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New start, new life, new friends: Student residence life in the age of Instagram

Multifamily Housing

New start, new life, new friends: Student residence life in the age of Instagram

When it comes to the design and space planning of your residence life program, the quality of the space you create will be reflected in the social media feeds of your students.

By Zachary E. Zettler, AIA, LEED AP, Associate Principal, GBBN | August 7, 2019
Students working in a communal space. Photo courtesy GBBN

Students working in a communal space. Photo courtesy GBBN


The first of the Gen Z students are now freshman and sophomores in college. Soon, they will replace Millennials on campus completely. When it comes to Gen Z, no website, brochure, or campus tour can compete with the power of social media; they have never known a world without it—it’s where they live, learn, promote, slam, etc.

When it comes to the design and space planning of your residence life program, the quality of the space you create will be reflected—good or bad—in the social media feeds of your students. Gen Zs may show up for a campus tour, but their opinion will be shaped by searching the #nameofyourhall to see what their digital peers are saying about it. Inspiring positive posts starts with creating positive spaces for these students to Gather, Bond, Play, Rejuvenate, and simply, Be. It starts with providing spaces that enhance the college experience and empower your students’ personal growth and success.

Sharing IRL/In Real Life (Bond/Be)
Private space for Gen Z often fits within the dimensions of whatever screen they’re using. Even within social groups, this generation will retreat into their phones for a little private down time before rejoining the conversation going on around them. Social media for them is both public (in the way it amplifies their ideas and connects them to peers) and intensely private (every parent of a teen has experienced the way the phone gets turned down or the laptop lid quickly closed when we walk into a teen’s space). Zs may be having an intensely personal text conversation in the most public of spaces; they’re blurring the lines of what happens in public/private.

Video (Gather/Be/Play)
When Zs want to learn how to do something (make slime, write cover letters, create Insta Stories, or use Excel), they turn to video platforms like YouTube or Twitch. If designed correctly, space can accommodate video for group activity (gaming vs. ‘the big game’); group learning (beaming in a subject matter expert for a small group session or watching past lectures) and quiet, focused learning. Designers and Residence Life Programmers need to recognize this key difference between Millennials and Gen Z and start incorporating spaces to support these activities.


Student sitting in a hammock


Entrepreneurial spirit (Bond/Play)
What if the prior generations’ tech leaders didn’t have to leave their universities to create their start-ups? Colleges and universities should consider providing spaces that empower students to play with their ideas, taking them from inspiration to prototype to digital marketplace quickly. Gen Zs (and ahem, their Gen X parents) have watched the cost of college continue to rise.  Luxury amenities in new and renovated residence halls do not resonate with Zs or their parents, but given Z’s entrepreneurial spirit, a makerspace will (incubator spaces or pop-up business spaces might as well). Well-designed student housing can provide Gen Z with space for both living and launching.

Smart Sleep (Rejuvenate/Be)
While Gen Zs are clocking more zzz’s than previous generations they are also facing a growing burnout epidemic across industries. Space must address their needs to tune-out and turn-off. Sleeping rooms must be designed to foster a quiet place to promote relaxation and sleep. This could be as simple as blackout shades or as complex as increased noise insulation and higher NRC windows on urban campuses. These elements must be considered and custom-tailored to your university’s unique situation.

Just when you thought you had Millennials figured out, Gen Z shows up on your campus. Are you monitoring hashtags related to your university and residence halls? Does your next student tour have a potential social media influencer on it? It would be a mistake to consider the physical space of your residence life program as mere backdrop for selfie scrolling Gen Zs. Updating those 70s era halls requires more than surface polish—it requires understanding Gen Z’s unique preferences, expectations, and ways of communicating. The impact is great and long lasting: the real-life connections forged in your campus housing will become the digital connections that last a lifetime. Providing space for students to Gather, Bond, Play, Be, and Rejuvenate empowers them to positively connect their peers IRL and online.

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