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Student housing: How do you balance student expectations with big costs?

One student housing alternative offers the best of both worlds

By Jeremy Koomler, AIA, LEED AP (Plano, TX)

As a student housing architect, I have first-hand experience with the rollercoaster caused by changing trends in student residence hall design in the past five years. For example, from 2010-2012, there was a huge surge in owners wanting “super-suite” designs. This concept features six to eight students sharing an apartment-style unit, with individual bedrooms and a shared living and kitchen space. The design was popular for two reasons: millennials want to live a life of luxury with lots of amenities, and institutions liked the design because it could attract more residents during a fluctuating, volatile enrollment time.

The Association of College and University Housing Officers (ACUHO) 2014 Construction and Renovation Survey shows that super-suites spiked from 30% of all unit types in 2010 to 48% in 2012; however, the design dropped to 25% in 2014. What happened? Universities were having trouble filling a “super suite,” but a traditional room design with gang bath facilities wasn’t a student favorite either.

We’re seeing that a hybrid of both types is striking just the right balance – the tried and true “shared suite” layout with semi-private bathrooms and a flexible unit type.

So what’s so great about a shared suite? The shared-suite layout significantly increases efficiency in terms of square feet per student, which helps reduce construction costs. Just by decreasing the number of bathrooms, and moving individual living areas to public community spaces, the square foot per student can drop by 15% or more. This can be significant to a client’s bottom line, particularly as, according to ACUHO, student housing project costs have grown 60% throughout the last decade.

Although a shared suite has smaller living quarters and reduced privacy/amenities, many student life leaders think this design fosters a sense of community among students, and I tend to agree. I previously designed a 300-bed shared-suite residence hall where the main project goal was to make the dwelling units as “lean” as possible, while still accommodating basic student needs. We used this lean, shared-suite layout to promote the use of community study, gathering, and game areas. So although the students’ living quarters and perceived “privacy” was reduced, the project was a huge success with administrators and students alike due to the shared public spaces that increased students’ engagement with their peers. We discovered the students actually wanted to be part of a larger community. This residence hall was so popular that the client constructed another 300-bed hall of the same design across the lawn – creating a new housing “village” on campus.

Most recently, Sam Houston State University in Texas broke ground on a 700-bed project that uses the shared-suite layout. By selecting this layout, the university kept the cost per bed near national averages even while adding academic program and more social gathering spaces. The client is very happy and found this layout to be the best solution for fostering student communities while keeping within budget.

Regardless of an institution’s goals and preferences, taking a multifaceted approach to student housing design allows leaders to balance higher project costs with growing student expectations for privacy, space, and housing amenities. The shared suite is a great compromise, but every university will have its specific goals and drivers. If they are looking for the best alternative, discussing your goals with the designer EARLY is always the best approach. Shared-suite may not be for everyone, but it sure seems to be a popular choice, at least for now…  

Jeremy Koomler is a project manager and architect who specializes in higher education projects.

Jeremy Koomler

Student housing project costs have grown 60% throughout the last decade.

A traditional residence hall layout

An example shared-suite layout

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