Student housing series: What can a developer bring to the design of student housing?

March 2, 2020 Bryan Morrison

Developers and architects balance budget and design to exemplify what a living learning environment can truly achieve


Developers are crucial to the construction of public-private partnership (P3) student housing. Not only are they the primary financing of the project, developers can be a guiding hand to a university either inexperienced in building student housing or just looking to explore these developments from a fresh perspective. Less is known about what a developer can bring to the physical design of student housing. Through clear and thoughtful use of strong, simple design elements paired with a value-based approach, developer-driven student housing produces facilities that are functional, affordable, and remarkable.

As a student housing designer, l pay close attention to the balance between amenity and affordability. New developments need to meet high expectations from students and universities while fitting into the stretched budgets and study-focused needs of Gen-Z students. The challenge is to build housing that is simultaneously affordable and opulent. While universities and other institutions sometimes struggle with how to accomplish this, experienced developers along with architects have been honing this craft for years. Here is how they do it:


At Louisiana State University (LSU) in New Orleans, the design included an approach commonly employed on multi-family projects by using a prime and secondary façade.


1. Variations on a theme 

Facades composed of higher-end finishes give a building its sense of quality and grandeur. Unfortunately, it’s not feasible to use these finishes throughout an entire facility and have it still be affordable. An adept developer prides themselves on creating value that is greater than its sum of parts.

An approach commonly used on market-rate, multi-family projects is to use a prime and secondary façade. The primary façade will use higher-end materials, feature more dramatic _q_tweetable:Through clear and thoughtful use of strong, simple design elements paired with a value-based approach, developer-driven student housing produces facilities that is functional, affordable, and remarkable._q_articulation, and carry glazing and landscape that present a rich face to the building. The secondary façade will use more modest yet honest materials, feature more understated articulation and incorporate landscape elements concentrated in high-traffic areas.

Pattern, light, and color make up the affordable architectural language I use in all student housing to tie the two facades together while still being distinctive. At the Louisiana State University (LSU) project in New Orleans, we utilized a scheme of fiber cement panel and brick for the street face and stucco in the courtyard united by a common pattern for changes in material and color.


2. Value-based design

In student housing, every design aspect receives scrutiny over its added value to the project. Optional elements that are not necessary to the function and feel of the design are often eliminated to bring down cost. Examination over added value verses cost is what I refer to as a value-based design.

A value-based approach does not mean the cheapest design, but rather, how can we get the most bang for the buck? This is where the vision of an experienced developer and architect can make a project successful.

Low-cost MEP systems are used if they meet the functional demands, a balanced life cycle cost, and can work with the building aesthetics. Students have little interest in what heating and cooling systems are used—as long at their room temperature is comfortable.   

Developers recognize the value of simple, prominent, and memorable components that can set one facility apart from the competition—such as an Instagramable courtyard mural that bolsters the design and creates a buzz that is memorable and marketable. While art might seem extravagant and might have been eliminated from the budget in an institutional delivery, the value added elevates the design of the entire space and compensates for cost cutting elsewhere.


At Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida, studies and lounges feature more extensive glazing than in individual units.

3. Institutions are learning from developers

Following a trend from strong developer influence into more commercial building types, the influences into student housing design are already evident. Even institutions are beginning to look at housing through the lens of marketability, money shots, and wow moments.

Study rooms have more expensive glazing systems than bedrooms, stairways a humbler floor finish than corridors. Lobbies have more lavish interiors than units because developers and architects recognize the superior value it presents to a project. This might seem like common sense to us now, but it was not always the case. In the end, adherence to good design principles and attention to detail is what makes a successful project. By building upon the innovations led by developer efforts to create and market student resident lifestyle projects, clients can articulate a design for students where the function, budget, and marketing efforts operate in a coordinated way to promote student success.

Developers and architects recognize the importance of economy in budget and design while delivering an exceptional product for students. Their experience paired with a discerning approach to budgets based on value rather than pure cost create housing that exemplifies the best of what a living learning environment can achieve.



This is the seventh blog in a multi-part series on technical aspects of student housing design. Earlier blogs focused on public-private partnerships,  important questions to ask when designing a student unit, special-needs spacesbalancing affordability and comfort in acoustical designstudent housing vs. multi-family housing, and designing student housing in California.

About the Author

Bryan Morrison

Bryan Morrison has nearly 10 years of experience helping universities build the relationship between campus vision and connectivity. He’s provided architectural design services for college and university systems across the county, including the University of Texas System, the University of Houston, Texas Woman’s University, and University of California, Davis.

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