Student housing series: Student housing vs. multi-family housing—what are the differences?

July 2, 2018 Bryan Morrison

While student and multi-family housing share a common building form, it’s the student resident that drives the innovation of new spaces


Multi-family housing and student housing have many similarities. Not only do they share many of the same building methods and construction types, but design team members skilled in multi-family housing often adjust well to student housing.

However, there are specific and distinct differences that make student housing a unique challenge. There are nuances between unit, building size, and organization. There are also fundamental differences in the design theory that create a successful residential community. Knowing the student resident is central to understanding and informing the decision making of every critical component of the building.


An apartment-style student housing project uses patterning and window placement to generate interest on an otherwise flat façade.


The student resident

The student resident is a concept distinct and separate from the young professional or family _q_tweetable:The student resident is a concept distinct and separate from the young professional or family that typically occupy traditional multi-family housing._q_that typically occupy traditional multi-family housing. The design for student residents is fundamentally different than the typical young professionals or families that live in multi-family because the goal is to persuade a student to spend as much time outside of their room as practical.

Residents in a typical multi-family project expect greater privacy than student residents who are eager to meet neighbors, roommates, and learn through new experiences. While students have certain needs that require greater privacy, we encourage them to get out and study in a group, make connections with other students, and engage in a communal academic culture.



Student apartments have smaller kitchens than multi-family apartments. The apartments tend to be larger, with as many as four to six students living together. Housing for upper-class students often includes private bathrooms for each of those students. To balance this, we plan for more community space outside the apartment, including studies, lounges, game rooms, and other active amenities. Academic and social spaces are broken down by wing at every level to make cohesive and identifiable communities where students have familiarity with their neighbors and build lasting relationships.

Parity is a fundamental principle of student housing since students are renting by the bedroom and not by the square foot—this provides simplicity in pricing. This results in fewer unit types than multi-family housing, and the units stack with great regularity. Fewer types of units in a building allow a project to be affordable while still providing the rich academic and social experience students expect.


A four-bedroom, four-bathroom apartment with a small kitchen is one of the most popular housing designs for upper class students.



The nature of the student resident also impacts the façade.

Since I have been working in student housing, I have not designed a single balcony, as student residents can lack the maturity level to manage them and owners see the space as a liability and non-revenue generating. In addition, budgets also mandate a standard of one window per bedroom. Parity demands that there be stricter adherence to the standard unit size and precludes undulating the exterior wall to create an effect in elevation. All these limitations present an enormous challenge to designers, as we are tasked with creating interesting facades that feel luxurious without the tools commonly available to a standard multi-family housing designer. Accomplishing this requires disciplined design moves and changes in material and pattern that emphasize simplicity and restraint.

While multi-family housing and student housing share a common building form, the student resident drives the innovation of new spaces to cultivate an experience where students are stimulated to learn and develop while still feeling comfortable and at home. The demands to accommodate this type of population poses significant challenges to designers, and meeting the needs of the student resident provides a great opportunity to advance the social and academic education of a generation of young people through housing.


This is the fourth blog in a series on technical aspects of student housing design. Earlier blogs focused on important questions to ask when designing a student unit, 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
Discussing unconscious bias can be uncomfortable, but not confronting it can be worse
Discussing unconscious bias can be uncomfortable, but not confronting it can be worse

If we accept that all of us have unconscious bias, we can start to recognize our biases, address them, and ...

Next Article
3 benefits to embracing an integrated approach to building design
3 benefits to embracing an integrated approach to building design

Bringing designers and engineers together at the table from the beginning of project design helps streamlin...

THE STANTEC DESIGN QUARTERLY: Thoughts, Trends, Innovation