Student housing: How do universities ensure they have the right special-needs spaces?

February 21, 2018 Bryan Morrison

In understanding the rationale behind accessibility codes, architects can use easy and reliable metrics during the design phase


Every student who attends a university has different needs when it comes to student housing. For students with special needs, there are additional features that need to be planned for, such as additional rails under stairs for visually-impaired students or a light that turns on when somebody is at the door for hearing-impaired students.

When it comes to accessibility for students in wheelchairs, I find that many times a university knows they need to meet certain requirements but they’re unsure of the requirements. Designing for accessible student housing requires additional planning up-front to ensure that all pieces of the puzzle fit together perfectly when complete.


The South Campus Residence Complex at Sam Houston State University provides housing for 700 students, including special needs students.


Planning for accessible student housing

The proposal phase for any student housing project moves quickly. I need to think through the bed count, the size and arrangement of communities, the look of the building, and also refine the design of individual residential student units. At this _q_tweetable:Most accessible units—regardless of size, type, or amenity—need about 85 square feet more space than a typical unit._q_stage in the project, every hour is critical.

Anybody who has lived in or designed an accessible unit knows it’s larger than the standard unit and its area must be counted toward the program as part of the financial analysis of the project. Failing to do so can result in unforeseen plan changes.


The amount of space needed for an accessible unit

So how much larger is an accessible unit? Surely it adds much more area in an apartment with many bedrooms than something smaller like a suite or semi-suite, right? Given the variety of unit types that can be developed how can I know without actually designing it? 

Understanding the rationale behind the accessibility codes makes the answer surprisingly straightforward: most accessible units—regardless of size, type, or amenity—need about 85 square feet more space than a typical unit.  



Here’s why: ADA Accessibility Guidelines and the respective state accessibility codes mandate dispersion of the accessible units. This is intended to provide disabled students the same opportunity in living conditions afforded to able-bodied students. This same interpretation extends to accessible beds so that the beds are dispersed, and disabled students are not forced to share the same handful of units. This ultimately means that in accessible units, only one bed within that unit is fully accessible.

Kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms are the areas of the unit impacted by accessibly. While kitchens are generally the same size as they are in typical units, bathrooms are enlarged due to clearances around fixtures, and bedrooms are enlarged due to clearances around furniture.

For single-bedroom occupancy, access must be provided on both sides of the bed. Regardless of occupancy, the accessible bed cannot be lofted, the clothing rod in the closet must be within reach ranges (meaning a lower rod without a dresser in the closet), and door clearances are provided into the room. Accessible bedrooms also have turning radii.

In accessible bathrooms, commonly followed rules for public restrooms prevail. These restrooms provide grab bars, turning radii, knee space at sinks, door clearances, and often roll-in showers. These accessible features require extra space.

Since all accessible student housing units have one accessible bedroom and one accessible bathroom, the extra space beyond that of a typical unit is the same. These spaces add up to 85 square feet.


Regardless if the student housing unit is a traditional, suite, or apartment unit—single or shared—the extra space needed is 85 square feet.


Focusing on the big picture

By using this 85-square-feet premium for accessible units, I can assign a stack of units for every unit type beyond the 5 percent of units required to be accessible. This helps me save time at this early stage in the design while still accounting for the space toward the overall program. Using this quick and reliable metric keeps my time less focused on hidden details and more focused on the big picture.

To design for education—an industry of constant change and evolution—we must be continually learning. The research in this blog was a result of our Research + Benchmarking program, which ensures we provide our clients with the most innovative solutions, supported by real research and actual practice.


This is the first blog in a series on technical aspects of student housing design. The next blog will focus on the right questions to ask when designing a student unit.

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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