by Takama Statton-Brooks and Jeanne Ross Eichler
When preparing to transition from home to their campus residence hall, students become involved in an intricate process that requires more than simple logistics. For some students in particular, it requires a level of awareness about the preferential components that facilitate both their optimal study and balanced living habitats. Housing professionals can make the process easier as they consider campus environments that are more in sync with the sensory preferences of residential students. Such considerations will become even more important as the neurodiversity of the college demographic increases.
Campuses are already reconsidering the design of residence halls and common spaces in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For decades, residence hall designs were largely the same, and halls were built with convenience and capacity in mind, featuring similar bedroom sizes, furniture styles, bathroom designs, room lighting, and so on. Each element was conceived to streamline the efficiency of construction and amenities available to the rapidly growing college-bound demographic of the 1960s. Now colleges and universities are taking a different approach to creating a unique residential experience for on-campus students, allowing housing professionals and campus administrators the flexibility to incorporate design elements that mimic the aesthetics and function of single-family units. This shift in perspective also opens the potential for new campus collaborations in determining what resources are available to address students’ sensory preferences and their requirements for physical access.
Increasingly popular on many campuses is space dedicated to hammocks, a seating option that provides the kind of movement that some students need as part of their vestibular input. While outdoor space is a limited commodity for some campuses, there are several creative solutions for allowing students to use hammocks, such as incorporating them into the design of the structure or simply installing hammock poles.
Once associated exclusively with camping or hiking, hammock seating can also become part of the indoor environment, similar to what is offered at the Lassonde Studios at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. In addition to hammock seating, they provide tiered seating for residents on the adventure and gear-themed floor, seating that is designed to allow students to climb, jump, or simply relax. This is contrary to conventional design thought, where seating is exclusively for sitting. To further optimize spaces, campuses should consider sensory variations that allow hammocks to be hung in a way that facilitates three different planes of movement: lateral – side-to-side; linear – forward/backward; or rotational – spinning. Allowing customization on the students’ end as they design their own space optimizes their control of sensory input and focus. The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, for example, has expanded its capacity for students to be in tune with their vestibular needs by adding a hammock park, hammock stands, and hammock poles in the design of Adohi Hall.
Having an awareness of sensory components and their potential impacts will add a new tool to the resource inventory for housing professionals. This added layer of care will enhance a student’s ability to transition into their collegiate career with more ease.
From a sensory perspective, this flexible environment allows students to engage in aspects of movement that facilitate awareness of one’s body in space through weight-bearing heavy work (proprioception), as well as incorporating the movement that the student seeks. In this interactive setting, a student would seek what they need for optimal organization and utilize the space in a way that facilitates their overall ability to work at their best.
Noise tends to be one of the more prevalent factors impacting student satisfaction with housing accommodations. In fact, most campuses have policies in place like quiet hours and courtesy hours to replicate an environment conducive to studying and sound sleep. Limiting environmental noise allows students to customize their personal spaces based on their individual needs and preferences. Some halls are also creating places specifically designed with sound in mind. Music practice rooms are one example. These spaces are multifunctional, allowing students to work on monologues, practice for a presentation, exercise their vocal instruments, and study.
In older residence halls, lighting has traditionally been a function of need rather than of mood. Most halls would use the same fluorescent lighting in bedrooms, bathrooms, lounges, and hallways. The introduction of natural lighting improved the visual environment, but it was more of a design element than a consideration of what the end user, residents, would experience.
New residence halls showcase floor-to-ceiling windows for natural light in lounges and offer variations of lighting in student rooms, bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms. Window seating that allows natural light and views of the outdoors can also be found in these areas. Bedroom windows are larger and are provided with privacy shades or window coverings to block out light for those who need a darker environment for sleeping. Window coverings also give them more control over their personal spaces.
Balancing the design elements of function, need, and costs, newer projects incorporate multiple types of fabricated lighting in residential bathrooms, bedrooms, hallways, and common spaces. The sophistication of today’s lighting allows for automation based on the time of day, turning on lights only when needed to supplement natural lighting. Later in the day, lights in hallways and common spaces can cue the body for transition by dimming at a specific time, signifying the shift from the hustle and bustle of a busy day to the relaxation of a quieter nighttime routine.
Additionally, design elements that are more neutral and allow for preferential customization can help students by either adding visual interest for those who seek sensory input or neutralizing the visual environment for those who want to avoid sensory input. Again, this provides students control and flexibility over what they need in their own environment for optimal performance.
The personalization of a space is one of the more prominent functions of modern residential design. Furniture should be flexible in terms of layouts, design, and function. Preferences for various textures can be accommodated by use of particular materials for furnishings, walls, and flooring. As the consumer in a redesign or new construction project, housing professionals must balance the notion of durability while remaining cognizant of comfort, design, and lifecycle projections. When asked about the need to balance residence hall design with durability and comfort, Merrilee Hertlein, a principal for Mackey Mitchell who works with interior design, stated, “We start by understanding the usage of the space and then select materials that are appropriate to the activities and the occupants. For instance, if the space is used by a staff member, we can expect a slightly lower level of durability than if the space primarily caters to student use. The first consideration for flooring is hard surface or soft surface. Additionally, we must understand how the university’s housekeepers maintain materials, what type of cleaning protocol a material requires, and if the client has the capabilities to provide that. Material costs (both first and ongoing) are considered as well as replacement cost.”
The creation of dynamic living environments is not a singular role for any of the stakeholders. Campus planning groups understand the academic resource needs of students, which is what drives the design of spaces. Housing professionals understand how students use the spaces available to them. Student input is also a motivating factor for the evolving amenities provided in residence halls. Students will arrive on campus with habits they are not even aware of, including such rudimentary habits as chewing gum before an exam or turning on a sound machine to help them fall asleep. Each element of a student’s sensory needs is unique to their past experiences. Some habits change as students mature, and others are part of the sensory diet unique to that person and likely to continue into adulthood. An integrated approach to creating residential environments relies on all the partners involved. As residence life professionals meet with students at the start of the year, or through other interactions, they should check in with them, asking questions about their adjustment and what is different in their new environment that they had not anticipated. Having an awareness of sensory components and their potential impacts will add a new tool to the resource inventory for housing professionals. This added layer of care will enhance a student’s ability to transition into their collegiate career with more ease.
Takama Statton-Brooks is the director of residence education at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Jeanne Ross Eichler is an assistant professor of occupational therapy there.