Designing the Healthy Residence Hall

Healthy residence halls are the goal of every campus, yet achieving that goal requires careful planning and design, whether you’re constructing a new building or upgrading one that has served your campus for years.
What makes a residence hall a healthy place to live and learn? When creating student living environments, campuses must adopt a holistic view of how building elements impact the physical and emotional health of the students living there.
A Well-Functioning Building Means Healthier Students
Human survival needs such as sunlight, clean air, and a non-toxic environment have become key design criteria through the past two decades. Research continues to connect the dots between illnesses and building environments that restrict these basic needs.
A landmark study by Heschong Mahone Group in 1999 was the first to document connections between academic performance and natural light in schools, and the body of research continues to grow. Architectural responses, such as a space layout that maximizes natural light, locating windows to provide outdoor views, filtering and bouncing light to avoid glare, interior glazing, and enhancing natural light with efficient electrical lighting are now shown to improve performance, satisfaction, and productivity across a variety of settings. Natural lighting also reduces symptoms of depression and seasonal affective disorder, as illustrated by a Johns Hopkins study in which patients experienced shorter hospital stays when assigned to sunny rooms.
In residence halls, where students spend much of their time, a thorough assessment of indoor air quality is critical. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), poor indoor air quality is linked to an array of preventable illnesses such as colds, flu, headaches, eye irritation, allergies, and asthma, as well as to a decrease in intellectual processing tasks such as logical reasoning, memory, and creative thinking.
Effective ventilation, circulation, moisture control, reduction of outside pollutants such as radon and methane, and limiting exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in paint, carpet, and fabrics all play a role in air quality. Attention to thermal comfort through building envelope design and effective heating and cooling systems can also help to protect students from colds and sinus problems.
Promoting healthy behavior is also important. Creating opportunities for exercise — gym rooms, bicycle and walking paths, open staircases — can mitigate the feel of an institutional or artificial environment and encourage students to incorporate movement and physical fitness into their routines.
LEED Provides a Strong Start

Factors that determine the health of a residence hall come into play well before design or construction. Comprehensive and detailed planning can help to identify critical components that will make the difference between a residence that enhances students’ well-being versus one that may detract from it.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, while most often associated with energy conservation and green campus initiatives, also provides a starting point for creating desirable and healthy living spaces. The rating system offers clear guidelines on improving indoor air quality, site selection, specifying healthier interior finishes, daylighting, and other areas that directly impact quality of life within a residence hall. 
HVAC systems and equipment that improve indoor air quality while reducing energy usage are a smart choice that pays back quickly. If building and climate allow, natural ventilation systems, which use wind and buoyancy rather than artificial air conditioning, can increase thermal comfort and add beneficial fresh air.
LEED-recommended siting and envelope considerations such as sloped roofs, ground slope, covered entries, and air intakes greatly reduce incidents of mold and mildew, especially in humid summers when buildings are not fully occupied. Another LEED point area, specifying materials with low VOC emissions, has clear health benefits as well. In Millsap College’s John, Charles and Susan Halls, green fabrics, furnishings, low-VOC paint, and sealed janitor closets help control indoor air quality. The College also incorporated health-oriented LEED elements such as locating halls within walking distance of convenient restaurants, stores, and classes.
Environmental Impacts on Emotional and Psychological Health
Yet even in a building with good air quality, natural light, and interior finishes with minimal off-gassing, student well-being may still be compromised. Particularly in university settings, designing residences with an eye to psychological and emotional wellness is vital to creating positive living experiences, reducing stress, enhancing learning, and building a thriving community.
In research on the psychosocial impact of building environments, Judith Heerwagen identified several areas to be considered in environmental design. Wellness thrives in environments that encourage spontaneous social encounters and information sharing, that provide balance between private spaces and those that encourage interaction, and offer points of interest and relaxation.
In Heerwagen’s studies on windowless environments, occupants felt disconnected from weather, time, and seasonal changes. Environmental psychologists are finding clear cross-cultural agreement about preferences for visually interesting spaces and connection with the natural world. Contact with nature, even indirectly through windows and décor that reflect natural patterns, is proven to reduce stress and positively impact psychological development and mental health. The right combination of careful site selection, landscape development, and interior structures can be a powerful way to enhance students’ emotional experience of a residence hall.
A feeling of control over one’s environment is another important element in psychological well-being. Walter Kroner’s research at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute illustrated that environmental control increases comfort, satisfaction, and performance, yet it’s an area often overlooked. Students living in Krehbiel Scholarship Hall at the University of Kansas experience the difference: they can adjust their environments to personal comfort levels — open windows, adjust mechanical systems, and enjoy amenities that make a home comfortable, including low-noise heating and cooling systems and wireless mobility.
Designing Living Spaces That Feel Like Home

Well-designed residence halls like Krehbiel enhance physical and emotional well-being and create the sense of community that helps students thrive. Healthy residences include designated spaces where students can gather together to eat, talk, play, or work. They incorporate circulation patterns and layouts that encourage interaction and allow easy transition between private and social areas. Whether it’s a fireplace hearth, a communal kitchen, or study and meeting rooms, social spaces offer students a sense of intimacy and promote social bonds and intellectual development. 
Washburn University’s Living Learning Center, for example, has re-energized student life on campus and attracted students by providing a community where students and faculty socialize and learn in communal lounges, seminar rooms, reading rooms, and recreational areas — all in close proximity to private living spaces.
Campuses need to go beyond basic programming priorities to specifically embrace students’ physical health, well-being, and quality of life. Whether building, renovating, or maintaining a residence hall, the benefits of doing so are clear: residences that attract students, improve learning, and build community — while at the same time accomplishing campus-wide sustainability objectives.
Nadia Zhiri, AIA, LEED-AP, is principal and leader of Treanor Architects’ student life design studio ( This team of 25 people dedicated exclusively to the design of student life facilities has programmed and/or designed more than 140 student life projects on 65 college campuses. She can be reached at [email protected]