Designing for College Life in the 21st Century

Designing for College Life in the 21st Century

For many decades, college residence halls have been known for their utilitarian efficiency. In sharp contrast, today’s student housing projects are strikingly similar to commercial mixed-use developments – tightly integrated with their context, including the built, social and natural environments of the campus.

As campus master plans evolve to meet the changing needs and expectations of 21st-century students, these facilities are becoming an increasingly influential part the college experience. With several residence halls just completed, and additional projects underway, McMillan Pazdan Smith has observed first-hand the importance of experiential design thinking in the campus context.

Many of today’s residence hall projects are sited right in the heart of campus. These aren’t outliers in the campus experience; instead, they are central elements that complete the synergy of students’ social, residential and academic experiences. The well-established context of these projects required careful attention to how the buildings integrate with pedestrian and automotive traffic, campus sight lines, available greenspace and other experiential factors. Often, these new facilities are intentionally sited relative to existing buildings to complete a natural quad, framing a key, iconic building and merging with the existing vernacular. Today’s new residence halls must marry modern building methods, material selection, and energy efficiency with a profound respect for their social and historical context, enhancing the overall collegiate environment.

Another common trend among our current student housing projects is a strong focus on amenities, particularly shared spaces like lobbies, multi-purpose rooms, retail and dining options, and study areas for both individuals and groups. Similar to the urban space planning concept of the “third space”, these common areas have become vital to bridging the gap between where students live and where they work/study. It requires balancing isolation from distraction with opportunities for organic collaboration – places that students can “be alone together”, a behavior that has become social norm in commercial environments like coffee shops and book stores. It is neither the bedroom nor an academic classroom, but rather an altogether other space. By providing a variety of these highly-accessible spaces throughout each of our student housing projects, we can ensure that both individuals and groups have comfortable options for studying and socializing within their own community.

This expectation for high quality shared space isn’t limited to the interiors of residence halls, either. Today’s facilities are designed to integrate with the campus’ surrounding natural environment just as much as with the social context. Outdoor common areas now include greenspaces, porches, plazas and even fire pits, all built to create community. Unique signature spaces among our current projects include a river-front lawn at Brevard College that provides both aesthetic and recreational value, and a rooftop patio at Randolph-Macon designed for viewing games in the adjacent football stadium. The project at Western Carolina is actually a developer-driven mixed-use facility featuring restaurant and retail space in addition to student lounge and recreation areas.

As our higher education clients balance fiscal responsibilities and long-term master planning with changing student expectations, we stand ready to help them build residence halls that not only integrate well with existing context, but become a seamless part of the social fabric of the campus experience for future generations of students too.

A few of our recently completed residence hall projects include:

A New Model for Urban Development A Groundbreaking Collaboration