floor. Many renovated buildings are rewired to include fiber-optic cable, increasing the opportunities for computer-assisted joint study in common spaces.

As the concept of “living learning” gathers momentum, some schools are putting classroom or meeting space in residence halls, either as a group of multipurpose classrooms on the first floor, or scattered group-learning spaces throughout a building. The convenience of having some classes down the hall creates a sense of community and fellowship among students.

The suite life

A step up in student preferences is a suite, which often is made available to sophomores. The typical suite consists of two rooms separated by a bathroom shared by four students. The suite also may include a common sitting area or living room and will in most cases be equipped with a sink and a microwave oven hookup, even though the students will likely be on a meal plan. This common space facilitates socializing and group study. It helps replace the interaction that used to occur in hallways.

Hallways were often 10 feet wide in older designs, and they have long been under-appreciated as the “circulation spine” that they truly are in those buildings. In many older buildings the hallway is virtually the only public space that affords any possibility for interaction. Yet, the need for economy in recent years often has shrunk hallways to six feet or less, leaving little room or inclination for neighborly dawdling. Creating space to replace lost hallway space is vital.

Juniors, seniors and married students who are offered affordable apartments on campus will be less likely to seek them elsewhere. Usually, a four-bedroom apartment with two baths and a kitchen is appropriate for undergrad students, affording a balance of privacy, convenience and interaction.

Graduate students tend to be focused on their studies and often have little time for socializing. Their needs are best served by a one-bedroom efficiency apartment. They might accept a two-bedroom apartment shared with another grad student, but will favor an apartment with two bathrooms. These students typically wish to keep their own schedule and want nothing in their lives to disrupt that schedule.

Another trend in the living learning concept is to group students by common interests or areas of study. This greatly enhances after-hours discussions and the cross-fertilization of ideas among students. Imagine the benefits of putting all Spanish majors in a single residence hall where only Spanish is spoken. Throw in ample common space and you have created a hotbed for learning the Spanish language and culture.

The longer, the better

Keeping more students on campus longer has important benefits for everyone. The increased sense of community facilitates group learning and enriches the entire college experience for students. The more students who live on campus, the more vibrant the campus becomes. The more lively a campus, the more bistros and coffee shops it can support, which add still more life and diversity to the campus.

Schools benefit because they are producing alumni who feel a deeper relationship to their alma mater. Those students will spread the word about their positive experiences. Although such things are difficult to quantify, alumni with deep attachments to their schools are probably more likely to become active patrons of those institutions in years to come.

Demarest has 23 years of experience specializing in multi-family construction, 18 of those years as president of Demarest & Associates Architects, Dallas. His work includes projects at the University of Connecticut, Oklahoma State University and Xavier University.

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