Student Housing Updates: 3 Reasons to Renovate

As college and universities work to regain lost ground due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many face the reality of deferred student housing updates. Lingering uncertainties related to infection control, along with shifting demographics and student expectations heighten the need for action. Based on data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment declined by about 3.5% in fall 2021 from the previous year.

Much of the student housing in need of renovation today was built for the “boomer” generation of the 1950s and 1960s. Facility design for this generation reflects a pragmatic-focus to accommodate the large influx of students at that time.

These buildings were generally constructed with concrete or steel frame structures and designed to maximize space. In most cases, they remain physically sound today. However, the systems, finishes and furnishings have reached the end of their life cycle.  Relatively newer housing from the 70s, 80s and 90s must also be updated to reflect current standards from both aesthetic and operational efficiency perspectives.

Private dorm room at Franklin & Marshall Schnader Hall
Privacy is a growing priority for student housing for student rooms and bathrooms.  F&M Schnader Hall

Reason to Renovate:  Meet Student Expectations

Campus housing is a valuable marketing tool to attract students and keep them living on campus.  In a survey of more than 25,000 students by American Campus Communities, more than 78 percent of respondents said that the availability of high-quality housing affected their college selection.

The reality is that the majority of existing on-campus student housing stock in the U.S. has become mediocre at best. Campus housing updates must go beyond the annual paint refresh a few days before students move in for the fall semester. Meaningful improvements can turn these older housing models into a positive differentiator for your campus.

Addressing the Need for More Privacy

Bathroom renovations are often the focus of student housing renovations.  Students are no longer accepting of the ubiquitous “gang-style” communal bathrooms.  Current expectations for privacy, equity and accessibility are frequent drivers for renovations.

All-gender bathrooms are being introduced to supplement communal options. And communal bathrooms are also being renovated to provide more privacy.  For example, hard-walled toilet rooms or redesigned toilet stalls with floor-to-ceiling partitions and gap-free doors enhance privacy in communal bathrooms.

Adding and Enhancing Amenities

Most older residence halls also lack the amenities that appeal to today’s students who expect accommodations for learning to occur anywhere and everywhere. Contemporary student housing blurs the lines between academic spaces and residences to promote individual and group learning beyond the classroom.

Student housing renovations at Franklin & Marshall College were phased in over consecutive summer breaks
Multi-phased housing updates at Franklin and Marshall College were constructed over a series of summer breaks. F&M Schnader Hall

Updates to introduce new interior finishes and flexible furnishings are critical to make these spaces attractive to prospective students.  Introducing a mix of recreational spaces throughout the building also helps to create a unique residence hall identity. Renovations can substitute a combination of quiet study and group interaction spaces for the uninspired television lounges of the past. Thoughtfully considered spaces along corridors can activate previously underutilized areas while expanding the range of available amenities.

Reason to Renovate:  Save Time and Money

New construction avoids the constraints of having to work within the building infrastructure, but updates to existing housing offer significant value through cost and scheduling efficiencies.  Many private and public institutions face constricted budgets due to the impacts of COVID-19 on top of financial and enrollment challenges prior to the pandemic.

Alvernia CollegeTowne includes student and faculty housing suites
Alvernia CollegeTowne was created through renovations that converted an urban office building into a mixed use campus resources including student and faculty housing, a business trading lab, commuter lounge, classrooms, labs and an event/training room.  The project was funded in part through RACP and other community grants.

In most cases, renovating existing housing represents significant cost savings over new construction. This savings is achieved through retention and reuse of the building shell, foundation and structure.  Our team has found this can represent up to 20% of the building value. Likewise, renovations can shorter project timelines by avoiding the often lengthy land development process and eliminating or significantly reducing site preparation time.

More often than not, older housing is located in a prime location at or near the campus center. This makes replacement more challenging, costly and disruptive to campus life.

Residence hall renovations eliminate the need for additional land development. Renovations also preserve campus character and culture – particularly when it comes to historical buildings.

Student housing renovations will update Drayer Hall, a 1950s era historic campus building at Dickinson College
Interior updates planned for this historic 1950s era four-story campus residence hall include resident life and building system upgrades.  Dickinson College, Drayer Hall

Reason To Renovate: Enhance Sustainability / Improve Operational Efficiency

Campus updates can help to convert older housing into a valuable asset while also promoting sustainability.  Updating existing housing to serve your campus for years to come is one of the most environmentally responsible measures you can take.

Renovations allow institutions to update building systems to enhance sustainability and reduce operating costs.  Choosing to renovate represents good stewardship by avoiding the energy that would be used to demolish an existing structure. It also reduces energy expenditure and materials production associated with building a new structure.

Adding insulation, new windows, and energy efficient systems can significantly reduce future energy consumption, as well as enhance student comfort.  New plumbing fixtures offer significant reduction in potable water usage. Updated lighting enhances living spaces.  Couple with power system upgrades, it also delivers a positive impact on energy consumption.

Planning for Student Housing Updates

One of the cornerstones of university life, student housing remains a vital component of the campus experience.  Whether the goal is to refresh dated interiors, provide new amenities, enhance the student living experience or upgrade building operations, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

The key to success is a feasibility study to evaluate existing building conditions in the context of project goals and objectives. Realistically assessing building potential is essential to clearly understanding what can be achieved, likely challenges, work timeframes and associated costs.

Our team collaborates with your staff to develop strategies that align available funding with desired outcomes, stakeholder engagement and the potential for summer construction periods.  This applies to significant building reconfiguration, small-scale and deferred maintenance projects, as well as building integrity-focused projects such as building envelope details, roof repairs and window replacement.

Considering Campus Housing Updates?

Learn more about the benefits and opportunities available through on-campus housing renovations by downloading What is Old is New Again:  Resetting the Clock on Residence Halls.  

Carson Parr, AIA, LEED BD+C, WELL-AP, is a Partner at RLPS Architects.  He leads the firm’s higher education practice, helping clients with campus programming and planning, project design and construction. An NCARB registered architect, Carson, holds a Master of Architecture, Community and Urban Design, from Pennsylvania State University.  He serves as a student mentor and is a board member and past president of AIA Central Pennsylvania.