Live, Work, and Study: The Future of University Student Housing

Student housing takes on many forms around the world, but most commonly, it’s envisioned as close quarters in a bleakly designed dormitory. While prospective students choose universities based on academic rigor, athletic programs, extracurricular activities, and future career opportunities, they’re now wanting to know what living on and off-campus will be like- and it has forced designers to rethink the traditional designs of dormitories into something more innovative that better reflects what students want (and expect) in their university homes.

Ciee Global Institute Macro Sea. Image © Chris Mosier
Ciee Global Institute Macro Sea. Image © Chris Mosier

Student housing in the pasty typically lacked any sort of real design emphasis. Small boxy rooms, shared bathrooms at the end of the hall, and tiny bunk beds are probably the images that come to mind when you think about dormitories. But these spaces, back then, were designed really to be slept in and store a few key items, while lounge spaces were meant to hold social gatherings, dining halls for eating, the athletic facilities for exercising, and libraries for studying. Dorms were built cheap, because they didn’t cost much to live in, and didn’t need to contain many amenities.

Munger Hall Axon. Image via UC Santa Barbara
Munger Hall Axon. Image via UC Santa Barbara

But today, there’s a much different expectation for student housing as we explore changes in the way that people want to live. Most rec, collegiate dorms caught major headlines when the University of California, Santa Barbara unveiled their plan for a massive new student housing project. The design was driven by a wealthy donor who gifted 200 million dollars to the school for the project. This mega-dorm caused such severe backlash that even the architect who was slated to draw the project resigned. The issue at hand was that the 1.68 million SF structure would be home to nearly 4,500 students with only 6% of them having direct access to windows. By filling the interiors with small rooms, the intent was to bring students into social spaces to relax and collaborate- almost ignoring the issue of the remaining 94% of students having access to light and fresh air.


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Besides this controversial Southern California dorm, prospective students want their housing to be much more luxurious to accommodate their needs as they move out on their own for the first time. Dorms are becoming critical marketing tools to attract students to Universities as they aim to project an entertaining and enriching lifestyle. Along with over-the-top amenities, many students want private bathrooms, large study spaces, and room for storage.

via KPF
via KPF

The future may also hold dorms that serve more as multi-purpose spaces, where classrooms are on the lower levels and housing is on the top. Where students live might also be where they are able to dine, exercise, and relax, as a way to create micro-communities within these buildings that can establish their own identities on campus, and as a way to differentiate themselves from the others, allowing universities to charge a premium. It borrows from the concept of living close to where you work, or in this case, living close to where you learn.

The outdated dorms that we think of today are relics compared to what is yet to come on campuses around the world. As our needs and desires shift to wanting more space, more amenities, and a more fluid way of living, studying, and relaxing, where we spend our collegiate carers will need to reflect that too.