Improving the "Laundry Experience" for Students While Controlling Costs

Let's face it -- no one likes to do laundry. And, hauling your clothes down to a dank, single-bulb-lit basement laundry room just makes an unpleasant job that much more unpleasant. College campuses today are changing their laundry facilities for the better, to satisfy the students, their parents -- and the bottom line.

"Laundry areas can't be too big and they can't be second-class spaces," says Joe Venezia, president, Venezia Properties. After renovating a historic residence hall in Frederic, Md.-based Hood College, Venezia immediately saw problems with the traditional model. "The old laundry space was dingy, cramped and basically nonfunctional," he says. Venezia also notes that students did not just drop their clothes in the machines and leave. "They wait around, reading and socializing until their laundry is done."

No one can argue with the efficiency of scale when a school gangs 40 machines in one area. However, rooms tucked away in low-traffic areas are perceived as less safe. Also, huge, anonymous spaces do nothing to deter vandalism. "Decentralization leads to students taking ownership of the room, its equipment and upkeep," says Lew Moran, AIA, associate vice president of HGA whose firm is presently renovating residence halls at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and Michigan Tech. "Laundry actually becomes part of the student's social fabric."

Equipment suppliers confirm the trend. "Most schools are moving to smaller residence halls with one central laundry area, or multiple facilities for a larger residence hall," says Leo Yokiel, director of marketing for Maytag Commercial. "They are going so far as giving up rooms to make laundry facilities larger."

New residence hall buildings often employ a suite model, which allows for even more laundry options. "Planners can use a stackable washer/dryer for each suite," says Randy Karn, director of Product Management for Maytag Commercial. While this set up appeals to students, it can make servicing the machines and collecting coins more of a chore.

No matter the size or number of laundry rooms, Maytag's Karn and Yokiel note the biggest trend remains the front-loading washing machine. More energy and water efficient than the standard top-loader, front-loaders, like Maytag's Neptune, are becoming the industry standard. "Schools are being squeezed with less government money on one hand, while receiving mandates to cut energy use on the other," explains Yokiel. "Front-loaders are a great solution to both problems."

As an example, Yokiel points to the University of Delaware's 2002 decision to switch to front-loading machines. Dogged by an ongoing drought and new energy laws, the university decided to pay the extra upfront costs for the equipment. "They saved 3.5 million gallons of water and $70,000 in utility costs that year," reports Karn.

"Few areas on a college campus are as fiscally sensitive to waste as the laundry," agrees Moran. While he concurs that front-loading machines can help the bottom line, Moran is more impressed with their ability to wring extra water out of the clothes, thus reducing drying time. "The ventilation and air exchange requirements associated with dryers represent a huge bulk of the cost of doing laundry," he explains. "If you can reduce that, you can really see savings."

Along with shorter drying periods, Moran suggests employing an electronic control system that recognizes how many dryers are being used at any given time and vents accordingly. Taking it even further, Moran often suggests an expensive heat-recovery system to his clients. "This takes about 10 to 15 years to see a pay back," he admits. "But, some schools are finding creative ways to fund the technology."

So what does the new laundry room look like? Venezia and his team offer the award-winning Hood College renovation as an example. A lobby-level facility, it upgrades or, dare we say, "celebrates" the laundry experience. The large, bright room -- complete with bar stools, folding tables and snack machines -- is visually joined, yet acoustically separated, to the common area and computer lounge by glass walls. Oversized doors allow bundle-carrying students easy access. Eight heavy duty washers and eight dryers (all coin operated, but ready to convert to card reader) represent the business end of the space, but the rest is pure fun. "Laundry should be as colorful and lounge-like as possible," he says. "It's as important as any lobby or common room."