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October 26, 2023

Finding the balance in housing density and student well-being

  • Evidence-based design strategies like access to natural light, exposure to nature, and increased social connections counteract negative impacts that can be associated with high-density living.




    College and university enrollment figures are skyrocketing nationwide, prompting administrators to find creative approaches to housing students, especially in markets like Seattle where rental rates are also climbing. Student housing administrators are employing temporary strategies such as tapping into the local hospitality industry, and putting three students in rooms designed for two.

    To meet the growing need for student housing, more new construction of student residence facilities is underway at colleges and universities around the country. Financial success in student housing projects is often measured by spatial efficiency, or reducing the amount of square footage per bed.

    At HKS, we believe student housing can deliver more than a bed count. By balancing efficiency with concern for student welfare in the design of residence halls, we believe we can enhance students’ health and well-being.

    Evidence-based approach to value and quality

    Photo by Tom Harris [enlarge]
    Exposure to natural light aims to reduce perceptions of crowding at the HKS-designed North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood at UC San Diego.

    Density and crowding within the context of housing are related issues that can affect student health and well-being. Density is an objective measure of how many people occupy a space. Crowding is a subjective perception of too many people within a space.

    Crowding in housing has been shown to have negative impacts on mental health, physical health and social interactions. Design strategies — specifically those that promote health and well-being — can counteract negative impacts that can be associated with high-density living. To provide high-density student housing facilities that don’t sacrifice quality, HKS uses an evidence-based approach to designing student housing.

    To maximize spatial efficiency in student housing, HKS’ general rule of thumb is to provide approximately 100 square feet per student within each unit, or primary sleeping space. Student housing units often provide options for occupancy, from single rooms to suites.

    Student housing spatial efficiency is associated with two factors: the square footage dedicated to each student within a private or shared dwelling unit, and the gross square footage of the overall housing facility. Restrooms, gathering spaces and various shared amenities such as laundry, kitchens or game rooms are critical to the spatial efficiency calculation. These support spaces serve a large population in a relatively small footprint, providing greater value to residents than off-campus housing.

    Natural light and connection to nature

    Image courtesy of HKS [enlarge]
    Blanco Hall at the University of Texas at San Antonio is arranged with open wings and a courtyard to increase natural light. Centralized shared amenity spaces further enhance access to daylight.

    Access to natural light and the natural world is important to health and well-being. Studies have shown that exposure to natural daylight affects sleep quality, sleep duration and mental health. Further research demonstrates that in addition to helping regulate sleep patterns and other body processes, natural light reduces perceptions of crowding.

    Beyond providing natural light, windows also allow views of natural settings. Expansive views can offset the negative impacts of crowding. Visual and physical access to nature is important to the design of healthy student housing facilities.

    HKS is using multiple strategies to supply abundant daylight and views to nature for interior rooms at Blanco Hall, a student housing space currently in design for the University of Texas at San Antonio. The form of the building is porous, arranging the structure to open the ends of the wings and the courtyard to natural light. Centralized shared amenity spaces further enhance access to daylight in the Blanco Hall design.

    Similar design strategies could be used on Seattle campuses to maximize students’ exposure to natural light during the region’s rainy weather.

    Privacy and personalization

    Photo by Tom Harris [enlarge]
    Connections to nature support student health and well-being at the HKS-designed North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood at UC San Diego.

    Privacy and personal space are additional considerations for student health and well-being. Nooks located off corridors, full-height partitions in all-gender restrooms and staggered bed layouts within rooms can provide privacy in a communal living environment. Well-placed furniture systems can partition spaces for privacy and personal storage. Physical barriers at the head of the bed can prevent personal lighting from disrupting roommates’ sleep. According to research, features that support students’ ability to regulate privacy can increase students’ autonomy, positive emotions and sense of self.

    Opportunities for personalization give students agency within their living arrangements. Studies show that positive social interactions happen when students feel that they “own” their sleeping space. HKS-designed Shasta Hall at University of California, Davis incorporates surfaces at each sleeping space that students can personalize within their shared rooms.

    To enhance personalization and privacy, this residence hall is comprised of mini-suites with private bathrooms shared only by suitemates. When all rooms are tripled the mini-suite configuration at Shasta Hall adds only four square-feet per bed when compared to a similar residence hall on campus that has communal cluster style bathrooms located off the corridors.

    Scaled for belonging

    Students often find the transition to campus life jarring. Student housing designs based on “nested scales” can help students feel comfortable progressively moving from smaller personal interactions at the individual room, suite and residence facility level to broader interactions at the classroom and campus community scale.

    Designing for nested scales provides students with micro to macro social connections within their campus community. This design also avoids long corridors, which can exacerbate perceptions of crowding.

    North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood (NTPLLN) is an on-campus community that can house up to 2,000 students at UC San Diego. HKS’ design for NTPLLN subdivides the residence facilities into 2-story “houses” that provide nested scales of social interaction. The NTPLLN houses are composed of shared rooms, suites or apartments that share a living room on two levels, to facilitate social connections and engender feelings of belonging.

    A longitudinal study conducted by a coalition organized by the Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation showed that the move to NTPLLN resulted in a reduction in student self-reported depression and an increase in satisfaction with overall residential spaces, among other positive impacts on student health and well-being.

    Here in Seattle, the lines between academia and industry are blurring, making novel approaches to housing students and the workforce paramount. Synergies between Seattle-area flagship academic institutions and global tech companies will have a ripple effect on the local housing market. By centering the student experience and making evidence-based design decisions, we can provide more housing while enhancing well-being.

    Bryan Croeni is a principal in HKS’s Seattle office, working in the advisory services group. Renae Mantooth is a senior design researcher at HKS, where she integrates research efforts within the education practice area. Agustin Mauro is a design professional at HKS, where he is involved in higher education projects.

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