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Essential Elements of Residence Hall Design

Student Success
October 5, 2015 Jennifer Dilley

As someone who has seen facility trends in student housing come and go, I am encouraged by the re-emergence of innovative residence hall design ideas that are genuinely focused on promoting the development and persistence of today’s students.  Moving away from the amenity wars; the lazy rivers, tanning salons, infinity pools, and jumbo-trons, etc., is a responsible course. Design decisions are being made more strategically and in alignment with campus’s vision and models for student success, which at the end of the day is of far more value to the student than are large screen TVs and granite countertops.

Vibrant residential communities can become the backbone of one’s campus life experience.  Those communities that engage students and create a sense of belonging contribute to a greater identification as a member of the broader campus community which tends to foster students’ personal, social and academic growth. Residence Hall design is an integral element to be considered because we’ve all seen it: a great room, for which we had the highest hopes, but that sits empty while a little cubby at the end of the hall is alive with activity 24/7.  While design can add tremendous value, it must not unduly increase costs because increased costs can become a barrier to access. Decisions need to be judicious and purposeful. What’s our best course of action to make judicious and purposeful decisions without getting stymied in the quagmire of analysis paralysis?

At Corvias Campus Living, through focus groups with students, interviews with campus staff, campus tours and years of experience we set out to create a path.  Not to answer these questions because we know every campus is different, but to create a path to stimulate the conversation; ask the questions, to help the campuses identify their priorities.  We have identified several elements that are required of space in a community in order to create a well-rounded, holistic, inclusive environment.  How those elements are achieved will be as unique as is every campus experience, but starting the conversation is the first step.

These elements, collectively planned and purposefully designed, can support the student from the front door to the top floor and are dedicated to student success. The kind of success required in a rapidly changing learning environment with increasing emphasis on project-based learning often times requires transactions between people, group work, differing learning styles and never ending access to multimedia; all of which can be accommodated by thoughtful design.

Element One: GREET

Each community must define how students will transition from “outside” to “I’m home”.  This “GREET” space is typically a unique entryway that establishes a sense of place for the students.  The “GREET” space should give the student peace of mind that they are cared for in an inclusive, supportive, attractive and convenient community.


Element Two: Gather

Students tend to be more comfortable entering spaces where many things may be happening at once.  “GATHER” spaces are designed to create a non-threatening environment where students can cook, do laundry, study or socialize. By providing this utilitarian space, students have the opportunity to interact with others who may be different from themselves, building social and cultural competencies that may not otherwise be achieved if every need were met behind a suite door.

Element Three: CHAT

Students need space to see and be seen while never feeling out of place.  “CHAT” spaces are designed to serve this purpose. The “CHAT” space is intended to combat what can be experienced as a feeling of isolation when students rely heavily on social media and texting. “CHAT” spaces provide a non-threatening common area in which students can MIRL (meet in real life) and have a face-to-face interaction.

Element Four: BE

This element is the most personal to the student and is the one element in which we see the most variation between campuses.  Each campus will be best situated to determine which configuration of living spaces will best support the success of their student population. In a “BE” space the student has control over their own experience, using the space for sleep or to socialize. By having a comfortable place to “BE”, students can reach out and explore, knowing they always have a place to go home to.

Element Five: CONNECT

“CONNECT” spaces are large enough to support student organization meetings and events, providing residential students direct access to leadership opportunities, engaging the students in a familiar environment and empowering them to engage more actively across campus.

It’s an exciting time to evaluate the facilities that house our Residence Life programs.  There are so many opportunities to create synergies between our programmatic learning outcomes and the physical facilities that provide the vehicle through which those programs are delivered.  Campuses are finding more and more creative ways to finance these projects through avenues such as public private partnerships, foundation sponsorships or even campus capital campaigns.  Whatever course is right for your campus, I do hope you take the opportunity to consider the elements that will be critical to achieving the goals of your program and essential in creating a program that is both flexible and sustainable for the long term. 

About the author: Jennifer Dilley is currently the Vice President of Campus Relations and Operations for Corvias Campus Living. She has over 20 years of experience in ongoing supervision of student-housing operations across the country. In her previous role, she designed, implemented, and managed the new division of Campus Life at the Academy of Art University, the nation’s largest accredited private art school. She can be emailed at [email protected].