How Architecture is Reinventing Student Living Standards

Apr 06 2023
Students outside of a residence hall.

Take a moment and imagine a college dorm room – what are the first images that come to mind?

Many people will picture first-year students cramped into cinderblock rooms and locker-room style communal bathrooms at the end of a long hallway.  

Many universities around the world want to escape the negative image of dorms. In fact, some colleges have gone as far as not referring to on-campus living as dorms at all; instead, referring to them as “residence halls.”  

However, colleges are not just looking to rebrand student living quarters by changing their name, they are looking for designers to completely makeover their residence halls to help attract students to their school and keep students wanting to live on campus each year they attend.  

Current Trends in Student Living Design  

Increasing Privacy

Following the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for privacy in student housing both in the United States and around the world has intensified. Increasing the number of private spaces in residence halls and decreasing the number of students living in one room not only can help mitigate the spread of disease but can help maximize student comfort.  

Unlike conventional dorms, new residence halls are being built with more single bedrooms and are abandoning communal bathrooms in favor of more private suite-style bathrooms shared amongst only a few suitemates.  

Appealing to Different Living Preferences

Back in the day, if a college student wanted to live in an apartment, they had to move off campus. Now, many colleges are investing in building on-campus apartments and partnering with developers to create student housing off campus.  

Providing students with attractive living spaces and diverse unit and room types will help keep them living on campus longer and increase retention and performance in school. Studies show that students who live on campus tend to become more involved in the campus community; are more likely to complete their degrees at their initial institution; and maintain a higher-grade point average than students who live off campus.  

Giving students more living choices on campus will allow campus housing to be more competitive with off campus housing. Students who would have moved off campus in the past will be more likely to stay if they have access to apartment living or single bedrooms on campus.  

The Blue Light Living. This modern student living space has a kitchen, living room, bedrooms, and a balcony overlooking downtown durham in each room.

Designing to Form Connections

Purposely creating spaces to foster connections is an integral part of designing any residence hall building. One of the first places students can look to make friends on campus is inside of their residence halls.  

There are many ways designers can incorporate social areas into a residence hall building. Lounges, study rooms, and communal kitchens are a few popular spaces for students to connect with others in residence halls. Incorporating resources typically found in other buildings on campus such as coffee shops, dining options, or game rooms are other ways to increase student connections not only with their neighbors, but also other members of the campus community.  

Lounge at ECU's Fletcher residence hall. This student living space has a ping pong table, tvs, and plenty of seating options.

Utilizing Green Energy and Materials

Many universities around the world have made commitments to sustainability and lowering their carbon emissions. To meet their goals, universities will be looking for designers that can design green buildings and use sustainable materials. Not every university will come into a project with the goal of achieving LEED certification but will want to use the principles of design outlined in LEED certification.  

Designing environmentally friendly buildings not only aligns with the goals of many institutions, but also to the values of students attending university currently. Prospective students are not only searching for an institution that will provide the knowledge and experience to help them succeed in their field but are also looking for colleges that align with their values. Designing sustainable buildings on campus is one way for universities to show their commitment to sustainability and to show students their institution is innovative, caring, and follows through on their action plans.  

Expanding Access to Technology

Today’s generation of college students need access to technology more than ever before. With much of the coursework taking place online, expanded Wi-Fi bandwidth, more outlets for charging various devices, and study rooms with technology to easily share content are all necessities in every college dorm.  

Focusing on Wellness

Incorporating WELL and Fitwel building principles, design that encourages movement, and biophilic design into new construction or renovations of residence halls reinforces the idea that the health and wellness of students are an important part of campus life.  

Healthy indoor and outdoor spaces on campus can positively benefit students physical, mental, and social health through encouraging healthy choices, boosting focus and productivity, and allowing ample space to relax. 

Fitness Room

Project Spotlights:

Greene Residence Hall

MHAworks completed several renovations to both life safety and interiors of Green Residence Hall at East Carolina University. The 10-story high-rise residence hall was originally built in 1969 and has housed hundreds of ECU students throughout its history.  

The renovations to Greene Hall included bringing the building up to ADA and high-rise code compliance; remodeling the ground floor entry and common spaces; renovating residence rooms, bathrooms, study lounges, and corridors; relocating laundry facilities; fireproofing the entire primary structural frame; upgrading the electrical grounding; replacing walls, plumbing, and finishes throughout the building; and replacing the roof membrane.  

Communal lounge and study space.
Students living on campus at ECSU love the newly renovated Bias Hall. This historic dorm was renovated by MHAworks to create a contemporary and attractive living space for students to call home while they are on campus.

Bias Residence Hall

Originally constructed in 1938, Bias Residence Hall was transformed into a contemporary and attractive dorm for on-campus students at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU).  

The newly renovated space includes single and double occupant rooms, shared community bathrooms, common spaces, a residence hall director apartment and office, and multiple study spaces. To assist in making ECSU’s campus more beautiful, elegant finishes were incorporated throughout the building to give students a sense of pride for their home away from home.  

North Carolina School of Science and Math Residence Hall Renovations

North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM) hired MHAworks to conduct the advanced planning for their six residence hall renovations project. The project is an assessment, and renovation of NCSSM’s current student residence halls.  

The renovation includes updating the individual and 103 community bathrooms, lighting, the flooring throughout the dorms, updating the furnishings in the rooms and 26 lounges, and updating all 21 adult apartments in the dorms which are utilized by live-in staff. This project is currently underway.

Student living at NCSSM. This is a rendering of a newly renovated dorm on the campus.
Rendering of Hill Hall
Exterior photo of The Blue Light Living. This 7 story apartment building located in downtown Durham has 80 units, a rooftop pool and lounge, and a parking deck.

The Blue Light Living

Located in Durham, North Carolina, The Blue Light Living is a mixed-use apartment community designed to house students who want to live off-campus. The concept for The Blue Light Living was to create a move-in ready residential building that would cater to the needs of students.  

Residents of The Blue Light have access to a wide array of amenities including a rooftop pool and lounge area, two fitness areas, a group lounge on each floor, and four study areas throughout the building. Additional amenities include a bike storage room and repair station, a package delivery and drop-off center, firepits, and grills.