Student Housing

Out of the Cloud: The Future of Student Housing

History has shown that there will be other global health crises like COVID-19 to come, but this pandemic has arrived at a particularly interesting time: just as digital environments are being tested and shifting many established norms. As an immediate response to the need for social distancing, universities have implemented remote learning systems on a scale never before seen. What were once bustling academic centers now stand empty. And campus environments are known for their vibrancy and character largely as places teeming with student activity. Across every sector, decision-makers are re-evaluating the future of campus buildings and their uses. Student housing will not be immune to these changes — in fact, it will take center stage in the evolution of campus as students begin to return.

When lockdown orders are lifted, some students will inevitably choose to continue their education remotely and live off-campus indefinitely, even though studies, such as by the Higher Education Research Institute, have shown that those who live within driving distance of their alma mater are significantly more likely to graduate than those who do not. As designers, architects, planners, and developers, our challenge in the short and medium term is to transform existing campus facilities to address pandemic fears with an emphasis on safety and security — but shifting attitudes toward the ideal function and design of campuses in general will also shape academic environments in the long term.

Just as our homes have once again become the epicenters of our lives under quarantine — leading us to consider and re-evaluate their design — student housing facilities will likewise undergo massive changes in response to new hygiene concerns and lifestyle desires of students and their families. As we explore how to design and manage student housing that is more relevant, secure and attractive, we can draw from technologies, techniques and strategies sourced from other sectors — including hospitality, multifamily, commercial and retail — which have yielded success in improving the overall experience and sense of wellness among occupants.

Whether building a new facility or retrofitting an existing structure, consider:

Providing More Single Dwellings For those enrolled in higher education today, the value of privacy is increasing exponentially as digital media platforms allow more dimensions of life to be shared with non-intimate contacts. Providing students with a space of their own not only helps manage the spread of contagious disease, but also helps maintain mental health by providing students more personal space to decompress, reflect, and focus — in solitude. The privacy offered by a single unit becomes even more valuable when alternative study spaces like libraries and cafes are closed.

Creating Micro-Centers — While increasing the amount of single units in student housing facilities can lead to better germ control and provide more space for self-reflection and focused work, the question of how to address shared services and amenities and like kitchens, restrooms, outdoor spaces, wellness centers, lounges and laundry rooms can be a challenging one.

By scaling down, decentralizing and duplicating these common spaces throughout a residential building or complex, “neighborhoods” can be formed around them in clusters of up to six single units. For example, a kitchenette could be positioned next to a small student lounge and a laundry room with access to a terrace or roof garden that approximately six students would share. Organizing amenity space in this way benefits students, facility managers and maintenance crews. Additionally, this “neighborhood” concept naturally lends itself to fostering community among the student body by emphasizing sense of place and connectivity, an important element to balance as social distancing and isolation practices are woven into the student experience.

This notion of the campus as a neighborhood is not a new one. Thomas Jefferson’s concept of the academic village, which can be likened to a neighborhood concept was first introduced in 1817, and was designed as a series of freestanding pavilions. Jefferson saw his design as advantageous, for he believed that smaller, solitary structures would best protect students from disease.

Hand sanitizing stations, trash collection rooms and cleaning supplies could also be located within micro-centers to encourage students to practice better sanitation habits. In much the same vein, office designers and tenants in the commercial sector are now discussing the idea of office-specific ‘mudrooms’ — where tenants can leave items from outside and sanitize themselves and their clothes before entering the office suite. The same principle could be applied to student residences.

Many university leaders also anticipate a scaling up spaces for entry and egress, even as other spaces may be scaled down. Certain floor areas will require additional square footage given new practices related to health and safety. These include mailrooms and package delivery areas, lobbies, and other entrance and egress areas.

One of the main benefits to organizing student living into neighborhoods with micro-centers is that these environments encourage students to form close-knit personal relationships, which counterbalances the effects of long periods of isolated virtual learning and study. As new technologies enable students to plug in almost anywhere at any time, providing communal spaces where students can be “alone together” can promote productivity across disciplines while lessening feelings of isolation. A stronger sense of community and ownership of “local” amenity spaces can also encourage individuals to play a greater role in maintaining their function, safety and cleanliness, creating less work for university maintenance and monitoring crews. Another mental health benefit: individuals would have a greater sense of personal control over these smaller facilities, which may help curb anxieties over hygiene during public health crises.

Breaking Up Massing — Another key benefit of designing a student residence with more single occupancy units and micro-centers is that the building’s overall massing — and experience — automatically becomes more varied. Freeing student residences from the “big box” design approach makes these places more interesting from the inside out – to look at as well as occupy. Creating that formal diversity lends itself to a richer, more personalized experience of home – all the while letting passive fresh-air ventilation and germ-neutralizing sunlight directly into students’ living spaces. This solution has been very successful in the residential market where light, air, and views are prized.

Circulation — Post-pandemic student housing might also see changes in traditional planning and circulation patterns within student residences. The notion of long corridors and the idea of the floor party seem likely to be altered, and the “academic living village” will transform. New design ideas include smaller clusters of suites and more intimate shared spaces as well as noncontiguous corridors. A multitude of entrances to minimized congestion and offer more private access to units.

With more focus on student wellbeing, university housing leaders expect new types of spaces for individual wellness, with increased variegation of massing and increased floorplates to allow for proper compartmentalization and distancing. As we move toward a post-coronavirus era, outdoor spaces will likely come to rival indoor community spaces as prized social zones and cultural incubators. In high-density residential buildings and dormitories alike, those spaces may take the form of vertical terraces, community roof gardens, or wraparound balconies like the one seen on our recently completed 200 East 59th Street — one of the only residential towers in Manhattan in which every unit has access to a balcony.  

Shared outdoor spaces, both vertical and horizontal, further strengthen bonds between occupants of adjacent units, giving them the chance to interact and “hang out” in a place where natural ventilation is prevalent. This is ideal for educational environments where students can often feel cooped up inside. At our Choice School Thiruvalla in Kerala, India, a sculptural rainscreen canopy provides covered outdoor space for learning and congregating outside in a way that is programmatically integrated with the rest of the building.

Focusing on Flexible Spaces and Materials — Flexibility is key to resiliency, adaptability and responsiveness. Whether in the case of an emergency – like the recent pandemic– or slow but steady changes in programmatic preferences, structures that house students will absolutely need to accommodate unforeseen uses in the future. Residence halls should be designed to easily and quickly adapt to drastic changes in occupancy and accommodate major programmatic or typological changes altogether. Some strategies include creating floor and unit plans with dedicated flex spaces for easy reconfiguration, or modular units that can be combined or divided depending on occupancy need. In our Rose Hill condominium for Rockefeller Group, we’ve incorporated flex rooms into many unit layouts, which can be configured as nurseries or home offices and wellness rooms as needed.

By carefully selecting structural materials and finishes, flexibility can be increased substantially. While a concrete structure is easy to build, strong and long-lasting, steel and mass timber are equally durable options which are easily transported and more easily altered post-construction. Wood and mass timber are also low in embodied carbon, making them even more attractive structural choices. Glass is also a great option for common spaces that are not well-exposed to natural light — a solution which has been used in commercial offices for years.

For finishes, consider new synthetic or bio-based materials that are durable, aesthetically appealing and easy to clean or anti-microbial. Many new products are becoming available which meet multiple criteria for sustainability, durability, and elegance. Natural materials like stone, brick and finished wood are durable and functional but also provide a sense of warmth and comfort, humanizing spaces.  

Flexibility should not come at the expense of character, either. Creative placemaking is needed more than ever to ensure student residences remain attractive, affordable and inspiring incubators of campus culture. Flexibility is an asset, giving students an environment tailored to their needs, bringing them closer to their community, and reminding them that their college or university has their best interests in mind.

Embracing Smart Tech — As voice-activation, facial recognition, and other touchless technologies become more reliable, their application across building types is inevitable. Student residences are no exception. As workplaces, hotels and retail centers quickly adopt touchless technologies like automatic doors, lights, locks and lavatories, consider integrating these into student residences. Using app-connected security solutions and automatic doors can be an easy way to reduce touch-points and increase security as well.

Advanced sensor systems can analyze motion through spaces, measure temperature and air quality, and provide reliable post-occupancy data to universities. This data can be used to identify places with high congestion that could be unsafe in the event of a disease outbreak.

Home Away From Home — Looking to the future, designers should think about student residences as not just temporary dwellings or “crash pads” that provide the bare minimum life support for students as they pursue their goals out on the larger campus. Instead, we should promote student residences as homes-away-from-home that are both nurturing and an extension of the campus experience. By applying urban planning principles and wisdom from progressive retail, hospitality, workplace and residential development sectors, we can infuse the student residence typology with leading-edge design solutions that anticipate needs while allowing both structure and program room for growth and change.

Students should have a compelling reason to live on campus, because it benefits them as much as it does the larger academic community. Therefore, they should be offered engaging and safe live/work/play environments that are as much a center of academic life as the lecture hall, café or library. In fact, the residence — like the home — is evolving to include aspects of those programs in many ways. Giving students a dynamic, safe, high-value residence that nurtures community as much as individual identity is the key to keeping physical campuses an essential part of higher-education in the 21st century.