Designing a Sense of Home

As “home base,” the residence hall has a significant impact on how students perceive the campus experience — and how they live and learn. The interior environment of a residence hall influences everything from sleep and wellness to social connections and whether students build community. When your reality surrounding residential life is, “What can we afford?” consider these four interior design trends that will make your residence halls popular with students and set them up for success.

Learning Centers
Creating a learning center — or study space — that’s effective has a lot to do with the furniture you incorporate and where you locate it. Students study in different ways, and arranging the space to provide a variety of study options is key.

Solo options include small desk learning areas; kiosks; soft, comfy furniture; chairs with fold-out desk arms; and movable work-height side tables, just big enough to accommodate a laptop. Collaborative learning options may include LCD panels on walls that provide distinct spaces to work together on digital presentations or video editing. Meeting tables with marker-board surfaces and tables with peel-off, sticky-pad-style surfaces — such as Campfire Paper Tables — can help facilitate group brainstorming.

Integrating technology is a must.

If students can’t plug into the furniture itself, placement must ensure easy outlet access and the ability to work comfortably with laptops and tablets. If budget allows, manufacturers such as AGATI and Dirtt with Spider Agile Technology provide innovative options like interactive touchscreen tables, computer bench tables, and collaborative work desks with technology built right in.

Students who’ve grown up with an interest in sustainability are increasingly demanding greener residences. There are many ways to make sustainable interior design choices, from LED light fixtures and daylighting to incorporating visible sustainability efforts in public spaces. A highly visible lobby monitor, for example, that records and displays energy use within the building not only serves campus sustainability efforts, it also acts as a learning tool. Likewise, dedicated recycling centers are giving way to positioning numerous recycling opportunities within the building’s natural traffic flow.

Choosing sustainable furnishings and finishes is easier than it’s ever been. Recycled content products can fit all budgets, and fun, higher-cost items can be used as accents for a design statement without breaking the bank. For example, paper surfaces, such as ShetkaStone products, use 100-percent post-consumer and post-industrial recycled fibers, including cardboard, newsprint — even retired U.S. currency. Paperstone is another warm and durable option for countertops, millwork paneling, and even toilet partitions.

Acoustical fiber, fiberglass, and wood ceilings can all have a high percentage of recycled content. One notable option is Armstrong Commercial Ceiling-2-Ceilings products, made from reclaimed ceilings. PVC-free carpet tile backings and 100-
percent recycled content options are now available from commercial manufacturers, including Aquafil USA, which turns reclaimed fibers into new carpet. And carpet tiles have many benefits, from less installation waste and lower lifecycle costs to ease of replacement and design flexibility.

Replacing vinyl with marmoleum composition tile (MCT) is another way to work with recycled pre-consumer content for minimal added cost. Even tile is now recyclable. Crossville’s new system processes reclaimed tile into powder used to manufacture new tile.

Consider repurposing, too. At the University of Missouri, for example, bathroom partitions from a renovated 1960s residence were made into countertops for the reception area and recycling centers. Salvaged marble, architectural elements, and reclaimed wood can provide other creative options.

Small Communities
Research shows that students thrive when they identify with a community. Successful communities are socially dynamic and interactive, and their interiors reflect this. Interior spaces that encourage interaction yet retain privacy are especially important when designing for freshmen and sophomores.

One increasingly popular — and effective — way to do this is by breaking down larger residences into small communities. In a recent renovation at South Dakota State University, a community of 50 to 60 students with one resident assistant was reconfigured into communities of 20 to 25 students, in double or single rooms, with one common bathroom. Common bathrooms can balance privacy with interaction by dividing out designated spaces for toilets, showers, and sinks, so students are sharing, while also enjoying private spaces.

Overall, interiors are incorporating more community living spaces, from kitchens to game rooms or living rooms to classrooms. This reflects the reality that students operate differently. Some are multitaskers and want to be in the midst of things, where they are able to see and be seen while they work. Others need quiet spaces.

Some communities are going a step further, creating branded identities that are visually defined through the use of color, design elements, and artwork (sometimes student-created). Each community within a larger hall might use the same materials and finishes, changing only colors or fabrics. This provides visual separation and intuitive wayfinding, yet still reads as a cohesive design within the building.

A Sense of Home
Campuses can be stressful environments — students are away from home, juggling academics and social lives, and planning for their futures. Interior design choices go a long way towards providing the psychological and physical sense of being at home, giving students a much-needed anchor.

That doesn’t mean a residence hall mimics your house. Features such as open floor plans, connections to outdoor spaces, natural lighting, and focal points create a homey feel while remaining practical and durable. For example, a kitchen island that opens onto a lounge area becomes a gathering spot. Room anchors such as fireplaces, a wall featuring accent mosaics, or a fixed entertainment center feel familiar and provide a focal point. At one Texas State University residence, the integration of artwork throughout the interior space accomplishes this goal, while also enriching the cultural experience.

Many home-like finishes and products are just as durable as their institutional predecessors, and have lower life-cycle costs. Simulated wood plank flooring, real linoleum, faux wood panels, and inexpensive tile options, for example, add warmth and timelessness. They also create design flexibility to incorporate the colorful, modern furniture styles that tend to appeal to students.

In private spaces, “home” is all about adaptation. Modular furniture, neutral broadloom carpet or wood sheet flooring, and smooth walls allow students to customize their bedroom layouts and color schemes. Adding whiteboards or other message vehicles outside the room offers a “front door” for students to personalize while also connecting with each other.

Campus residences are undergoing sea changes, and staying on top of the trends can be a challenge. Bringing students in for a design charette can help you and your design consultants prioritize amenities as well as make appealing style decisions. Spend your money wisely by focusing on what matters most to your students and also furthers your campus mission. 

Contributors: Nadia Zhiri, AIA, principal, Treanor Architects Student Life division; Treanor Interiors Designer Kara Grant, IIDA, LEED-AP, Assoc. AIA; and Designer Lisa Lamb, IIDA. For more information, visit