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Post-Pandemic Student Housing Design Strategies

June 11, 2020 | By Jeremy White

Avoiding the Anti-Amenity

For years, purpose-built student housing design has trended toward quality and quantity for the resident amenities being offered. Ranging from open soft seating/lounge areas with coffee bars for socializing and relaxing to state-of-the-art fitness facilities and high-tech study spaces…all geared toward one thing: Community. Most if not all developers will agree that the wow factor associated with a pimped-out amenity is the single most important element in attracting future tenants to choose their location over the competition.

Still, despite the “need” for the over-the-top amenity, these same developers will confess that the majority of the amenity space is really an elaborate and expensive sales gimmick that takes away from the ROI (Return on Investment). Visit any purpose-built student housing project more than a couple years old, and you’ll see why…vacant lounges…empty café areas…no one in the pool! It’s as if the “cool factor” wore off before the ink dried on their lease agreements.


Fast-forward to present day circumstances that are driven not by what is all about community, but about what is safe. Now in the coronavirus era, these large amenity spaces aren’t just underutilized because they are “so last season”. Residents are side-stepping these gathering spaces at all costs and making every effort to maintain social distancing. These spaces are now evolving into more of an “anti-amenity”… a place to avoid instead of enjoy. Suddenly, the over-the-top, must-have attraction that developers were forced to pencil in is now a mandated topic of discussion for all student deals moving forward. Are large, open, community-based amenity spaces still “needed”, or are they on the verge of extinction?

Ahhh…the game is afoot! This is the perfect opportunity for student housing developers to do some honest soul-searching on the value of these large community areas. More so, this is the time that we as designers can sharpen our pencils to proactively seek out solutions that are still highly relevant and desirable while also addressing the health of the residents. This is not a compromise…this is not a setback…THIS IS OUR OPPORTUNITY!

[Don’t] Insert 8,000 s.f. Clubhouse Here [     ]

Tomorrow’s student housing projects cannot simply check the box by including the same grandiose and sprawling amenities package; otherwise, we have learned nothing from this crisis. Humans have become acutely aware of their proximity to others and its direct impact on everyone’s health. In order for the amenity spaces to remain relevant, we must consider the user, the use and the psychology of how we interact in that space post-pandemic.

Opportunity #1

Break down the larger spaces into multiple, smaller, more private spaces…dispersed throughout the design instead of one central location. In doing so, the residents not only have a greater variety of spaces to use, they also are circulating to and from amenities without parading through the entire complex or past a hundred of their peers. 

The New Courtyard(s). Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Opportunity #2

Take a close look at those expansive courtyards with pools, decks and lots of lounge areas. Shared seating and community-owned outdoor games can expose hundreds of residents to the same surfaces, inviting unnecessary risk. Since these sorts of assembly areas are designed based on occupant load as mandated by local code, we have historically targeted a square footage range based on market research. We then design a space that can accommodate our resident mix by maximizing the occupant load.

For tomorrow’s student housing, how about instead of trying to maximize the number of people our courtyards can hold with one large outdoor space, we strategically create zones both horizontally and vertically to provide the social distancing required without creating quarantine spaces. Also, what if we provide pocket parks for smaller passive gatherings accessed from different parts of the building?

By reducing the total space and limiting access points, we’ve suddenly turned an anti-amenity into something a little more palatable. Not only will the resulting courtyards provide a more intimate, comfortable setting; they also naturally limit the number of residents who use them at any given time.

Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

Opportunity #3

Consider study spaces. In order for students to see the amenity as a benefit instead of a risk, student housing will still need to include study cubicles and private meeting rooms. Just be sure the design includes the kind of protection and separation tomorrow’s residents – and their parents – may be expecting.

What Students (i.e., Parents) Want

Complete transparency, the majority of purpose-built student housing is designed with the students’ “wish list” coming in a distant second to that of the parents’ “need list”. Yes, we are designing for the end-user, but we are making sure what the parents see on the leasing tour is what the parents like because it is the parents’ money that will foot the bill. Kids don’t have money, silly!

Knowing this, I can say that the safety and security of their kids has and will always be a concern, now more than ever with the added health concerns. Our designs must continue to make way for innovative technology and precautions previously seen as luxury. We must stop…assess…ask questions…think…create….design to accommodate post-pandemic resident (and parent) expectations.

Let’s push the trend of student housing amenities to lead the industry in how we avoid the “anti-amenity” and strive toward the “wow factor” in quality and quantity.

NEXT TIME...

I’ll continue this discussion with a look at unit design. The gap between what students think they want and what they actually use is astonishingly wide. I’ll share my thoughts on what should stay and what should go.

Questions or comments about the future of student housing? Feel free to email me to start a conversation!


This article was originally posted on LinkedIn. View that version here.