7 elements for quality student housing

May 25, 2016 Sean Studzinski

Certain timeless elements are key to quality student housing, regardless of current design fads.


As I travel across the country on business, the number one question I’m asked (by far) from institutional and private developers is “What is trending in student housing?” I always stumble a bit with my answer because quite a few factors influence “trends.” Although I hate answering a question with, well, a question, I always respond with “Where is the facility located?”, “What is the student population?”, and “What’s the culture of the school?”. All of these questions are important to getting to the heart of what design works best for each client and what it is “trending” in the region.

While preferences are always changing, I can say, regardless of the specific microcosm surrounding the proposed residence hall, certain key elements remain a constant in the development of quality student housing in today’s environment.  

1.       A Front Lawn. This is the space around the residence halls, courtyards, gardens, or patios – it can be public, semi-public, or private. The key to successful design here is to provide a feeling of security, comfort, and active outdoor living for residents. Does it feel like your backyard or your family home’s front lawn? If you design it right, it should.

2.       Main Entry. The goal is to provide identity. Does the entryway remind them of the house where they grew up? Designing an inviting, yet safe and secure, entrance will reinforce feelings of familiarity and nostalgia – while providing a unique identity for the students, and creating a place they want to call home. A feeling of home, while away at school, is always a good thing.

3.       A Place to Meet. Whether spontaneous or scheduled, places to meet should be found throughout the halls, off the main circulation corridors, scaled by community, and varied in size. But above all, they need to be unique, easily adjustable (i.e., moveable furniture), and durable. Flexibility is key, and the ability for a student to “make the space their own” is paramount.


Lobby area with lounge seating and reception desk


4.       Feeling of Warmth. Providing a safe and secure environment is not negotiable. While technology is always good (key cards, blue light phones, electronic controls), it’s only a baseline. What really resonates with students? On-site personnel and clear sight lines. If the students have unobstructed views of entrances and exits, preferably with on-site personnel at a front desk, chances are they feel safe. Also, often overlooked when designing for security, is scale. Students will feel much safer in a residence hall with 150 students than one with 1,000 students. While building small is not always cost effective, this can be achieved in large facilities by designing smaller communities through proper space allocation, establishing unique character and identity.

5.       Academic Integration. Believe it or not, live-in professors and academic classrooms offering guest lecturers is a big hit in student living facilities today. This type of programming can be included in both on and off-campus residence halls.

6.       Living Corridors. This is the most overlooked element in student residence design. You have to build corridors; why not make them usable? The hallways throughout a facility can and should be ACTIVATED – every inch of space can be a way to provide an experience. Isn’t that what student housing tries to perpetuate and protect – the academic experience?


Chalkboard walls in the corridor


7.       Personal Space. The actual design of the student rooms themselves will typically vary the most based on geographic and socioeconomic factors, and should be the most specific to the community in which the housing project is located. Bottom line: the units should promote campus life – albeit by allowing larger units for seniors that have a greater need for privacy, or smaller units for under-classman to encourage them to venture out into the ACTIVE corridors and build relationships. In either case, the design should be coordinated closely with the student body because this is their personal space.

In the end, student housing design should focus on promoting campus life, enhancing the academic experience, and creating a space where students want to be. This is a place to see and be seen, and every inch of space you design matters. 

About the Author

Sean Studzinski

Student housing life is shifting, and Sean Studzinski has been at the forefront of these changes, having designed residence halls for private developers and higher education clients for nearly two decades.

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