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Dorm Living Refreshed: How re-tooling the Dorm Improves the Campus Experience

Image © Brandon LaRocca used with permission

College. For many of us, it was our first taste of adulthood. The freedom of being away from home, the excitement of meeting new people, and the chance to define ourselves. These were all landmarks of an important transition.

Today, when we think about sending our kids off to college, we often focus on the importance of academics. But as we look back on our own college experiences, we remember the time we spent building relationships across campus. That’s because college isn’t just about getting a B+ in Chem 101; it is a balance of both hard and soft skills that help us transition from childhood to adulthood.

And at the heart of this transition lies the dorm room.

The times change, but the dorm stays the same.

Today, college freshmen come to campus with a very different set of skills and expectations than their parents did. While much of the dorm environment hasn’t changed, students’ relationship to information has changed drastically. Close your eyes and picture a dorm room. It probably has four cinder block walls, a twin bed, a desk, and a dresser. Through a collaboration with students at Columbia College in Chicago, a group of Gensler designers recently researched the current state of dorm living on several campuses across Chicago. We found:

  • Photo collages of memories, meaningful stories, personal ephemera
  • Durable, wood furniture serving multiple purposes (many of which it’s not designed for)
  • Minimal lighting
  • Students use of the dorm room as the quintessential “hang-out” space
  • Technology littered across every available surface

Image © Brandon LaRocca used with permission

At the same time, our group did a little digging to the history of dorm rooms. Interestingly enough, we found:

  • Photo collages of memories, meaningful stories, personal ephemera
  • Durable, wood furniture serving multiple purposes (many of which it’s not designed for)
  • Minimal lighting
  • Students use of the dorm room as the quintessential “hang-out” space
  • Technology littered across every available surface

Has the dorm changed that much over the past 100 years?

Remarkably that’s nearly the same list. Early colleges were built around massive libraries, and dorms were intended to be places separate from classrooms where students could study and engage in some introspection. Classrooms and amenities spaces on campuses have evolved over time to keep pace with technology and new developments in pedagogy. And yet dorms remain almost the same. The Dorm doesn’t need a complete overhaul, but recalibrating the details can drastically improve the student experience.

We haven’t invested in the dorm yet. Why do it now?

Brick and mortar campuses have competition. With community colleges raising their level of academic rigor and massive open online courses (MOOCs) gaining credibility and traction, the traditional four-year institution needs to use every advantage at its disposal to attract students to campus and ensure they have the best possible experience. Most schools are banking on their amenity spaces to distinguish themselves from competitors. But regardless how many bells and whistles you have across campus, every student needs a place to sleep.

Students need an environment that’s hackable and adaptable. They need a central place to rest and recharge. A place to make their own. The dorm doesn’t need to be reinvented, just nudged into the 21st century. We know from looking at K-12 students that stability and comfort are major factors in student success. Students who have a disruption at home typically suffer both academically and socially. College freshman experience one of the most intense series of transitions of their young lives, and the living environment plays a powerful role in their interaction with an integrated campus network. By reexamining the basic tool-kit of furnishings within dorm rooms, we can improve the student experience.

College students today are digitally native, individualistic, and under immense pressure to succeed. This is a generation of multi-taskers, who constantly pile on the distractions. They are plugged in at all times and intent on re-defining what it means to be social. Tools like Facebook and text messaging make students feel connected with one another without having face to face interactions. How do you foster a culture of independence while incubating social networks and yet discouraging student isolation?

Alone together. Together alone.

Mobile technology, connection, and collaboration—sound familiar? There’s a lot the dorm can learn from the workplace. We know that offices are moving towards plans that are open yet still afford workers privacy through the provision of a variety of space types. Workers are simultaneously together and alone. The workplace has found tremendous value in importing third spaces into a traditional office program. These spaces help bring a balance of privacy and collaboration to ever-increasing workplace demands to foster a culture of contemplation and choice.

On the surface the dorm dweller seems to suffer the same plight as the open office worker: he or she needs that ability to be together and alone. But schools are trying to solve for the opposite problem as well—being together alone.

Virtual social networks are just as real for today’s college freshman as what we would call real interaction, but there’s something that students miss out on when they don’t unplug. Isolation can have very real and destructive effects on students. Schools struggle to get students out of the dorm room so they can physically interact with one another.

The dorm room of the future?

The dorm room of the future isn’t going to resemble a suite at the Ritz Carlton, but schools do need to embrace the important central role such an environment plays in a student’s academic and social life. When students step on campus, they are excited for what is ahead of them. At the same time, these new experiences are also the things that cause them the most anxiety about this transition. They’re learning to navigate relationships as well as inhabiting new physical environments. Interaction with their professors and peers happen with an almost equal frequency digitally as it does face to face. Having moments of connection and feeling comfortable navigating the campus network of interconnected environments make the unique challenges of that first semester feel less intimidating. The one place they come back to every day is their dorm. It is their constant, their sanctuary, their home. This is where the magic happens.

This post is part of a series on dorms and the student living experience. This is part of an ongoing Gensler research grant. For the last two years, our team has surveyed and interviewed students, administrators, and support staff in order to understand the role the dorm plays in the college experience and make recommendations for interventions.

Vanessa Passini is a strategic thinker and logistical Guru at Gensler. She brings a wide range of experience, including teaching, to the Education+Culture practice area at Gensler as co-leader of a multidisciplinary, firmwide research grant integrating expertise from the Product Design & Strategy groups to map current transitions in Student Housing. She blends a background in performance studies and pedagogical training in her approach to the project. Contact her at vanessa_passini@gensler.com.
Nathan Cool is a well-rounded architect with diverse technical skills and a passion for carrying excellent design from the largest vision through to the finishing details. Within the Education+Culture practice area at Gensler, Nathan is leading a multidisciplinary, firmwide research grant integrating expertise from the Product Design & Strategy groups to map the current transitions in Student Housing. Contact him at nathan_cool@gensler.com.

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