4 Conversations Every College or University Should Have Before Beginning a Student Housing Renovation Project
One of the cornerstones of university life, student housing programs have been thrust into the limelight by the global pandemic over the last few years. Today, colleges and universities have realized just how important and valued the on-campus residential experience is, despite the threat of COVID-19. Countless students across the country asked for ways to once again live on campus, and when they couldn’t, they looked for that opportunity as close to campus as they could find, sometimes in nearby, off-campus housing.
As the Fall 2022 semester approaches and universities determine the next series of campus improvements, the quality of student life is once again taking center stage along with student housing. Institutions are looking for opportunities within strained budgets to enhance and renew residential facilities to not only attract and retain students, but also highlight the all-important community-building that has become so valued amidst social distancing measures (a seeming paradox). More specifically, they are asking, “how do we breathe new life into older residential facilities while aligning with the university’s brand, culture, programs, and new health and safety protocols?”
Institutions can benefit from a group of student life experts able to identify small, medium, and large strategies to align available funding with high impact ideas, deep student engagement, and the possibility of summer construction periods. GMB’s experts in higher education have a strategy for creating differentiated approaches to fit any budget, timeline, and construction capability. And for us, every opportunity begins with these four key conversations:
1) How do we encourage and enhance the student’s ability to gather and connect at all scales?
When we look at student housing, we ask “how can we build community with the rest of campus, factoring in distances to academic buildings, dining, sports and recreation, and to other neighborhoods?” At the next scale, we look at how to foster community among all residents in the building, taking into account major indoor and outdoor spaces. And we look at the scale of the hall, RA community, and even roommates. With the advent of COVID-19, student gatherings have certainly been challenging, but we’ve seen wonderful new ways of creating social connection, like the emergence of pods (social / residential groupings), small group seating, pre-packaged programming kits, partnerships with local restaurants, and virtual programming (like trivia night). At the same time, we are paying more attention to resilient design solutions for health and safety, such as enhanced cleaning procedures, touchless surfaces, fresh air flow, privacy / protective curtains, distancing signage, and donning stations. Perhaps the most poignant strategy for moving forward is involving students in the process needed to maintain safety but still accomplish that all-important social connection.
2) How do we preserve the bones of this building to create a more contemporary and cost-effective student experience?
Within a limited budget framework, the most economically and environmentally sustainable action we can take is breathing new life into older buildings. We’ve noticed that older residence halls typically designated rooms for single and centralized uses. The laundry room in the basement is a classic example of a space no one wanted to spend much time in. But today, we are seeing the benefits of renovating these spaces for a wide variety of uses. A hybrid laundry, study, and kitchenette area tends to match the multi-tasking lifestyles of students and more importantly, fosters those spontaneous interactions between peers.
Pivoting what used to be called “gang” or “community bathrooms” to single-occupancy stalls with inboard sink, shower, and toilet, is another strategy with great value, especially since this tactic can often be accomplished within the existing square footage. New paint, flooring, and furniture are easy and cost-effective ways to immediately impact the quality and attractiveness of existing residential spaces. And finally, we tend to talk about the “low hanging fruit” – those areas that touch the most students every day, like the lobby and living room. Major improvements to these spaces can really change the first and long-term impressions of the residential environment.
3) How can we renew programmatic spaces so they serve today’s and tomorrow’s students?
We are all familiar with Generation Z as the generation of digital natives, those who grew up in the age of the internet and carry multiple digital devices. There are other attributes that tend to characterize this generation as well (without making generalizations or over-simplifications). In student housing and elsewhere, we have seen Generation Z prioritize group fitness, entrepreneurship, purpose-driven experiences, academically aligned endeavors, and health and wellness activities. As we look to renew programmatic spaces within the residence hall, we are asking ourselves what functions will have relevance for today’s students and how might we adapt those functions for the future. Tapping into students’ passions and sense of purpose is key to student engagement. Can a quiet space be converted into a podcasting studio, an interview room, a career counselling area, or a tutoring station? Or, can we use these spaces for wellness and meditation priorities? Carving out a low-traffic public space or lounge for small group or individual wellness and meditation. We know how important access to fast internet and Wi-Fi are these days and will be integral in the future, so we are making sure robust technology is incorporated throughout the buildings. But students are also asking about spaces to disconnect from the internet and re-connect with each other, or themselves, or nature. So we are working to create that balance for students in the spaces on campus.
4) How can we promote justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion?
Many universities have spent the last few decades focused on diversity and inclusion, but today, we are focusing on justice and equity – a more proactive stance toward true equality on campus and in our society. Key to this priority is acknowledging that the details of a space are not neutral. They are informed by history, preconceived notions, privileged positions, and pre-existing hierarchies. And space shapes future feelings and behavior (an inspiring aspect of impact-based design). We have to analyze student housing, the “home” of campus, so that it involves and empowers students as stakeholders and collaborators in the final solution. In one project, we are discussing the possibility of a student-led “identity collage” that could be re-created every school year to reflect a new group of residents. The identity of students on a particular campus or in a particular facility is a nuanced and evolving one, so we have to find ways to reflect and embrace that identity in the architecture.
Within today’s limited funding streams, it’s important to make every dollar and every second count. So, let’s have the deep conversations that lead to real student success on your campus. Are you ready to get started?
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