Student housing series: What are the five questions to ask when designing a student unit?

June 6, 2018 Bryan Morrison

Knowing the right questions to ask your client upfront can make a unit more comfortable and affordable, while smoothing the design process


In any student housing building, the student units make up approximately 90 percent of the total program. The repetition of units makes this building type especially efficient. However, it also makes careful and correct design even more critical as mistakes are amplified dozens or hundreds of times.

When selecting and designing a unit, it’s important to know the right questions to ask your client so you can gather the critical information you need to know at the early stages.


Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.


Question 1: What style of unit?

This is an obvious and fundamental question but needs to be known before developing any other part of the design for the building. Unit styles can range from traditional dorm style, to semi-suites with their own bathroom, to suites with their own living area, to full apartments with living areas and full kitchens. A client will usually have a style predetermined by a market study. If they do not, it can be determined by the age of the student served: the older the student, the more space within their unit they will require.


_q_tweetable:Typically, off-campus apartments will provide individual bathrooms for all residents, however, on-campus housing needs are determined by student feedback and the rental rates targeted._q_

Question 2: What type of bed/bath parity?

Bed/bath parity comes into play if the client has selected a suite or apartment. This means that each student gets their own bathroom. Typically, off-campus apartments will provide individual bathrooms for all residents, however, on-campus housing needs are determined by student feedback and the rental rates targeted. For these units and semi-suites, it’s a good idea to at least provide bed/sink parity and discuss whether the number of sinks can be reduced in exchange for a cost savings.


Question 3: What are the furniture needs?

Most housing I design must be extremely efficient. Bedrooms and living areas are streamlined as much as possible; a limit usually determined on furniture choices. Knowing client furniture selections or expectations has a large impact on room size, the arrangement of the unit, and ultimately, the building footprint. Some bedroom furniture selections can be modest (a twin XL bed and 3-foot desk), while some can be elaborate and enlarge rooms quite a bit (a full XL bed, dresser, 4-foot desk, and night stand.) The impact of furniture to the size of the room only grows if bedrooms have double occupancy.


Student housing units must be extremely efficient with streamlined bedrooms and living areas.


Question 4: What is the scope of appliances?

The scope of appliances provided is another important design consideration. The variety of appliances directly impacts the size and scale of kitchens or kitchenettes. In a suite, appliance and sink packages can be as modest as an under-counter mini-fridge and small sink, or as much as a full-size refrigerator, kitchen size sink, dishwasher, and built-in microwave. The larger kitchenettes can take on the same size as market rate kitchens and require considerable space planning while the more modest kitchenettes only need a small undeclared segment of wall.


Question 5: What is the planned mechanical and plumbing system?

This may not seem an obvious question to ask, but building systems and their location can significantly impact floor space requirements. A centralized boiler will require no space in a unit, but a water heater (which is sometimes the most cost-efficient option) requires a closet to house. Similarly, a ducted centralized mechanical system needs no space, but a split system or fan coil needs a closet. Furthermore, an all-in-one split system like Magic-Pak needs a closet on the exterior, and Packed Terminal Air Conditioner (PTAC) systems need a foot of floor space along the outside wall in each room. 


A rendering for Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas.


While there are additional considerations such as laundry, general design efficiency based on price point, windows in the living area, and considerations for accessibility, these issues are usually resolved in the process of asking the more basic questions. Knowing the answers to these questions about the unit upfront can make a unit more comfortable, affordable, and get the design resolved sooner and making the design process much smoother.


This is the third blog in a series on technical aspects of student housing design. Stay tuned for the next blog in the series. Earlier blogs focused on special-needs spaces and balancing affordability and comfort in acoustical design.

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.

More Content by Bryan Morrison
Previous Article
Six ways to improve your greenhouse gas verification process (Part 3)
Six ways to improve your greenhouse gas verification process (Part 3)

What have we learned after years of performing verifications? Good data management is essential

Next Article
Introducing the carry-on valet
Introducing the carry-on valet

How airports can ease stress, improve passenger experience, and deal with baggage