Housing as the Gateway to Campus Life

Student housing doesn’t have to be stark and utilitarian to meet budget. Healthy, affordable and accessible housing options can be the catalyst to develop campus facilities that do more to support students and stimulate campus life, Design Director Matthew Porreca writes.

By Matthew Porreca
Design Director

The housing shortage is turning into a crisis for campuses around the country. Forty-three percent of students at four-year universities suffer housing insecurity today, according to an annual survey conducted by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University.

For students, rental expenses, longer commutes to campus, and substandard or unstable housing situations directly affect the educational experience and the cohesiveness of a university community. The issue is often more pressing at community colleges, which typically didn’t include housing in their initial concepts but now see it as an essential component to help students complete their degree in a timelier fashion. Housing costs often limit student access to degree programs, forming a barrier to the institution’s educational goals.

Creating more healthy, affordable and accessible housing options is a top challenge for higher education, yet it is also a real opportunity to create facilities that will lead campuses into the next generation and address a myriad of issues. As we explore the possibilities with our higher education clients, it’s clear that housing can play a key role in developing projects with deliberate density that take full advantage of limited space and support students in different ways.

Every college and housing site is different. But a focus on creating true efficiency can unlock the development potential, especially when explored in the context of the larger campus goals.

Colleges and campus life should above all be designed and built around student life. The same should be true of dorms and housing. They need to be crafted around robust shared amenities and public space to give residents a chance to create social connections and share ideas and experiences. Spending all your time in your dorm room isn’t the goal.

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The San Diego State University Plaza Linda Verde Student Housing takes full advantage of a tight urban site to support students in different ways.

We all recognize that tiny windowless blocks of dorm rooms are not the answer, even if the short-term savings seem appealing. Housing costs, and even the footprint of residential halls, can be reduced, while increasing quality, if designers and architects focus on maximizing shared student amenities by first identifying what’s already being provided on campus, fully utilizing available land, and planning with access to transportation.

Architects and planners can utilize different methods to maximize housing output, whether it’s adding extra stories, eliminating amenities like balconies in favor of common public green spaces or centralizing housing for districts with multiple campuses. We are working on several projects utilizing factory-built modular construction, which cuts construction time, saves space and ultimately saves money by creating more rapidly deployed affordable units.

Last year we worked with the College of San Mateo in San Mateo, California, to develop a design that consolidated three separate housing projects into one, utilizing economies of scale to provide more units at a reduced cost while dramatically cutting long-term water and maintenance costs. Electrifying the building and turning the roof into a “fifth façade” for solar generation, with integrated sustainability, provide long-term cost savings.

Instead of looking at simply reducing square footage and compacting units, housing should be designed through the lens of programming and student behavior. By evaluating the age group and needs of a particular campus community, whether they’re right out of high school or older students looking to switch careers, designers can work with campus leaders to develop a mix of residential units and amenities that fit the needs of their specific campus. Large windows, vertical gardens and other aspects of biophilic design offer wellness benefits and much-sought-after connections to nature, all without eating up available square footage.

A focus on creating true efficiency can unlock the development potential, especially when explored in the context of the larger campus goals.

Building housing for community colleges can be especially tricky, given that these institutions weren’t originally built or planned with full-time residents in mind, but there are still many available opportunities to explore. Community colleges, traditionally commuter campuses, are often ringed by large parking structures. The land can be repurposed into new centers of student life by adding dorms, engaging landscapes for dynamic placemaking, and developing amenities near the school entrance or close to gyms and facilities that can accommodate after-hours use.

Leveraging nearby campus amenities for fitness and other activities, and connecting new residential developments to walking, biking and mass transit options, optimizes space on campus. School administrators discovered during the pandemic that it’s important for living and learning to coexist, especially with so many opting to stay on campus and study from their dorms. Housing layouts can create many more ways for students to interact and engage, bringing more meaning, inclusion and support to campus life, which ultimately promotes student success.

It’s been said that college offers one of the more memorable and enjoyable parts of someone’s life because it’s one of the few times when you are around so many people. For a brief time, you can truly exist in a walkable, urban village. As these villages expand, it’s even more important to view these new housing projects not just as needed units for an expanding population but core nexuses for student activity, and building blocks for a more active campus. The right housing project can give the campus renewed energy and activity, as well as providing support for students’ daily life.

LPA Design Director Matthew Porreca champions an inclusive, collaborative design process that seeks to increase energy efficiency and better serve the health and well-being of users.