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Residence Halls: The Key to Creating Community on College Campuses

The Garage at Northwestern, Image: Garrett Rowland.

The major question that college leaders are asking us is: “How does your project build community on-campus?” All colleges – whether private or public, large or small – are seeking the most effective and efficient ways to connect students across their campuses. As a major personal and social hub, residence halls can uniquely contribute to the overall sense of community.

This key question about community-making is shaping the way we look at the modern residence hall. In this article, we will look at past trends in student housing, discuss the needs of future students and explore ways to prioritize community-making in residence hall design.

History of the College Dorm

During the 1950’s and 60’s, massive state and federal spending sparked a boom in dormitory construction. The rise in the number of residence halls was striking. For instance, in 1958, the University of California’s nine campuses could house only 2,900 students; by 1970, they had room for nearly 20,000.1 Living accommodations provided for only the most basic necessities with practically no amenities. The majority of the dorms were built in the traditional style, with double-loaded corridors, shared bathrooms, strict rules of conduct and no student support programs.

In contrast, state and federal funding has more recently dwindled. Simultaneously, the demand for college housing and tuition rates rose dramatically. The result was a demand for amenities as a means to justify the higher expense to students. From 1995 to 2004, the vast majority of residence halls constructed were apartment-style suites, heavy in their offerings of luxury amenities and privacy. In contrast to the 50’s and 60’s, only 17% of residence halls built were traditional dorms2. This was the true advent of luxury-student living.

What we are seeing now is a strong trend towards a hybrid model of the traditional style dorm room of the 50’s and the amenity-rich dorm of the 90’s.

Blackstone Residence Hall at Biola University, Image © Gensler

Realigning the Student Experience

Colleges feel pressure from nearby market-housing in the race to provide luxury amenities. But with the rising cost of housing and tuition, how can a campus compete with housing that offers lazy pools, saunas and workout rooms? We see a distinct advantage that the campus has over market housing when it comes to amenities. We ask, what are the most effective amenities in providing students the highest value of return for their investment in their education? The answer is simple: connecting academics within the residence hall. This can take the form of areas for group projects, quiet nooks for studying and availability of student support programs.

The traditional style dorm has distinct advantages when it comes to connecting students. It offers shared restrooms and corridors, plus the opportunity to create highly-visible and easily accessible common areas off of these corridors. In comparison, the suite style dorm internalizes much of this circulation and common area, thus reducing the amount of student interaction. These interactions are key in connecting students, and in turn, creating a sense of community.

Expectation of Future Students

The trend towards shared academic amenities and common areas aligns well with the anticipated expectations of future students. We have been observing a number of traits that affect the way we think about design.

  • Community: Students are seeking to collect experiences, not things. As such, shared amenities that benefit the larger group and offer greater variety are more appealing than a smaller offering dedicated solely to the individual.
  • Connection: Students are highly social and are group-oriented. Whether it is on-or off-line, students prioritize group work and form a tight-knit community.
  • Adaptability: Students want flexibility and choice in their daily lives. The more that spaces can adapt and allow for multiple functions, the more likely they will be consistently used.

Community, connection and flexibility: these ideas shape our view on designing a residence hall that supports the larger campus network.

Making Vibrant Campus Communities

So, how does a residence hall build community? There is not a one-size-fits-all answer. It is clear that Residence halls need to provide flexible and interactive environments, academic and personal support programs and integrate education into the residential experience. Vibrant communities create thriving networks within college campuses. The future residence hall will connect all students – commuter and resident alike – and provide diverse spaces for student interaction and academic success.

Heidi Hampton dreams of a world where architecture has no budget and hockey playoffs are on year-round (hey, it’s the little things). Heidi is an associate and architect with more than eight years of experience. When she’s not designing educational facilities, you may be able to find her in the mountains where she backpacks and trail runs to get her creative juices flowing. Contact her at heidi_hampton@gensler.com.