Millions of students head off each year to college campuses as they transition from a home with parents and siblings to more independent living as they pursue higher education.
Many will claim space on campus in a university-run residence hall; others will decide they are better suited to off-campus apartment living. And many young women decide to take up residence with their sorority sisters in one of the thousands of chapter houses that dot the landscape on or near college campuses throughout the nation.
Greek houses and student housing managed by higher education institutions have the same mission—providing suitable living spaces for students. But the design of sorority houses also incorporates the feminine perspective of its residents, the traditions of the organization they belong to and the sense of community that springs from that.
“The fundamentals—offering a place to eat, sleep, study and hang out—those are the same,” says Liz Toombs, a Certified Interior Decorator who runs PDR Interiors in Lexington, Ky. “I think it’s a little bit harder to do general housing and make it feel like a home because there are so many people coming through and living there. There isn’t a common thread like a sorority organization.”
Toombs designs interiors for new and renovated sorority spaces by gathering input from national and local representatives of a sorority, ascertaining the culture of the specific campus, and assessing the needs and wants of the women who will be living in the space.
“We want to collaborate,” Toombs says. “We don’t come in and say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing—get out of the way.’ We need to understand the needs of the student within that chapter, on that campus. Some organizations have brand images, brand colors that they want incorporated. Then you’ll have other designs that are solely based on, ‘Here’s the vibe on this campus, here’s what this chapter is all about.’”
Not your mother’s sorority house
All student housing has evolved to address the needs of modern students, and that means some of the spaces and amenities in sorority houses no longer make sense
“Maybe the days are over where we feel we need a formal sitting room where nothing happens in there at all, and people feel like they can’t go in there,” Toombs says.
Older facilities may still have phone booths, which have no practical purpose in a world of ubiquitous cellphones.
“We are trying to take these strange closet-like spaces and turn them into something else,” Toombs says
Those areas are being converted to private rooms where women can have a job interview, take a test, or have a tele-therapy session.
“It’s really about figuring out how we can maximize the use of every space,” Toombs says.
Renovations in sorority houses often focus on making the bathrooms more appealing to young women.
“The bathrooms are significantly nicer than when I went to school,” Toombs says. “The overall aesthetic of it, the durability—all of it feels more spa-like than what we were doing in the past. I also think the overall feel and look—paint colors, furniture colors—everything is a little more light and airy as opposed to the darker, heavier colors that may have been more popular in the 90s and previously.”
What women want
Though their basic functions are the same—providing a living and socializing place for students—the design for sorority houses has obvious differences from fraternities.
“Men’s organizations may be like, ‘We just need a sofa and a table, something kind of indestructible,’” Toombs says. “The women want it to be a lot prettier and have the house look its best when students come in and are going through recruitment or when visitors come by. The women’s organizations definitely want to put their best foot forward.”
For many houses, that means design details like draperies or other window treatments, rugs, throw pillows, accessories displayed on walls and tables.
But not all sorority houses reflect that stereotype.
“There are differences from campus to campus,” Toombs says. “It may be the case that a house doesn’t need to feel all foo-foo and feminine. They may still want to incorporate their organization’s colors and symbols, but not in an extra-girly way. We try to collaborate with the decision-makers and understand what they’re going for.
The disruptions to college life brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic did not spare sororities, and houses had to adjust on the fly to make their living and sleeping arrangements safer.
“We got a lot of phone calls where we were asked to do space plans, to do furniture layouts showing how we can maximize furniture in a space and still offer 6 feet of social distancing,” says Toombs.
That proved to be a challenge in many sorority houses with “sleeping porches,” rooms filled with bunk beds where large numbers of women slept.
“During Covid, you couldn’t put 30 women in a space to sleep,” Toombs says. “We were putting beds in closets, vanities, desk spaces and spread them out, and we had to distance the beds within the sleeping dorms as well.”
Sorority traditions help create community and a sense of camaraderie among members, but they also may make it difficult for some to embrace new ways of doing things.
A common tradition at many sororities and fraternities is a composite photograph. Each year, individual photos of each member are collected and framed in a composite package and displayed in the house so new and old members can appreciate the history of their sorority chapter. But many sororities—and the designers trying to help them spruce up their spaces—have found that they have more composites than places to display them
“If your organization has been on the campus for a long time, you will have hundreds of these composites,” Toombs says. “They’re hung in stairwells and in hallways. Sometimes you’re running out of wall space. It becomes overwhelming.”
The solution Toombs has employed uses technology to convert composite displays to a virtual presentation.
“Instead of hanging those everywhere you have a wall, you pick a prominent space, have a television mounted and set up a system where you can come in as an alum and type in your name or your year and scroll through and find the composites you want to find,” Toombs says. “It’s a much more compact and efficient way to display those items rather than traipsing all over the house to find the years you want.”
Some of the more inflexible alumnae may resist such changes, but most of those who remain active in sorority life recognize that that the living spaces should focus on the present and not the past.
“There may be some concerns—‘We can’t take them down because Betty might want to come back and find herself in her composite from her years, and she donated a lot of money,’” Toombs said. “But most of the alumnae that stay involved recognize that there is a new crop of women coming in. We need to suit their needs if the organization is going to thrive on a campus. Changes have to make sense to the class that is in the house currently.”