What Students Want

Apple, IKEA, and Starbucks. What do these and other corporate giants have in common with residence hall furnishings? EVERYTHING. Outlaw Consulting has described the most trusted “trendsetting” brands of Generation Y, or the Millennial Generation, ages 18 to 29, as those that embody “image and quality.” At Cannon Design, we have witnessed the infiltration of these trends in campus and student life to the point of ubiquity. They have significantly influenced the design, finishes, and furnishings in all campus buildings, especially residence halls.

Today’s students have been raised on individualized everything — from products to technology to food. Both Millennials and the upcoming Generation Z are greatly influenced by brand, style, and convenience, moving away from “fast food” to unique, distinct, and casual upscale brands. For these generations, it’s all about customization to their moods, budget, and immediate lifestyle. In residence halls, this shift has been reflected both in new campus construction and in renovation, in which universities are providing much more flexibility of space, creating dynamic outside-of-the-classroom learning environments that capture both student and parent interest.

Built for Comfort and Connection
Lounges, multipurpose space, and small seating areas are inserted throughout the residence halls, and furnishings are unique to each setting. Lounge furniture has shifted from the standard combo of a three-person couch and coffee table to soft seating, study cubicles, and high-tops (bar height tables). When budgets allow, campuses explore signature furniture pieces created by design collaboratives that respond to the activities and interactions that occur in today’s student lounges. Many manufacturers offer furniture with power access for recharging laptops and electronic devices, as well as adjustable/moveable tablets, tables, and trays that provide better ergonomic support for every mobile adapter for new technologies. Multipurpose rooms house not only tabletop recreation-type games and wide-screen televisions, but also places for electronic gaming and study. Small seating areas with loveseats and casual seating can be found in lobbies, laundry rooms, and stairwells, providing space for casual meetings and group study.

Each of these spaces creates a much-needed flexibility that allows communities to grow. Our clients often share that, although they are student-life professionals, they regularly find themselves on the front line of student recruitment and retention, ensuring the continued evolution of student spaces that attract and respond to the needs of both today’s and tomorrow’s students.

There’s No Place Like Home
As student living spaces on campus mirror more homelike qualities in dining and living room furniture, residence halls are moving more toward a truly residential, rather than institutional, feel. Private and public spaces must be comfortable, functional, and loaded with color, style, and technology. Today’s students are more design-savvy, having been exposed to design aesthetics through media and personal experience, and they are demanding higher-quality environments with hospitality-like characteristics they might find represented in IKEA, Home Goods, or Bed Bath & Beyond. Cumbersome, institutional, and singular-use furnishings are no longer attractive nor appropriate for student residences — flexible, modular, and slim is the name of the game. Some specific examples include 30-in. by 60-in. desks without book carrels, that accommodate larger and/or multiple computer monitors. Beds that can be lofted to enable private furnishing and personalized choices make home-away-from-home feel more like home.

Giving Students What They Want
An established direction in developing new furnishing, finishing, and equipment layouts and approaches lies in “test driving all scenarios.” At the Minnesota State University, Mankato, Cynthia Janney, director of residence life, noted, “It’s important to see furnishings as opportunities to impress students with amenities they want. Lockable drawers, expandable surfaces, mattresses with dual firmness, and high-low rolling office chairs, perhaps with gaming and table components — we test these amenities with our students to identify where they find value, and that’s what we buy. Additionally, choosing contemporary colors pulls the entire package together and tells students, ‘Your opinion is valued here.’”

Another avenue that must not be overlooked are “green” furnishings, materials, and finishes. Green product development and manufacturing also appeal to students, as sustainability remains a dynamic topic on campus. Some modular furnishings can be taken apart to remove and change outdated or damaged materials. Recycled, FSC-certified, and refinished woods are often preferred in all student furnishings. Other finishes such as paint, carpet, and other materials should be low-VOC and in colors and patterns that reflect the eclectic aesthetics of a variety of students.

Furnishing for All Abilities… and Parents
As campuses improve programs and services for students with disabilities, accessibility is becoming increasingly important. Universal design creates a true barrier-free environment, but creating these open, accessible spaces that welcome students of all sizes and capabilities often requires thoughtful selection of furnishings. When Cannon Design reviews spaces and recommends furnishings, we seek not only to improve access for wheelchairs but also to enhance overall student comfort, with flexible, adaptable, and attractive furniture that fits a variety of body types. Height-adjustable tabletops and sturdy seating more easily and comfortably accommodate all students in either group or individual tasks. Ideally, the universally designed room goes beyond accommodating specific disabilities to provide ergonomic convenience for all who utilize the space.

Finally, let’s not forget about the influence of parents in all of this. For years, clients have told us about the “arms race” in constructing new student unions, recreation centers, and dining and residence halls to attract students and impress their parents. The explosion in social media and handheld technologies has made it more important than ever to encourage in-person socialization. Parents nowadays tell student-life administrators that they want to see campus living spaces that help students engage socially as well as academically, in addition to “feeling like home.” In turn, furnishings that promote and enhance the learning communities that we are designing on our campuses encourage student learning outside the classroom.

In this economy, many universities are searching for more cost-effective solutions, increasingly conscious of the value of furnishings and interiors in student-life and residence-life spaces have in attracting and retaining the very best students. As capital funds have become scarcer, thereby reducing the “arms race,” residence life professionals have worked diligently to improve student attraction and satisfaction outcomes within their maintenance and operations budgets — making finishes and furnishing not only a clear but also a financially sound investment.

Lynne Deninger, AIA, LEED-AP, is an associate principal for Cannon Design, Boston, specializing in the programming, planning, and design for student residence facilities. She can be reached at [email protected]