Residence halls designed to help students succeed
Efficiently packed dorms are replaced by centers that emphasize well-being
Jeff HyslopRob KuffelNovember 3rd, 2022
Living on a college campus is no longer just about a place to sleep between classes.
Dormitories, once celebrated for their ability to pack students together efficiently, have been replaced by residence halls. Unlike their predecessors, residence halls are specifically designed to celebrate individual well-being and set students up for success.
This modernized building typology is rich with amenities and spaces to help students build friendships and lasting community. As the importance of social growth to academic achievement continually gains recognition, so does the significance of on-campus housing that encourages a sense of safety and belonging and where deep-rooted connections can occur.
First and foremost, residence halls, unlike dormitories, are designed to support students in building community. At Bellevue College, in Western Washington, a new residence hall created a hub for campus residents and commuter students together.
The community-oriented ground floor became a living room where the entire campus community could connect, unwind, and grow. A café, study spaces, large meeting rooms, and a large deck with spectacular Pacific Northwest views actively enrich academic experiences right where students live and provide the basis for a new on-campus culture.
Serving over 500 residents, Hyalite Hall at Montana State University builds community by carefully breaking the large building down into comfortably sized communities of students. This allows those who live within the same wing to really get to know each other. Supported by a high ratio of residential advisers, this grouping gives the environment a more personal feel, along with ample opportunities either for large group engagements or small, closely-knit gatherings.
A number of key design strategies further encourage chance encounters and peer-to-peer engagement. Stairs and vertical circulation are prioritized and located to prompt movement throughout the building. Residential communities are connected vertically to establish “sibling” relations between them and increase residential adviser interaction.
Each community has multiple restrooms distributed outside the resident rooms to ensure students venture out and are likely to meet others. Corridors are wide to incorporate movable furniture and create impromptu gathering spaces. Study spaces of various scales are distributed in close proximity to residents’ rooms but are left visible to peers as an invitation for greater participation.
Upon entering their own community, residents flow through a main social area where they can check in with friends and activities. From here, they navigate down the wide corridor that doubles as a casual living room and place to hang out between individual residences.
Flex rooms bring activities directly to students, hybridizing opportunities for living and learning with opportunities for clubs, fitness programs, lectures, and meetings. A variety of socialization spaces and scales help to reach everyone with options for different interests and needs.
Community kitchens and large spaces for movie and game nights are among the communal choices. Laundry rooms with integrated study spaces are large and inviting. They are placed near active areas, so students can engage and hang out while doing chores.
While these types of spaces attract students, they are not just for fun. More importantly, they offer meaningful ways for young scholars to build social networks as part of connecting with the institution’s culture and identity. The social, extracurricular, and cultural engagement shaped by the residence hall’s environments and led by residential-life staff are central to students’ ability to develop a sense of belonging and greater connection with the campus. This physical and emotional safety net comes at a critical time in young people’s lives to help them establish secure paths for themselves going forward.
Live-learn communities, affinity groups, and experiential groups are becoming common on higher education campuses. At the University of Montana, the renovation of Knowles Hall, an early 1960s-era dormitory, not only brought the building up to modern living standards, but also created a home specifically tuned for honors college students. Ample study space supports their specialized experience and group work, along with socialization spaces for programs and student activities.
Highly visible from the main lobby and large social areas, a flexible classroom space for additional academic support and interaction with peers and faculty minimizes barriers and creates greater access to learning. Additional office space is provided for faculty so that advising and support for students is barrier free. Smaller groups and individual study spaces are intentionally located near the main stairs and elevators to put learning on display, encourage peer-to-peer interaction, and promote positive academic mindsets and outcomes. Apartments are included for the resident director and live-in honors college faculty.
Safety and Belonging
Colorado School of Mines is known for its academically focused student population, with a high percentage on the Autism spectrum. Mary Elliott, director of residence life and housing at Mines, notes that her typical student is “highly motivated from an academic standpoint and involved in a myriad of campus activities and sports but tends toward introversion.”
For these students, the freshman year represents a critical opportunity to establish positive academic and social habits in a safe and structured environment. The residence hall and Mines’ residential-life programing has been so successful in guiding students through their rigorous first year that the institution is moving toward expanding its live-on-campus requirement to include the sophomore year as well.
The program for Spruce Hall at Mines responds to student preferences by layering spaces from introverted to extroverted experiences. The game room and TV lounges are open and large to encourage community building and interaction. These extroverted spaces may push some outside their comfort zones, but they are paired with smaller, more intimate areas throughout the building for quiet recharging. These secluded spaces for one or two people are located along the hallways at key social intersections between learning communities.
A cozy window perch looking out to the mountains is partially screened behind tinted glass walls, helping individuals feel connected to their community even when they need time to recharge.
Safety and security are ensured with a single-point-of-entry access policy. Not only does this provide accountability, but perhaps more importantly gives residential life staff the chance to engage with all students as they enter and leave the building.
Enhancing personal connections, live-in residential advisers also are responsible for the students in their own wing and community. This kind of personal interaction allows for awareness of mental and physical well-being and opportunities to engage or intervene.
Nationally, postsecondary enrollment peaked in 2010, and since then, we have seen a steady decline. Institutions are competing for students from a decreasing pool. While a degree may be the end goal, institutions also recognize a responsibility to provide critical opportunities outside the classroom to help put students on a trajectory for life-long learning and success.
Residence halls have come to represent the cornerstone experience in campus living. This is where students form the foundational attitudes and perspectives that will propel them beyond their postsecondary education, and residence halls are a critical tool to foster engagement.
Jeff Hyslop and Rob Kuffel are associate principals at NAC Architecture.