For decades, college dormitories were bare-bones – to put it mildly. They provided basic living units constructed from the cheapest, toughest materials available while squeezing the largest number of students into the smallest amount of space – without much else. However, in recent years, the design of residence halls has undergone a fundamental shift as universities and colleges seek to make their campuses magnets for the brightest young minds. As Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College (which has recently undertaken an ambitious building program in the center of Boston), put it: “The vision is to develop the coolest, hippest, most compelling destination in downtown.”
In Emerson’s case, the school tapped Elkus Manfredi Architects to design numerous new facilities within the city’s historic center, including a student dining center and a 375-bed residence hall connected by an existing alley. The dining center is more a compelling café than cafeteria, with tables and booths for eating, studying, and hanging out by exposed brick walls and steel beams. Downstairs is a multifunctional space with a landing that can serve as a performance stage. The residence is its own compressed community with study nooks, movable furniture, communal work tables, an enormous open kitchen seemingly pulled from a chic loft, a rooftop lounge, and a coffeeshop open to both students and the broader neighborhood.
A dining center at an Emerson College dorm by Elkus Manfredi. Top: Arizona State University’s Tooker House, by SCB.
Photo: Peter Vanderwarker
“We’re bringing lessons learned from mixed-use retail to the college campus, so it’s not just a dorm standing there, lonely, with a bunch of Chiclet-size bedrooms,” says Elizabeth Lowrey, a principal at Elkus Manfredi. “It’s really about creating community and connections, and drawing students out of their rooms to be with others.”
There are many reasons for doing so. For one thing, better-designed housing provides a more attractive lifestyle for prospective students while encouraging existing students to live on campus longer – which can benefit the college in the long term, as well. “There’s all kinds of research that indicates if students live in on-campus housing, they will be more successful in their learning and go on to be much more involved in the alumni community,” says Lowrey, whose firm regularly designs academic building and campuses, including the master plan for USC Village, which mixes student residences with private restaurants, stores such as Target and Trader Joe’s, boutiques including a bike shop, and a yoga studio. “These places are becoming much more than low-cost housing. They’re becoming living-and-learning communities, where the public spaces have a lot more to give.”
A media center in the Elkus Manfredi building at Emerson.
Photo: Courtesy of Elkus Manfredi
The exterior of Gensler’s Blackstone Hall at Biola University.
Photo: Ryan Gobuty
Heidi Hampton, an architect in the Los Angeles office of Gensler, has noticed the same thing. “We’re seeing a reduction in room size, and a prioritization on common amenity spaces,” she says. “That includes creating specialty spaces but also invigorating in-between areas and circulation so that students start to interact more.”
Gensler followed precisely this approach while designing Blackstone Hall for Biola University in Southern California, making individual room sizes smaller than in the other dorms on campus to allow for casual study lounges, a café, an outdoor amphitheater, basketball and volleyball courts, and a fire pit. In doing so, the firm created one of the most popular buildings on campus. “It’s not just the place where you go to sleep,” says Hampton. “It’s much more dynamic.”
That new sense of dynamism is also on full display at the Campus North Residential Commons that Studio Gang designed for the University of Chicago. Comprised of three linked towers on a full-block site, the complex is tied directly into its Hyde Park neighborhood with retail spaces and plazas at street level. Inside, the towers are organized around so called House Hubs – shared three-level living spaces that penetrate multiple floors for each cluster of 100 students, equipped with soft seating and kitchens to create the feeling of home, even as all 800 students share other amenities, including a top-floor reading room and a dining hall.
The terrace of a multi-use dorm at Rutgers University, also by Elkus Manfredi.
Photo: Brad Feinknopf
At Tooker House, a new residence for nearly 1,600 engineering students at Arizona State University, the architecture firm SCB designed a building directly related to the area of study. The building is highly sustainable, with some facades covered by perforated aluminum louvers in a wave-like pattern that shield it from the sun, along with a prominent glass-enclosed mechanical room that exposes color-coded building systems for all to study. There is also an expansive maker lab on the ground floor that encourages students to gather and tinker after classes have finished, near a popular shaded outdoor plaza. Each floor has two study lounges with different layouts to offer various possibilities for collaboration.
“People now understand that learning happens everywhere, and universities have really taken that concept to heart,” says Jim Curtin, a principal in SCB’s Chicago office who specializes design for education. “We’re blurring the lines between a traditional classroom and traditional residence hall. Really, the two are merging together.”
In other words, the residence hall is no longer just a residence, he adds: “It’s a village.”