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Major Trends in University Residence Halls

They’re not ‘dorms’ anymore. Today’s collegiate housing facilities are lively, state-of-the-art, and green—and a growing sector for Building Teams to explore.

May 18, 2011 |

There are logical reasons why university residence halls are one of the stronger sectors for AEC firms in the current construction market. Age is one of them. Many colleges and universities have a portfolio of ageing residence halls constructed in the 1960s and 1970s for the post-war generation. The baby boomers’ children, the so-called “echo boomers,” and even their children’s children, are now flooding the nation’s universities, and they have no interest in yesteryear’s dormitory-style living.

Today’s college students wouldn’t think of sharing a bathroom with a whole floor of cohorts. They expect flat panel TVs, cable, and high-speed Internet access everywhere—for both academic and social reasons—along with comfortable nooks and crannies in which to gather and study. For schools in warm climates, how about throwing in a leisure pool and a barbecue patio?

These amenities may seem excessive to their bill-paying parents, but university officials say they’re competing fiercely for top student talent, so they’re giving their customers what they want. Many institutions are targeting out-of-state and international students (who generally pay full tuition), raising the demand for on-campus housing. Urban schools historically geared to commuters are building residence halls to create more of a “collegiate” atmosphere on campus. For research-based universities success in the dog-eat-dog fight for grant dollars depends on attracting bright, driven graduate students who are willing to work long hours on research projects and need affordable places to live, preferably on or near campus.

Building Teams invested in programming, designing, and constructing collegiate residential facilities would do well to consider several trends that are influencing activities in this sector:

•  Alternative financing – Many universities are taking a hard look at partnering with private developers to fund new projects. But be careful: AEC firms have two masters to serve in these arrangements.

•  Mixed use/urban infill – To help foster more vibrant neighborhoods and boost goodwill with the surrounding community, some urban residence hall projects include retail and restaurant space open to non-university patrons.

•  Innovative flexible common spaces – Informal learning settings, such as nontraditional residence hall classrooms and spaces for students to collaborate on projects, are high priorities.

•  Sustainability as a lifetime learning tool – Universities are using cutting-edge green features and technologies to influence student behavior, promote physical sustainability, and enhance the curriculum.


Private developer partnership agreements can be complex, with almost unlimited possible permutations. A common format is for the university and the developer to form a separate corporation that issues 30- to 50-year bonds to finance construction. The developer might be the primary bond issuer, thereby assuming the most risk, with the university as the secondary issuer; rating agencies are likely to rate the bonds higher when the university stands behind the project. After the bonds are retired, or shortly thereafter, ownership of the property reverts to the university.

Building Teams need to understand the nuances of how these partnerships impact programming, design, and construction. That’s because there are two clients to please: the developer, who typically pays the bill; and the institution, representing its board and, ultimately, the students. Sometimes these two entities don’t see eye to eye on key aspects of residence hall projects.

A case in point: The University of La Verne in La Verne, Calif., about 30 minutes east of downtown Los Angeles. For most of its history, the school was geared to commuters, but in recent years La Verne has been enrolling more out-of-state and international students. This influx has led to a housing shortage so pressing that the university had to put up some students in hotel rooms.

To alleviate the housing crunch, the school partnered with developer Hanover Pacific LLC, Irvine, Calif., on a 103,255-sf mixed-use retail and student housing project, which recently broke ground. David Senden, a principal with design firm KTGY Group, Irvine, Calif., says the programming and design process called for “a delicate dance” with the two clients. “We had longer, more intense meetings than on the typical project,” he says. “It was a slow process of consensus building.”

Building Teams need to recognize the sometimes competing interests in developer/university partnerships. The developer has to balance its need to maximize revenue-generating square footage with the school’s demands for less profitable amenities. “The university usually wants more common space and educational space than the developer wants to build,” Senden notes.

This conflict can even come down to the number of bathrooms in the residence hall. While the institution might want every student to have a private bathroom, cost constraints may limit how many actually get programmed into the final design.

For such partnerships to succeed, the two parties must be willing to negotiate, and sometimes the design firm gets thrust into the role of mediator. Of course, the developer’s job is to optimize financial return, while the institution is looking to keep down costs. “The developer gets to cry uncle when the price gets too high,” says S. Michael Evans, FAIA, principal and vice president of Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company, Norfolk, Va. “Often, the limit on cost comes down to what students can pay.” The university or the developer may want to raise room rates over the years, says Evans, but ultimately they have to maintain affordability for the students.

 EXTRA: Arizona State’s Public/Private Housing Partnership

Building Team members accustomed to working with university clients might have difficulty adjusting to the dual-client dynamic, says Greg Strickler, a principal with Anderson Strickler LLC, Gaithersburg, Md., a market and financial consulting firm focused on the university sector. “Some architects are not comfortable working for the developer rather than the university,” he says. “Some are not comfortable designing to stringent developer-set budgets.”

Firms eyeing the university housing market should be prepared to work within these partnerships or risk being shut out of potentially lucrative projects. Evans says most institutions are at least willing to talk about third-party partnerships. However, says Strickler, the schools tend to be cautious about such arrangements. “Universities are loath to give up control over these projects,” he says. In certain cases, particularly where speed is of the essence, they can be an attractive option.


Urban universities increasingly look to mixed-use, urban-infill projects—including student housing—to add vitality to their surroundings and enhance town/gown relations.

 A shining example is Emerson College’s renovation of the historic Paramount Theater and Arcade Building in downtown Boston. The Art Deco-style Paramount, a 1930s movie house that sat vacant from the mid-70s until its recent renovation, is now a 590-seat live performance venue with a 125-seat black box theater, a 170-seat film screening room, nine rehearsal studios, practice rooms, a sound stage, and classrooms.

“Emerson now has the finest performance spaces of any academic institution in the world,” says Howard Elkus, FAIA, RIBA, LEED AP, a principal with Elkus Manfredi Architects, Boston, the design firm on the project. Passersby on busy Washington Street may be attracted by the theater’s 7,000-bulb marquee but may not notice the new residence hall hovering behind the theater.

Construction of the residence hall was a key component in the resuscitation of Boston’s infamous Combat Zone, where strippers and prostitutes once roamed. Emerson, which has built several new and renovated housing projects nearby, has been instrumental in the turnaround. Students now patronize restaurants and retail shops night and day. “Emerson has literally regenerated this part of the city,” Elkus says.

Two thousand miles away, in Austin, Texas, a project to be built on the edge of the University of Texas campus will have space for retail shops, restaurants, or university-related uses. This street-level space will be constructed with a separate entrance from the residence portion of the structure and a separate elevator, giving the university the flexibility to use it either for offices or classrooms or to rent it out to retail use, says Chris Carvell, AIA, NCARB, design principal based at PageSoutherlandPage LLP’s Denver office.

Urban colleges and universities have to be keenly sensitive to neighborhood concerns when designing new residences. Emerson chopped the Paramount Residence Hall from 155 feet down to 109 feet to accommodate neighboring condominium owners. “We also hid as much of the rooftop infrastructure equipment as we could,” says Ross Cameron, project architect with Elkus Manfredi. The college paid a premium for two custom-made air-handling units that could be stacked. The alternative would have required six off-the-shelf units with a larger roof footprint, an unattractive sight to the nearby condo owners. Emerson also clad one side of the structure with a glass curtain wall featuring some translucent panels to blend with the neighboring Ritz Carlton Residences and Millennium Place condominiums.


The concept of the living/learning environment is gaining popularity in residence hall design. “Studies are showing that informal settings are better for learning than the traditional academic setting,” says PageSoutherlandPage’s Carvell.

Three new residence halls at the University of Colorado, Pueblo, address that trend. Each has a ground-level classroom that can be used for informal seminars, student project collaboration, or other learning formats that don’t hold to the conventional lecture style. A grab-and-go café is adjacent to each classroom. The classroom space can be expanded by opening a translucent frosted-glass-paneled sliding wall abutting the café. Thus, the classroom can be used for multiple purposes and for gatherings of different sizes. The space has its own outside entrance, and the sliding wall can be locked so that the room can be used by outside groups while maintaining security for the residents.

Common areas are precious space in a university residence, and the more flexible they are, the better. Many lounges, study spaces, and snack bars are equipped with comfortable furniture that can be easily reconfigured or moved to accommodate different types of events.

Another increasingly common amenity in university housing is the high-tech media room. While most students have laptops, many need to occasionally use expensive, sophisticated software. “There may be areas set aside for practicing on tools like PowerPoint,” says Joseph Stramberg, AIA, principal with Treanor Architects, Lawrence, Kan. “You might have a video room with a green screen. If a student is going to graduate school, the essay they need to submit with their application might be a video essay, and they can create it in this space.”

Green screens, video conferencing, wi-fi, HDTV, reconfigurable lounges—these elements indicate that today’s college housing differs drastically from the mid-twentieth-century residences that many schools now have to replace. Colleges and universities are demanding innovative designs to address these requirements.


Many universities are routinely designing new residence halls to a minimum LEED Silver status. The new thing is to turn them into sustainability learning centers. Duke University’s Smart Home, a 6,000-sf LEED Platinum student residence hall, serves as a live-in laboratory, where Duke students perform research studies on the building’s green technologies (see “Living in a Green Laboratory,”

Two years ago, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., completed Cedarwood, a 35,000-sf residence hall that is expected to achieve LEED Silver certification. Its green features include extensive natural daylighting, low-flow water fixtures, a bioretention filtration system to manage stormwater runoff, reflective roofing, and a solar hot water system.

Eastern Mennonite went a step further with the installation of a video dashboard in the Cedarwood lobby that delivers real-time data on the building’s energy and water usage as well as background information on its environmental characteristics.

The Energy Efficiency Education Dashboard (from QA Graphics, Ankeny, Iowa) graphs current usage to historical usage, computes savings, and provides environmental tips and quizzes. “The dashboard provides a way for visitors and students to learn about the building and to be aware of how their lifestyles impact the environment,” says EMU’s communications director, Andrea Wenger. “This is a living and learning community, and telling the story of Cedarwood’s construction and building use fits in with our mission as a university committed to sustainability.”

St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has renovated much of its student housing with low-flow showers, toilets, and faucets, and automated lighting controls, but there’s still room for improving efficiency, says Shelley Price Finn, the university’s sustainability program coordinator.

St. Mary’s has adapted the QA Graphics’ software as the front end of a centralized energy management system that allows students, faculty, and staff to access environmental data over the Web. The university sponsors energy-conservation contests in which its residence halls vie against others in the Canadian Atlantic provinces. The winner is determined by the highest percentage reduction compared to its baseline week usage. “We try to get students to turn off lights and computers and unplug things when not in use,” Finn says.

“The last step is to impact human behavior,” Finn says. “We don’t have systems to turn off every light and every computer.” That’s where tools like the dashboard and what she terms “social marketing,” such as the energy challenge contest, come in.

New university housing feeds students’ environmental awareness and makes it easier for them to follow through with good ecological practices. Smart Building Teams can be equally motivated to use their skills and experience toward creating efficient, affordable residence facilities for today’s university scholars.

EXTRA: Wait, there’s more! Three more university housing trends to look for

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