There's No Place Like Home: Models for Undergraduate Housing

As a nation, we intend to have a greater percentage of our population attend college. Undergraduate enrollment in American colleges and universities is increasing steadily, and we read that the percentage of female students will soon surpass the percentage of male students. Every institution wants to retain its students from freshman year to graduation, and every institution attempts to have them graduate in four years. Separate subsidized funding mechanisms are in place throughout the country, which aid both public and private institutions in building new student housing. Even colleges that traditionally appeal only to commuters now want to have student housing. What plans are colleges and universities making in order to house this growing and changing population?

Conventional wisdom tells us that smaller groupings of housing units and residence-hall rooms are better for students. These smaller groupings foster a sense of community and create closeness and familiarity, which in turn promote friendships and build confidence. But at the same time, we know that supervision must be adequate, that older individuals (such as resident advisors or upperclassmen) should be available to students as mentors, and that, to some extent, undergraduate housing should share attributes with home. All of these statements seem obvious. Everyone can endorse these ideas, but to implement them intelligently we need to understand the student housing prototypes that are available.

The Dormitory Model

The most common prototype for student housing is the dormitory. In its simplest form, the dormitory model is a series of bedrooms with enough space in each room for sleeping, storage, and studying. Typically these bedrooms — which are single rooms or double rooms — are arranged in modular fashion along double-loaded corridors. To serve these rooms, dormitories contain shared bathrooms, which can be attached to student rooms or located“down the hall.” In addition to the student rooms and bathrooms, dormitories often contain lounges and/or kitchen space dispersed around the building, as well as apartments for resident assistants or adults who might supervise and/or give advice to the student residents. A more complex dormitory model includes suites, which typically are made up of several single or double rooms arranged around a common living space and served by a shared bathroom.

Students who live in dormitories usually eat their meals at a central dining hall and participate in recreation and athletic activity in other locations. They go to classes in academic buildings and visit faculty members in their offices. In other words, the dormitory, in its purest sense, provides a place for sleeping, bathing, individual study, and limited food preparation/storage and socializing.

Residential Colleges

An alternative model is the residential college, an idea that came to us from Great Britain. Residential colleges were first developed at Oxford and Cambridge, and were modeled after the monasteries of the Middle Ages. The monastic model is natural, since the teachers of that era were monks. At those British universities, young men from wealthy families lived in rooms grouped around a courtyard, much as monks did, and the courtyard was attached directly to a chapel, a library, and a dining room. There were also classrooms in the residential college, and places for the teachers to live. The English residential college was a community of scholars who lived together, prayed together, studied together, learned together, and recreated together. The architectural expression of this academic and social idea was the residential college of“ecclesiastical quadrangles,” modeled on the monastic prototype developed in Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the residential college model was adopted in a few privileged locations in New England. The philanthropist Edward Harkness gave substantial sums to both Yale and Harvard to bring the Oxford model to America. Residential colleges still thrive at those schools and at a number of other institutions in the United States.

In a typical residential college in America, student rooms are arranged as suites served by separate entryways. Each entryway consists of a staircase of three to five floors, with shared bathrooms at the stair landings and suites to either side. Each suite contains a living room and two or more bedrooms, and can house between two and four (or more) students. The entryways usually surround a courtyard or quadrangle around which are also located the common room, the dining room, the library, a master’s residence, a dean’s office, faculty apartments, faculty offices, and classrooms. Student activity and athletic spaces are often present, such as tennis courts, gymnasiums, fitness centers, snack bars, game rooms, art studios, print shops, etc. The students and faculty who live in a residential college form their own community.

A Middle Ground

While deans and administrators recognize the potential value of the residential college model, most institutions cannot afford it. In addition to cost, size is a consideration. The residential college, which requires 250 to 400 students to be viable, can apply only if the undergraduate body is large enough to be subdivided into several units of 400.

There is an enormous difference in resources required to create and maintain a residential college as compared to a dormitory. However, many examples of a middle ground in undergraduate housing flourish on American campuses. In these examples, attributes from both models are shared. For instance, when Vassar College was still a women’s school, there were traditional dormitories that functioned as small communities. Each dormitory had a separate identity with its own “dorm mother,” its own lounge, and its own dining room. The dining room staff, the maintenance staff, and the dorm mother formed part of a community that shared aspects of life with the undergraduate women. When Vassar became coeducational, the separate dining rooms in the individual dormitories were closed, and all the undergraduates took their meals in a central dining hall.

The Vassar model has been applied at many smaller colleges, especially the women’s colleges, where it was expected that the college itself, including the dorm mother and the “older sisters,” would act in loco parentis. At the time these practices were in place, undergraduate women had to observe a dress code, could not have young men in their rooms, and had to report back to their dormitories at night by a specific hour. This level of supervision was abandoned on most campuses in the 1970s.

In other undergraduate institutions, sorority houses and fraternity houses took the place of home. Each of these organizations has its own specific traditions related to undergraduate life. Most important, the tradition includes living together, eating together, and sharing a sense of community. Many students select fraternities and sororities to escape the anonymity of dormitory life.

Community-Building Patterns

How does a college or university choose the appropriate model for undergraduate housing? Patterns of undergraduate living need to promote a sense of community; this is largely facilitated by the configuration of living spaces. When we translate community into architectural diagrams, we think of courtyards and quadrangles, clustered groupings of rooms, lounges, common rooms, and pleasant places to socialize in a serendipitous manner. In other words, residential buildings should be designed to promote interaction among students and between students and advisors. This is easy enough to do without creating an entire residential college. But it is clearly more involved than simply constructing buildings with endless double-loaded corridors and repetitious dormitory rooms. High-density dormitories do not necessarily erode the quality of student life, but experience tells us that smaller groupings are better.

At individual colleges, the agendas and objectives for student housing vary widely. Typically, small colleges with 600 to 1,000 undergraduates can afford only one dining room and one library. The residential college model is inappropriate here. But aspects of the residential college ideal are still sought after, such as adult supervision and interaction, access to advisors, and a whole series of community-building strategies. At larger undergraduate institutions, one of the fundamental issues is pairing residential space with dining. If the dining hall is a central, anonymous place, dormitories become less communal, and the undergraduates might choose to live off campus or in sorority houses or fraternity houses. Larger undergraduate institutions that want to foster communities must be willing to look at the basic issues of where people sleep, where they study, where they eat, and with whom they associate.

In addition, the experience of undergraduate life, especially the living conditions, can determine to a great extent the loyalty an alumnus/alumna of a particular school feels to his or her alma mater. If the student’s residential experience is successful and promotes a sense of community, a typical undergraduate may well choose to live in the same place for a few years.

Design Principles for Undergraduate Housing

These basic principles can be applied to the design and configuration of buildings that house undergraduates.

    • Budget will influence design. An institution spending $40,000 per bed cannot expect the same building as an institution spending $200,000 per bed. Nevertheless, aspects of community-building design can be incorporated and a middle ground reached.

    • Buildings should be arranged on the site to promote communal spaces. Courtyards and quadrangles are more communal than isolated “object” buildings.

    • The siting of existing buildings can be improved by adding new wings to create courtyards and quadrangles defined by the old and new buildings.

    • Existing buildings can be transformed to incorporate design aspects that support communal interaction.

    • In general, lower buildings work better than tall buildings for housing students in a more communal way.

    • Circulation patterns within buildings should promote interaction. Even the method of entering the building can help facilitate this. For example, multiple entryways around a secure courtyard will allow for unplanned encounters.

    • Student rooms should be arranged in patterns that encourage the occupants to know each other. Fewer rooms on a corridor sharing a lounge might enable undergraduates to develop friendships, whereas larger groupings may lead to anonymity.

    • The location of dining is critical to the success of student housing. It should be part of the residential building.

    • Common spaces in a variety of sizes and locations can support academic and social activities.

    • Student housing should be designed to resemble home. This applies to materials, finishes, lighting, and furnishings, even though they must be durable.

    • Undergraduates should have easy access to advisors. Adult supervision is essential and should be located to function passively, not intrusively.


Spatial arrangements influence behavior, and in the case of student housing, the evidence is clear. The original English residential colleges, modeled after the spatial prototype of the monastery, promoted tightly knit communities. Even today, we can arrange our student housing to form courtyards and quadrangles with no significant increase in the budget. Other strategies can also be employed to promote community values.

As we consider undergraduate housing design, let us create the settings for communities of young people who will thrive socially and academically together.

Peter Gisolfi, AIA, ASLA, is the founding partner and design principal of Peter Gisolfi Associates, an office of architects, landscape architects, and interior architects located in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. He is also chairman of the Department of Architecture, Urban Design and Landscape Architecture at The City University of New York. His book, Finding the Place of Architecture in the Landscape, will be published in September by Images Publishing.