How to Renovate Campus Housing for Today’s Students


The follow article is from KSS Architect David Zaiser. David is an expert on the design of learning environments. He has worked on numerous projects on learning environments for colleges and universities. He has also spoken on the subject of learning environments extensively across the nations. He is a frequent speaker for Higher Ed Hero Webinars.


While much has been written of late regarding the high level of luxury exhibited in new student housing, the stark reality is that the current state of student housing in this country is generally poor. 84% of student housing was built before 1970 – data suggestive not only of an aesthetic deficit but a significant performance deficit as well. And yet, the quality of student housing has never been more important – typically ranking just after academic concerns in its influence on recruiting new students. Even so, few institutions have a management plan for their student housing assets, relying more frequently on an ad hoc approach to necessary repairs and upgrades.

Conducting an assessment and developing a plan are important first steps in adequately managing your valuable student housing asset — but for any plan to be successful it needs to be understood within the context of your institution’s overall strategic plan: understanding of the wants and needs of today’s savvy student population, and expressive of the value of this important asset.

Be Strategic with Your Student Housing

Every student housing renovation is an opportunity to reinforce your institution’s identity and values, further your strategic plan, and potentially gain competitive recruitment advantage. For most campuses, this means designing student housing that supports the learning environment, promotes interaction, and helps to build community.  Just how these student housing projects achieve these goals should be unique to who you are as an institution, but there are some consistent, overriding themes. Some ideas to consider as your institution contemplates student housing renovation include:

  • Adopt The Rule of 400.  Susan Painter’s research on the psychology of college spaces indicates that 400 is the optimal maximum number of relationships one student can reasonably accommodate in day-to-day campus life.  So, in planning your student housing consider how your campus might rationally divide into areas with 400 or fewer beds.
  • Integrate housing into the learning environment. Once you have defined the campus precincts using the rule of 400, make sure these student housing areas include the dining, recreational, social and academic amenities necessary to support its student population and encourage interaction among its residents. Use the location and size of the precinct amenities (group study areas, cafes, fitness areas, etc.) to promote student movement across your campus.
  • Introduce Mixed Uses.  Too often in the past we built single function buildings in segregated campus precincts.  The results have left portions of our campuses largely unoccupied for extended periods of the day.  By renovating student housing buildings to include amenities that previously might not have been available nearby, these mixed-use facilities help to promote interaction within campus precincts that might otherwise have been underutilized.
  • Think Recruitment.  Your student housing should be supporting your recruiting strategies, not frustrating them.  How can you tell?  One way to get a very good picture of how potential students view your housing is to take the student tour on your campus.  Put yourself in the position of a prospective student and consider your housing objectively. If that is too difficult, just listen to the comments from your tour-mates. It will provide you with valuable insights into ways to improve your student housing.

Know Your Customer

Today’s student is very different from those of the past, and especially different to those of us who attended college decades ago.  In Studying Students, editors Nancy Fried Foster and Susan Gibbons found that university staff frequently used their own individual college experiences to anticipate current student needs– frequently to less than desirable results.  Today’s students have much less free time than students of the past (37% less according to research). They tend to carry with them everything they need for an entire school day, and do not expect to compromise on comfort, convenience or access to technology from what they have experienced while at home or in high school.  They typically had their own bedroom and bathroom at home and expect the same at college.  They are also completely clued into the current and popular lifestyle trends of today: health and fitness, sustainable living, and architectural design.

Today’s student expects a private bedroom and bathroom, though recent data suggests that students experience greater student interaction and better engagement when they have less privacy in that critical first year. Reasonable approaches can be planned for either scenario, but whether your institution decides to provide central bath facilities or private bathrooms, know that the student expectation is for privacy and plan accordingly. For example, don’t attempt to provide central bath facilities on only one floor of a larger building; do consider compartmentalizing facilities to allow for greater privacy in central shower or bath areas. Understand that over time, bed-to-potty-parity is going to be a very strong trend in student housing design.

Too often institutions attempt to extend the lifespan of their student housing renovations by avoiding trendy design features and amenities.  This is a mistake.  Students (like all of us) are attracted to architecture that looks and feels up-to-date.  In considering the design of your institution’s student housing, identify those areas, features and finishes that will be renewed every 4 of 5 years (typically common areas and spaces with a limited number of high-quality finishes). In these areas, the use of contemporary design elements, finishes, colors and furnishings will feel relevant to current and prospective students, support study and recreational functions, and help to promote the kind of interaction that will build community on your campus. This strategy is very effective in promoting an aesthetic that is current and fresh, yet is able to be kept up to date at a more reasonable cost.

Think Like A Real Estate Company

There is a decided trend toward public-private partnerships (P3’s) in developing new student housing on- and off-campus.  Whether or not this approach is appropriate for your institution is a matter for another article, but even if you are building or renovating student housing with your own funds, thinking about that effort from the perspective of a developer can be a helpful way of avoiding common failures. Some developer perspectives to consider include:

  • Strive to reposition your properties on a frequent basis. Look across your student inventory.  Some of it is attractive and popular, and some of it probably isn’t.  The differences in the quality of these assets are typically referred to by commercial real estate firms by letter grade: “A” for the best space, “B” for good, etc.  A common strategy among commercial real estate owners and developers is to always be looking to upgrade your assets: turn “C” space into “B” space, “B” space into “A” space.  Plan for the necessary renovations on a regular basis.  Sometimes this can be achieved for less money than one might expect.
  • Always build “A” Space.  Like everything else, real estate ages and becomes less desirable over time.  To keep your housing portfolio strong, new space should be built to the highest standards.
  • Location, location, location.  Student housing, like any other type of building, can be changed – repaired and renovated – many, many times over its lifespan, but generally speaking, it cannot be easily moved.  Be very careful about where you construct new housing buildings (or how you choose which buildings to renovate).  And when you do decide to invest in construction, be cognoscente of the building site’s context — aim to compete favorably with the quality, functionality and desirability of the adjacent buildings and properties, whether they be on- or off-campus.
  • Don’t forget the end game.  Commercial real estate owners need to be sensitive to the net value of their properties should they need to divest quickly.  Most colleges and universities aren’t as worried about selling off portions of their campus, but if they were, they might make better decisions about their real estate assets.  Being sensitive to net value will help to set renovation budgets, establish levels of quality, and identify best use.

Colleges and universities have an opportunity to dramatically change the quality of student housing to better align with student needs, institutional mission and current economic realities.  Not since the student demographic boom of the 1960’s and early 1970’s has the scope of the need or the potential impact of the changes been as great as it is today.  In the competitive environment of college recruitment, attractive, relevant student housing can be an ace in your hand. With proper planning, the current student housing boom – a boom in renovation more so than new construction – can have a lasting positive impact on higher education and the institutions that provide it.

We hope you enjoyed hearing from David Zaiser on Campus Housing Renovations. If you’re looking for more in-depth information on how your institution can renovate student housing to improve recruitment, check out David’s upcoming webinar with Higher Ed Hero, “Improve Your Enrollment Efforts: Competitive Campus Housing Renovations” Tuesday, December 3, 2013.

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