By Dennis Lynch
As recently as 15 years ago, the phrase “housing master plan,” if it was used at all, meant finding a suitable site on campus to build the next new cluster of residence halls to meet increasing enrollment or to replace older stock and make an institution more competitive with its peers. The impetus for these projects tended to be more reactionary than strategic, with little more motivation than “We need new beds as soon as possible, we have the money, let’s go!”
Fast forward to today. Higher education finds itself at a crossroads of sorts, rattled by a number of outside forces including the unprecedented, unfolding crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutions around the globe have sent their students home for the remainder of the academic term. The ensuing forced experiment of moving the entire higher education curriculum to distance learning has been unsettling to say the least. Now, perhaps more than ever, housing master plans need to be comprehensive, strategic roadmaps that address the next decade or two of development and renewal for the entire housing system on campus. Housing master plans still identify suitable sites for new residence halls, but they must also focus at least as much attention on existing housing stock and how it can be renovated to maximize its contribution to the institution’s mission. The approaches and strategies that result from these master plans can be as varied as the institutions they serve, but the methodology used to reach them is consistent.
On most campuses, the housing inventory has evolved over decades. Residence life and housing professionals do their heroic best to adapt their programs to the inventory they inherit so they can give their students the best possible experience. There are times, though, when the available housing doesn’t allow for the type of programming needed to support the institution’s mission. This is why the first priority of a housing master plan must be to answer the foundational question, “Why do we house students on campus?” It sounds simple enough, but the answer often touches on the core values of the institution. Asked another way, the question becomes, “How does on-campus housing support the broader mission of the institution?” Answering this question and articulating the intent for housing on campus is critically important to a successful plan.
By filtering all planning decisions through the lens of why students are housed on campus and embracing a robust analysis of the existing housing system and campus context, creative, adaptable plans can be drafted and implemented.
After understanding the why of student housing, conduct an analysis of the existing housing stock as well as the context of the broader campus and the surrounding community. For the sake of clarity, it is useful to think of each analysis as a lens laid over the existing context, bringing certain features into sharp relief. These lenses of analysis fall into the broad categories of unit mix, facility condition, programmatic effectiveness, and market conditions.
The unit mix lens looks at the existing unit types and identifies misalignments between the current inventory and the students being housed. In many cases the attitudes, intentions, and geography have changed since the residence hall was originally conceived. It is common to find that a campus has too many of one unit type and not enough of another for which there is a pressing need or untapped demand. At least as often, beds are in the wrong location on campus, distancing the residents geographically from their classes, their peers, or key student services.
At Denison University in Granville, Ohio, two major issues drove the housing master plan for this liberal arts college that houses nearly all of the 2,300 undergraduates enrolled. The first driver was the desire to provide every senior at Denison with the opportunity to live in on-campus apartments in close proximity to other seniors. Providing this transitional experience to life after college is important to Denison’s goal, embodied in its mission statement, to prepare students to be “active citizens of a democratic society.” This goal resulted in the design of Silverstein Hall, which will open in 2020 to house 162 seniors in four-bedroom apartments with a gathering space on the ground floor intended to serve as the living room for the entire senior class community living in Silverstein and the adjacent halls.
The other key driver was that the first-year experience program at Denison had outgrown its home in the West Quad portion of campus, resulting in one quarter of the first-year class living in converted fraternity houses in another part of campus apart from their peers. Committed to the idea that first-year students need to live together in enough numbers to feel a shared sense of community, the plan seeks to create two equivalent first-year experiences in both the West and East quads while allowing a broad range of choices for sophomores and juniors across campus before concluding the Denison experience as a senior in an apartment located close to the new gathering space in Silverstein Hall. In order to accomplish this realignment of housing inventory with the desired cohort-based experience, a series of renovations are underway. Four halls will be renovated during the 2020 academic break to provide improved entry sequences and common areas; more privacy in common
restrooms, allowing for gender-inclusive housing; and upgraded furniture, finishes, and lighting in student bedrooms.
Another factor in developing a master plan is to complete a facility assessment that examines the physical condition of existing facilities to uncover what needs to be fixed in each hall to allow it to function as intended. It is important to note that while the physical condition of a residence hall certainly affects the student experience, these fixes are not driven by the “Why?” for student housing on the campus. Most institutions have at least some facility condition assessment data at the outset of a housing master plan, but it is rarely comprehensive or consistent across the entire housing inventory. While the level of detail may vary considerably, the goal of the housing master plan is to establish consistency in the data and to recognize the total cost of all the fixes. The price tag to fix everything can be daunting. However, it is useful to think of this number as the cost of doing nothing when it comes to strengthening housing’s why. This number merely maintains the status quo of the intentional experience provided to the students.
At Goucher College, a small liberal arts institution in Baltimore, Maryland, past President José Antonio Bowen was adamant that the on-campus student experience was core to the college’s value proposition and its relevance in the competitive higher education landscape. However, outdated finishes and building systems led the college to conclude that its housing and dining facilities were falling short of student expectations and needed to be renewed or replaced.
The college’s original concept was to build a new residence hall on an available site, increasing the bed inventory enough to allow the phased replacement of the first-year housing and dining cluster at the southeast end of campus. However, analysis of the existing unit mix and of student patterns of behavior around dining led to an alternative plan. The available site for the first residence hall was near the campus core and became the location for three new first-year halls forming a vibrant home in the heart of campus. Rather than rebuilding a new dining facility on the site of the old one, the plan recommended a renovation and expansion of existing Mary Fisher Hall to provide a centralized dining experience and to house the Office of Student Engagement and the Student Counseling Center, all immediately adjacent to the new first-year village. During the implementation of the first-year village, three existing wings of Froelicher Hall, one of the residence halls originally slated for demolition, were picked up and relocated to a new site in order to accommodate an uptick in demand for on-campus housing. The relocation and renovation of the wings of Froelicher Hall was estimated to be one third the cost of new construction and delivered a full year earlier. The original site of the first-year housing and dining facility at the campus edge remains available for future redevelopment as suite- or apartment-style housing for upper-division students.
Along with assessing the condition of existing residence halls, using the lens of programmatic effectiveness allows staff to evaluate whether each residence hall has the physical space to support a sense of community amongst the students. Students need space outside of their private unit to connect with each other socially and academically. The housing master plan analyzes each hall to see how much common space is provided and compares that to benchmark data for each unit type. The benchmark data comes from student housing designed to current best practices on campuses around the country. This analysis can reveal deficiencies in the quantity of space, which may lead to a recommendation to de-densify the bed capacity in some halls as part of the overall plan.
At Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, declining enrollment had necessitated the shuttering of one of four similar seven-story residence hall towers before planning began. In a multi-pronged effort to stabilize recruitment and retention, the plan for Northwest included strategic renovation of the towers to de-densify the bed count and add much needed common space and move-up unit options for students to stay on campus beyond their first year. The plug and play concept created a variety of options to redesign banks of traditional double rooms to add common space, bring daylight into the corridor, and create suite-style options for upper-division students. Ground floor entrances and common areas were updated as well in three of the four towers, while the typical floors have been renovated in one of the towers so far, with future renovations in the capital plan.
Finally, the market conditions for student housing are also an important factor driving a housing master plan. Understanding the enrollment trends of the institution, not just in terms of total numbers but also in terms of who is choosing to attend, is critical in predicting the future demand for student housing. Policy decisions regarding live-on requirements or that limit access to certain unit types must also be understood and evaluated. The off-campus student housing market must be analyzed as well. What inventory is available to students nearby? What projects are in development that would offer an alternative to students living on campus? In order for a housing master plan to be actionable, it must be reconciled with the realities of the market in which the institution operates.
The plan at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. focused on strengthening an envisioned student life corridor connecting distinct housing precincts at the north and south ends of campus. At the time of the plan, the university had recently added a third year to its live-on requirement in response to increasing pressure from the surrounding neighborhood to house more students on campus. One outcome of the plan was to renovate two historic buildings in the core of campus that had remained vacant for more than 10 years. The two structures, built in 1833 and 1904, had accommodated many uses over the years, including student housing, the university’s original dining hall, and most recently as the residence for Jesuit priests ministering to the campus community. One of the challenges of the renovation was to maximize the bed count while also creating a unit type that would appeal to upper-division students whose preferred units were historic townhomes in the surrounding city blocks. Capitalizing on the uniquely tall floor-to-floor heights in the historic structures, the design created a full suite-style experience within the footprint of an efficient semi-suite by lofting the sleeping area above the entry vestibule and bathrooms. The ground floor space that served as the university’s original dining hall a century ago was given new life as a lounge for residents and as a connecting space between Dahlgren Quad and Library Walk. The resulting Ida Ryan and Isaac Hawkins Hall has proven to be in high demand. The second year it was open, more than 700 students applied for one of the 148 beds within the learning community established there.
After this analysis is complete, the housing master plan tests ways to reconcile any gaps between the aspirations for student housing and the realities of the existing inventory. The goal is to find the scenario that reconciles the largest gaps in the least amount of time and for the least amount of money. The plan should also be flexible enough to account for new conditions that may arise over the years of implementing the plan. However, by focusing the plan on why the institution chose to house students in the first place, the plan will be durable enough to retain its value even as external forces may influence the final results. Different campuses’ plans will have different outcomes, but the common thread should be that each plan is rooted in the value that the on-campus residential experience brings to the institution.
As students left campuses earlier this year to return to their families or other locations under the cloud of a pandemic, many may have seen this as a blow to the relevance of physical campuses. However, thoughtful planning that reconsiders the value of current housing and future needs can, indeed, provide a sense of optimism that, once on the other side of this crisis, students can appreciate more than ever before the value of being physically together on campus. Campuses should plan in terms of a comprehensive approach to their entire housing system and look to maximize the positive impact of the residential experience in support of the institutional mission. There may not be the same number of students. They may be participating in their classes in evolving ways. But by filtering all planning decisions through the lens of why students are housed on campus and embracing a robust analysis of the existing housing system and campus context, creative, adaptable plans can be drafted and implemented to support better, more intentional experiences for students.
Dennis Lynch is a principal with Ayers Saint Gross architects with more than 20 years of experience in all phases of architecture. He has shared his expertise at numerous conferences and workshops and has written articles on sustainable design.i. DLynch@asg-architects.com