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Inclusive student housing: The needs, numbers, and nuances

June 26, 2023

By Jason Sedar

Providing a home away from home for students amid housing affordability challenges is a tall task for universities

Student housing is a major investment. Yes, for the schools, but also for students, their parents, and the supporting agencies. These home-away-from-home spaces need to provide safety, comfort, engagement, and resiliency.

Graduation from high school is a critical point in a young person’s life. Now they face the possibility of no longer having a family framework to guard them as they begin their collegiate life. Their housing situation can play a critical role in determining which college to attend.

Thankfully, schools are getting better at seeing the need for amenities and the significant role student housing plays in creating a vibrant and supportive campus. Residents need the right amount of personal security and space to focus on their academic goals. And the right student housing also fosters mental and physical well-being. 

Douglas College’s 808 Royal in New Westminster, British Columbia, puts housing at the core of campus alongside other student amenities.

Need for housing is on the rise

As the population grows, so does the need for housing. For the year ending 2022, Canada reported an increase in population of over 1 million people. That’s a 2.7 percent growth rate. It’s the highest number in Canada since 1957. Meanwhile, housing affordability in Canada has worsened in the last 20 years.

In 2005, Canadians’ monthly mortgage payments on a median-priced home were about 35 percent of Canadians’ average income. In 2022, that number peaked at 68 percent for Canadians and over 100 percent for residents of Vancouver, British Columbia. 

This is all to say that market housing for students is expensive. Often, without viable on-campus options, students look to rental housing close to campus. This puts more pressure on social and economic housing affordability for those that rely on the rental market.

Investments in housing by the numbers

Housing in British Columbia has been an issue for well over 30 years. Population growth and foreign investment has changed the urban context of Metro Vancouver. In 2018, the government released a budget that had a plan to build 114,000 affordable housing units over the next 10 years.

The budget also set aside $450 million for a student housing loan program. The program made funds available to colleges and universities to build 5,000 on-campus student housing beds in 10 years. Institutions are adding 3,000 more beds with other funding sources. To date, 11 public post-secondary institutions have new student housing projects underway or completed. 

At the College of New Caledonia Nahoonai-a in British Columbia, an Indigenous student housing building provides a tailored experience for Indigenous students.

Student housing is not a silver bullet, but it’s chipping away at a handful of existing challenges.

One such example is Douglas College in New Westminster, British Columbia. The college is building a new 368-bed student housing and academic building, called 808 Royal. With more than 25,000 students, Douglas College has been a launching pad for Metro Vancouver post-secondary students since 1970. The new 808 Royal will be the college’s first live-in residence on campus. As the prime architectural consultant on the project, our team is creating an urban housing solution for more than 300 students.

The first 10 stories of 808 Royal are dedicated to academic, social, and operational functions. These include new classrooms, science labs, offices, and study areas flooded with natural light. Social spaces include a marketplace and food service for students in residence and the public. Its housing program will offer three unit types and each floor will have common kitchen and lounge areas.

A far different example is Nahoonai-a. It’s a 12-bed student housing project our team designed for Indigenous students at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George. Its communal kitchen is designed so students can build relationships with their peers. Amenity spaces are there for cultural gatherings. An apartment-style unit was included for a live-in local Elder, who can provide support and cultural guidance.

The building was designed to feel like home and to bring a level of inclusivity to the college for students. Nahoonai-a is one of the student housing projects funded through the British Columbia Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills’ loan program.

Schools are getting better at seeing the need for amenities and the significant role student housing plays in creating a vibrant and supportive campus.

The nuances of the student housing model

Quality control is critical to any project. Some governments are investing in third parties to assure their post-secondary housing solutions are hitting the mark. The Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills recently contracted our team to review student housing projects completed with funding from its loan program. For the report, we interviewed and documented six of the most pertinent examples across the province.

We sat down with staff members of University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, University of Victoria, College of the Rockies, Coast Mountain College, and the College of New Caledonia. We discussed the successes and lessons learned from each of their new student housing projects. It was helpful to hear how the schools had varied approaches and how housing styles reflected different student demographics.

For example, the new student housing at the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University all centered around parallel improvements to food service. Those upgrades were either in the new facility or nearby. Conversely, the College of the Rockies used a student housing model that featured apartment-style living spaces. They used communal kitchens and social cooking. This was a desire identified during a student body engagement process.

The new 808 Royal, a beacon for housing at Douglas College, creates convenient adjacencies for living and learning.

Each project had a different style of kitchen, bed, and bath designs. Amenities varied based on existing infrastructure, campus development, and student demographics. The institution’s experience and levels of acceptable risk impacted the project delivery models. But the greatest drivers of success came from planning. When the school had a clear picture of what was needed, both in terms of serving future students and current challenges, their projects were successful.

We found that student housing in British Columbia combines several societal, cultural, and economic factors. These include housing affordability, vacancy pressures, providing supportive environments (especially in helping reconcile dark histories), and designing attractive facilities. These factors heavily influence us as designers. Our goal is working with clients to deliver broad and thoughtful buildings. And our greatest reward is seeing the success of students that live and learn in the buildings we design.

Stantec’s student housing report is now available to the 25 public colleges and universities in the province. We are excited to support this important growth area in our communities.  

  • Jason Sedar

    Jason works primarily with the educational sector and post-secondary institutions. Recently, he led the team completing a student housing building—Nahoonai-a—for Indigenous students at the College of New Caledonia.

    Contact Jason
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