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The Changing Landscape of University Residence Halls

As design professionals we see common problems being faced by many higher-ed institutions when it comes to student housing. One common issue that we see is the need to replace or renovate an aging portfolio of residence halls built in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. These were originally oriented to post war and baby boomer students. It’s no surprise that today’s students have different expectations. They want more amenities and options in their living arrangements. Most particularly, they want private rooms and private bathrooms and less sharing of communal bathrooms with their entire floor of peers. I saw the first wave of these housing types being built during my own college career and now nearly a decade later the trend has reached a new level of urgency among university officials as they try to compete for student populations.

The specific needs of each university can vary by student culture, use groups, parental drivers, location, and climate, just to name a few. For some it may be a renovation of existing traditional structures to suite-type rooms with their own suite bathroom. For other universities it may be investing in new facilities to accommodate a growing campus and to add more modern amenities. For others it may be an update to include air-conditioning and other systems upgrades. Whether it is renovation or new space, we are seeing the addition of rentable study rooms, fitness centers, and shared kitchens across the Residence Hall landscape. Depending on the climate some are including barbecue and fire pit patios and even pools. Regardless of location, it is wise to incorporate a mixture of indoor and outdoor space to promote community among the student body. Flat panel TVs, cable, high speed internet, and Wi-Fi is a standard expected by students basically everywhere. Not to mention Parents, who are often footing the bill, want to see air-conditioned spaces and rooms that keep sound out, so their kids can be well rested for their studies.

For university officials, besides meeting the student expectations, they have the difficult decisions of how to finance, whether to work with a developer, and how to choose a design that will be flexible enough to be sustainable for the future. The student living environment is one more tool they use for student attraction and retention.

If this sounds like more than enough to manage, that’s because it is. Bringing an experienced architect on-board early in the process can help smooth out the process in the long run. Residence halls are trying to keep up with other student housing trends. Many times, the private sector is ahead of the university market so hiring an architect with a range of housing types can capitalize on their market knowledge, while meeting the more durable construction standards typical of university interests. At Synthesis our architects have a range of multi-family, residential, dormitory, and university experience. Putting an emphasis on the earliest stages of a project, we can help to clearly identify the problems that are unique to the institution, their particular building location, and their particular student make-up. With clear problem definition, we can work to develop a design for the campus that has a lasting impact and will serve the university for many years to come.


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