There are three scenarios in which sharing a tiny bedroom with a stranger on top of sharing a single bathroom with half a floor is tolerated: the military, prison, and college. It could be two scenarios, though, soon enough. Many college students are bypassing the rite of passage that is dorm living, thanks to new housing options that feature suites of private bedrooms and baths supplemented by community amenities. The transition from parents’ homes to adulthood is getting cushier.
Student housing is experiencing a building boom across the country. Though other building sectors have yet to regain as much traction in the recovering economy, this multifamily typology is buoyed by exploding enrollment at colleges and universities. And banks are prepared to make the loans. “From a real-estate investment perspective, student housing is becoming an asset class in itself, alongside office, retail, hospitality, and residential sectors,” says Jack Tenanty, managing director at Jones Lang LaSalle.
An attractive housing portfolio is a marketing tool for colleges and universities. Prospective students accustomed to having their own bedrooms at home are wooed by suite layouts, which feature private bedrooms and bathrooms connected by living areas and kitchens, making the spaces feel more like apartments than the stereotypical barracks-style dormitories of the past. New student housing models also integrate communal spaces, such as in-house dining services that allow students to dine in their pajamas, as well as small group study rooms, game rooms, media rooms, and even music practice spaces. Parents footing the bill are just as persuaded by these new housing models as their children. “They’re certainly looking for strong academics, but if you can show them, ‘This is where your child will live and it is safe and secure,’ it gives schools a competitive edge,” Tenanty says.
The growing demand for beds coupled with preferences for suite-style configurations and additional amenities adds to financial burdens for both public and private schools, which often lack vacant land for new construction. Increasingly, schools are exploring the option of partnering with developers to build new housing on campus or on properties nearby. While this trend is most common among public schools, even Ivy League institutions are testing out the approach, including the University of Pennsylvania. “Though Penn has not built its own on-campus housing in several decades, we have, in the last decade, partnered with developers to build market-rate housing on Penn-owned land,” says Anne Papageorge, vice president for facilities and real-estate services at Penn. She adds that the school has gained around 1,000 beds through these partnerships over the past five to six years.
Partnering with developers allows schools to expand their housing options near campus without making a large upfront investment. The developer provides capital and leases the land, which will eventually revert back to the school, depending on how the agreement is structured. “Even though we’re an urban institution, it has been less an issue about land than about resources,” Papageorge says. Most of Penn’s resources, for example, are earmarked for teachers’ salaries and research, as well as renovating existing housing stock, in which they’ve invested upwards of $350 million over the past 12 years.
Many of Penn’s new land-lease residences follow a model similar to the university’s established College House system, which places faculty members in residence with students. And not all of Penn’s new housing projects are private: A new College House by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson is currently in the works.
Some developers have cashed in on the demand for student housing by building their own “communities” near campuses. High-end cottage-style developments, built by private companies not in partnership with schools, are inwardly focused and exclusive—like resorts. Developments such as those by Athens, Ga.–based Landmark Properties were initially concentrated in the Southeast but have spread to communities near Penn State University and the University of Arizona, among others.
No matter their geographic location, these cottage communities follow a similar formula: single-family Craftsman-style cottages with luxurious extras, such as gourmet kitchens with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, all grouped around a pool and clubhouse—where students will get their yoga classes, manicures, and spray tans. According to The Wall Street Journal, there are currently 35 such completed communities in the U.S. and 18 more are in planning stages or construction. It’s a small but rapidly growing sector of student housing—which the Corvias Group, a developer who recently entered the student-housing market, describes as a hedge against economic swings, comparable to military housing.
Clearly there is a dependable, growing demand for high-end student housing. But cottage developments probably represent the excessive end of the spectrum. Public and private universities will shift to a more conservative approach to square footage, says architect James Timberlake, FAIA, founding partner of KieranTimberlake, a Philadelphia-based firm that has designed housing projects totaling nearly 20,000 beds for higher-ed clients across the country. (Timberlake is also a member of ARCHITECT’s editorial advisory committee.) “I think we’re going to see some real push-back on how housing is delivered to students over the next decade or two, because colleges and universities are under pressure to manage the increase in costs that they’ve incurred, and not just simply pass them along to students in the form of higher fees or tuition,” he says.
Timberlake predicts that older institutions will become more creative in renovating existing housing stock by carving out “found spaces” from attics and basements to provide additional beds. In new developments, he says that he anticipates that room sizes will actually decrease—with a trend toward fewer private bedrooms. But not a trend back to the same shared bedrooms of yesteryear: Timberlake predicts that spaces will be more loftlike and adaptable. “Bedrooms become superfluous in a way, beyond a place to lay your head,” he says. “You have to ask, ‘How much time are they spending in their room,’ and, ‘How much time do we want them to spend out on campus?’ ”
In line with the less-is-more approach, sustainable design is now considered the norm instead of an added expense, since it helps schools to decrease their long-term operating costs. KieranTimberlake’s LEED Platinum–certified Charles David Keeling Apartment complex at the University of California, San Diego, is oriented to capture breezes from the Pacific Ocean, and utilizes thermal mass to reduce heating loads as well as rooftop photovoltaic panels to further lessen the building’s energy burden. The interior finishes are modern but simple, with cast-in-place concrete left exposed. “They’re spare as far as housing projects go, but students love them for their flexibility and their openness to the landscape,” Timberlake says.
But what makes sense for a Southern California campus doesn’t work as well for a school in New England, so Timberlake encourages architects to consider their role in influencing academic clients when making recommendations for housing. “Stop and think about the context and the school’s market to help them best manage their student housing dollars,” he says. When architects choose materials and systems that are regionally appropriate, they not only save schools money, but also help them to differentiate their housing stock from competitors—an approach to attracting students that is less about design one-upmanship and more about refining a campus’s identity.