Living and Learning in Style

Colleges and universities are paying more attention to a student's residential experience as a way to enhance specific educational objectives. Residence halls, once merely “depository cells” for students to sleep, are being transformed into integrated environments for living and learning. Residence halls have dining, computer interactive services, collaborative student areas, faculty living spaces and retail options.

Designing these facilities has become more challenging than simply stringing together rooms and bathrooms with an occasional student lounge. Today's college and university environments demand modernized features and services with technology integrated seamlessly. At the same time, institutions look to retain the essence of their campuses' physical and cultural fabric.

The key to achieving an appropriate balance is having all interested parties collaborate. Students and administrators must form a partnership with the design team early in the design process. This partnership fosters an atmosphere of understanding, which can result in a sensitive design response. Integrated design solutions can heighten the awareness of an institution's cultural traditions, personality, architectural heritage, and history of learning and achievement.

Many schools face similar design challenges. In existing halls, high student-room density, gang bathrooms with poor student-bath ratios, limited room configurations, poor accessibility and inadequate social spaces have limited the options available.

Also, the building systems are typically antiquated or failing. Many facilities lack flexible structural systems; windows, doors and roofs perform poorly; and fire-protection and security systems are inadequate.

To compound the challenges, students want more “creature comforts.” They desire more privacy, better lighting and acoustics, increased power and data connections, individual control of heating systems, and convenient access to dining, retail and mail services.

Another factor in the mix is the architectural context of residence halls. Architecturally, some halls may be a significant part of the image and culture of a campus, while other buildings may be viewed as eyesores. Some existing buildings may require re-adaptation or preservation of the architectural expression; others may no longer fit with the campus fabric. Each of the strategies used in the following examples result in a unique solution driven by the physical and cultural context.

Princeton University

The design and construction of Blair/Buyers Hall was a turning point in the cultural and architectural landscape of Princeton University, N.J. The 75,000-square-foot, four-story residence hall remains a masterpiece within Princeton's architectural heritage. Constructed in 1896, it was the first building on the campus to be designed in the Collegiate Gothic style. Based on the architecture of the great universities of Europe, this style would define the campus architecture for the next 50 years.

Culturally, the building marked the transformation of Princeton to a residential university. Undergraduates had lived in rooming houses within the town or elsewhere. This transformation into a residential university is important because the educational curriculum is based on the social interactions and learning that occur in residences, as well as classrooms.

In the early 1980s, Princeton began a residential college system, of which there are now five. These colleges serve to break down the scale of the university into smaller environments.

By the 1990s, the Collegiate Gothic residence halls still were an integral part of Princeton's heritage, but had become a source of major concern. Alumni and students admired their aesthetics, but the buildings were badly worn and in need of new amenities. A group of campus constituents began work on a residential master plan for renovating all residence halls.

  • Program

    Except for the conversion of the attic on one wing to living space, no other major renovation had ever been done to Blair/Buyers Hall. By 1996, most of the building had seen 100 years of undergraduate life and was terribly worn. The building envelope required window, roof and chimney repairs, and complete replacement of engineering systems. The steam-heating system was a constant source of problems, electrical receptacles and data wiring were inadequate, lighting was poor, and there was no sprinkler system.

    The building discouraged social interaction. The location of bathrooms presented many problems. There weren't enough of them, and all were in the basement. Students living on upper floors had to travel three or four flights of stairs to use them.

    Bedrooms were primarily 9-foot by 12-foot doubles opening into a common room. The building's social spaces were inadequate, and the finishes, acoustics, lighting and accessibility needed significant improvements to create an appealing environment. The challenge was clear — to adapt the building for today's housing needs while leaving as few “fingerprints” as possible on its historical integrity.

  • Methodical design process

    The planning committee worked toward the premise that the renovation would extend the hall's life by 30 to 50 years. To begin the process, the committee prepared a thorough survey of existing conditions. The survey documented deferred maintenance, and evaluated the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities in the building configuration.

    Extensive mockups became an integral part of the evaluation process. After narrowing the number of possible room configurations, the committee had mockups constructed so everyone could identify potential physical restraints. Then, two quad room configurations were constructed with different approaches — either restoring or replacing the building's traditional feel. The mockup stage of the project became a consensus-building tool that led to selection of the final design.

  • Design response

    The new design was able to intersperse new bathrooms on several floors throughout the building. As a result, the ratio of students to bathroom fixtures was improved significantly. To accommodate the bathrooms and allow for more bedrooms, unused space in the attic and on the ground floor was converted into living areas. Two elevators were added.

Southern heartwood pine floors and interior oak wood trim were repaired or replicated, as were the original paneled doors and bench seats. The fireplaces were restored, including the wooden mantles, which have 100 years of student carvings.

The exterior walls were modified to add windows and accommodate the new elevators. Meticulously replicated stonework, lintels and trim made the new work indistinguishable from the original building on the exterior, while the interior's newly created spaces are both modern and sensitive to the tradition of the building. Study, dining and TV lounges were developed and dispersed throughout the building, while seminar rooms were clustered in the building's tower alongside faculty apartments and office areas. Antiquated engineering systems were replaced.

The exterior restoration included repair and re-pointing of stonework, copings and window surrounds. Copper exterior lanterns were restored and placed at entrances, and ornate oak doors were refinished or replicated. The leaded glass windows were restored, and new windows were installed in the basement for the new bedrooms.

Blair/Buyers Hall once again sings to Princeton's architectural heritage. Its character and integrity were preserved, and the building is one of the desirable places to live on campus.

Rochester Institute of Technology

Originally an urban campus in Rochester, N.Y., the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) campus was relocated in the late 1960s in a suburb south of the city. The entire campus was developed with a minimalist aesthetic accentuated with extruded brick exteriors. Exterior facades, dominated by precise geometrically shaped voids, produced dramatic interplay between natural light and deep shadows.

The 13-building residence hall complex formed a series of stamped rectangles configured to form a series of interconnected exterior courtyards. A housing tower, ranging from seven to 12 stories, anchored each courtyard. The structures housed 3,300 students.

  • Program

    The goal was to integrate modern building design into the residence halls in the most cost-effective manner. The buildings had received little attention for 30 years and were plagued by poor maintenance and accessibility. The residence halls also needed a series of small building additions to accommodate the needs for large-group meetings, new mailroom operations, and accessibility and circulation improvements.

    The cultural environment was equally important. RIT's housing system includes two diverse cultural types. About 15 fraternity or sorority organizations lived within the residence halls. Also prominent were “special-interest houses.” These included student groups who live together based on academic major or similar lifestyles. Examples include “Photography House” and “International House.” All these groups required specially designed spaces to support their group activities.

  • Design response

    Double rooms with gang bathrooms dominated the room configurations of the existing building. Bathrooms had showers close to the corridor, which provided inadequate privacy. Because of the degree of duplication in the buildings, even small unit costs per room could be too expensive throughout an entire building. So, design concepts to reconfigure the rooms were abandoned. As an alternative, the designers developed a flexible furniture system that could maximize use of the rooms. The furniture system developed for the rooms could be bunked, lofted or used on the floor. Bathroom layouts were reconfigured to increase privacy in showers.

To highlight the separate identities of each special-interest house, group project rooms were developed within each community.

Each tower building received small additions on the east and west facades. The design integrates a modern addition with an architectural style sympathetic to the campus. At a glance, the new additions are indistinguishable from the 1960s architecture. They maintain the demanding architecture that defines the campus, yet improves the functionality of the residence halls.

Fordham University

Fordham University's original campus, Rose Hill, is on 85 acres in the north Bronx.

  • Program

    A new, 184,000-square-foot residence hall would serve as the focal point from the main campus entrance. The design needed to create a prominent presence while seamlessly integrating with other campus buildings and exterior spaces.

    The building allowed Fordham to improve and enhance the campus image and circulation patterns, and potentially create a third major campus green space. The site for the project was next to an unsightly existing concrete block residence hall.

    The school's urban setting heightens the issues of campus safety and security. More than 70 percent of students reside on campus. Freshmen may reside in traditional college residence halls offering double rooms, study and recreational common areas; upperclass students can choose among traditional single, double, and triple rooms, or apartments with two to three bedrooms.

    Suite configurations were ruled out for the new residence hall. The university had found a correlation between existing suite configurations on campus and poor academic performance. A closer examination revealed that the critical issue for students was privacy. Fordham wanted to increase the level of privacy for students, while maintaining a sense of neighborhood.

  • Design response

    The merits of singles, doubles and triples were evaluated. Triples were dismissed as an option, because a three-person living environment promoted unbalanced groupings. Doubles encouraged social interaction, but required a configuration to address privacy issues. To be responsive, double rooms with private bathrooms were developed as the predominant unit in the building configuration. To address flexibility and variety, a sprinkling of large singles that could serve as small doubles were inserted and termed “dingles.”

The new residence hall is designed in three wings. Each wing establishes a neighborhood of 30 to 40 students on each floor. Carefully positioned social lounges instill a sense of ownership. Larger common spaces were provided on the ground floor. The building's lower level provides functions such as health services, guidance counseling services and study areas.

The tower's ground level serves as a residence hall portal and will be a new pedestrian gateway into the campus from the planned parking garage.

The building effectively transforms the dynamics of its immediate physical context while it enhances the academic mission of Fordham.

Pocorobba is a principal with Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, Architecture & Engineering, PC, Albany, N.Y.

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