Your Huddled Masses…
Are they breathing "free"?
High caliber design evolves from an appreciation of the context of the building, and so it is with College and University residences.
Lately, there is intense scrutiny of anything that increases tuition, room and board fees. This problem, with the new magnifier of political debate, has many drivers; and threats to the financial health of higher education, which fuel this escalation, can come from several or all of the following:
- Reduced state budget allocations
- Reduced governmental and corporate grant and contract income
- Reduced gifts
- Lower yields from endowment investments
- Salary and perk competition to attract the best professors
- Increased demands on scholarships to needy families
- Increased facilities cost, to maintain aging structures, and make improvements appropriate to current teaching requirements
and, finally, appropriate to this newsletter
- Added or enlarged residential life amenities, to compete with local housing, peer institutions, and student demands
Now, as it relates to housing
For me, this has been a lifelong infatuation (see, my blog posting “How Could This Happen”). Although, I must admit, I started with single-family homes, it didn’t take long before I was embracing multi-family housing and then collegiate residential life.
I won’t try to do a treatise here on all the nuances – just a few ‘teasers’ I find particularly interesting, and relevant to the theme.
For decades, the defacto standard was that students slept in single beds, with 75" long mattresses. As North Americans grew taller, most colleges had no choice but to migrate to longer beds using 80" mattresses.
A few years ago, when I first saw a dorm floor plan with full beds (54"x75" mattresses), I was curious; and was told that the building had many student athletes. This was both to accommodate their even larger girth; and because non-athletes were also in the building, complied with NCAA regulations prohibiting the offering of amenities to athletes not afforded to the balance of the student body. More recently, I have seen more colleges offering full beds in its upper-class housing. Makes one wonder – which came first “double-bedding” or double beds? (Although I suspect the answer is well known).
One defense of this trend is that an increasing percentage of American students have grown up sleeping in full beds (often in un-shared bedrooms). So, there is an expectation of accommodating this lifestyle.
Regardless, the extra square footage usually requires larger rooms.
It’s hard to beat the efficiency of gang toilets serving large numbers of same-sex students, particularly if they occupy double or triple bedrooms. Some colleges, in fact, stipulate this model for freshman as a form of “life-learning” experience.
Recently there were humorous observations by Newbery Medal Winner Jack Gantos on NPR’s “Wait Wait – Don’t tell me!”, who told of his release from prison to attend college where he moved from one building to another with identical design features. Unfortunate, perhaps, but not hard to imagine.
There’s been a logical upward migration from the “cell-block” allocation of space:
- More single bedrooms
- Smaller clusters of students
- Toilets and showers moved into small suites of bedrooms
- Full complement bathrooms shared by two bedrooms
and, albeit rarely,
- “stand-alone” bedrooms with private bathrooms
Designs with clusters of bedrooms sharing a common “living” room have been around for a long time. When you think about it, if the building has even one “common” room, it’s obviously shared. The fundamental question is how many people are required to “share”. Is it two or two hundred – or even more? The trend has been for fewer and fewer students to share in-suite living rooms. All this, while typically maintaining the central common room. Added area is inevitable.
However, it doesn’t stop there. Now it’s kitchens. These, too, have seen upward enhancement over the years. Sinks, hot plates and mini refrigerators morphed into “micro-fridges”. Then came even larger appliances – to the point where now some full-service kitchens rival what’s available in conventional rental apartments.
The reasons are myriad. However, I suspect the principal motive is to lure students away from those nearby apartments. The last suite I toured was better equipped than the mid-town New York coop I lived in not that long ago.
The movement on this topic has been explosive. If you can think of it, it’s assured some college or university has tried it. Fitness centers, student-run eateries, performance venues, libraries, video theaters, swimming pools, and IT clusters are all examples.
There is no denying the vitality these features add to students’ lives. When properly integrated, with a balanced view of their pedagogical value, we’ve probably formed generations of renascent young adults. Ah – but at what cost?
Even in our era of LEED certified development, it’s common for the energy consumption of renovated facilities to exceed that of their older “inefficient” configuration. A major culprit has been the introduction of cooling into spaces that were formerly just heated.
While creative design may well result in a worthy “net zero” building, there is often an extremely complex fiscal analysis that can affect institutional capital and operating budgets (another newsletter perhaps). Depending on how these expenses are managed, inflating elements can be added to the financial bottom line.
Is there hope?
Of course – While there’s life, there’s hope. Since Cicero is long dead, you can ask a NY Giant. Try this analogy: Much as we now drive fewer SUV’s, we can also “live” smarter. Although it’s not likely we’ll revert to the cellblock of Jack Gantos’ experience, we may well go into a “retro” phase.
Some things are starting to happen already.
Living Old Style
Anecdotally, some Directors of Residential Life are noting a stated desire for stand-alone single bedrooms. If you loft the beds high enough to get the desk underneath (easier to do with single beds, by the way), you even get a mini version of a “loft” apartment, with upper level sleeping. Some find this too challenging to pull off (acrophobia, maybe?), but raising the bed to get drawers underneath is not a bad alternative.
These options for furniture aren’t exclusive to “stand-alones” – they work just as well in any configuration, apartments even.
Living with less
If residential facilities are strategically located near complementary amenities, it’s reasonable to say they don’t need to duplicate what can very well be right next door.
But then, less is less. Smaller rooms, tighter corridors, less “stuff”, may be a way to go. A few years ago, Fodor’s wrote about the trend toward Pod hotels for budget conscious travelers. If the Hotel industry can do this – apparently with some success – why can’t higher education? Although I must admit, the capsule hotels of Japan are a model I don’t see emulating.
Getting Universities out of the Apartment business
“Nailing a tack with a sledgehammer” is how some people describe the approach colleges use to develop their higher end housing. When you don’t do something every day of the week, it might be said that you have a learning curve; and pride can sometimes cloud better judgment. Good apartment builders have often spent decades refining their products. If there were such a thing as a “value” competition, I suspect the developer might beat the Facilities organization. Some ask, “Why fight it?”
Year round use
On many campuses, bedrooms may sit unoccupied for nearly three months a year. While the “down” time has value for repair and renovation, and presumably extends the facility’s life expectancy; it may well add to operations expense. Full occupancy, year round, has been the goal of many Colleges and Universities. Whether it’s quarterly calendars, accelerated academic programs, aggressively promoted summer programs, or getting onto the seasonal rental business; the number-crunchers are ruthlessly evaluating the potential for a positive bottom line.
You don’t have to house students that aren’t there – right? The value of the educational experience for “Distance Learners” is hotly debated; but if it shortens or eliminates the need for accommodations, you’d think there would be savings.
A bit of a minefield, but …
A few years ago, during the investigation phase of a College residential Master Plan, I was trying to understand all the motives behind students moving off campus. Still unsure how frankly I could speak, I asked politely “Are students leaving so they can cohabitate?” The Dean of Students smiled, and replied “Oh no, we allow that.” But, they still had two sets of bathrooms and showers on each floor.
Another University went part way, and had men and women sharing sinks and toilet stalls. However, the individual showers (which anyone could use) were arranged with floor to ceiling partitions and lockable doors.
OK, so here’s the deal: Once the College has gotten past the dilemma of shared living, why can’t there be less space devoted to the illusion of privacy?
Why are there no Murphy beds in dorms? The answer is simple: Facilities people and housing officers don’t want the hassle of accidents and maintenance – KSS. This may be too rigid. How about lofts that can’t be moved? Convertible chairs? Futon sofas? Lap desks? Elevating closets? Got any bright ideas? They deserve consideration.
is upon us. Designers, Builders, and Administrators are all in this together. We may not be as poetic about our business as Emma Lazarus was in 1883, but we now have a challenge to address. I’m ready. Are you?
Missed earlier newsletters? Find them here:
January 2012 “Observing Observations”
October 2011 “I Want What I Want”
August 2011 “A Beach Read”
May 2011 “NeoLuddite or Technophile?”
March 2011 “Do Your Silos Leak?”
January 2011 “Plan to Live Forever!”
November 2010 “May I Have A Plan, Master?”
September 2010 “How do we choose?”
July 2010 “Good People Behaving Badly”
May 2010 “LEED: LEADing or Dead Weight?”
March 2010 “Why does it cost so much?”
January 2010 “Design/Builders show us your softer side.”
November 2009 “What the Facilities?”
September 2009 “Why Do Architects Make Good Owner’s Reps?”