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Rethinking Student Housing Design in Response to COVID-19

YOUnion @ Ann Arbor

YOUnion @ Ann Arbor was designed by BKV Group to offer amenity spaces throughout the building where students can focus on academics while feeling connected to the greater community. (Image courtesy of ©Invision Studio)

When the world shut down over a year ago, architects, designers and developers took a collective pause to assess what needed to change in the built environment. A particularly scrutinous eye was paid to off-campus student housing, a sector whose successful model was based on bringing students together, not keeping them a safe distance apart.

Some sweeping changes were recommended at the onset — many operational in nature, based on the latest guidance from health officials. As courses moved online and on-campus residence halls closed, off-campus communities emerged as a safe haven for students who did not want to — or were unable to — return home.

The resilience of the sector, as evidenced last fall by pre-leasing rates and rents that were only slightly below 2019 levels, suggested the temporary tweaks made out of necessity in 2020 worked. The real question was whether those modifications would carry through to newly developed and renovated communities post-pandemic, and if so, what form they might take.

Our firm took the time to reflect on how design must evolve to meet the changing needs and expectations of students, parents, operators and developers — all of which have different priorities. At the top of the list for students and parents are health, wellness and safety, as well as an environment that promotes academic success.

For developers, cost and speed to market are key considerations, particularly after a year of disruptions and headwinds. While these factors were always top of mind, the pandemic has underscored the necessity for all and accelerated the demand for each. 

When envisioning the future of student living design, we propose several ways to meet these goals that respond to — but are not solely driven by —  COVID-19.

Make Room for Modular Design

Modular design will undoubtedly become more mainstream for student housing projects in the post-pandemic world. While upfront material costs may be similar to stick-built construction, modular can result in significant time savings, allowing developers to catch up on projects that might have been delayed and deliver new projects faster. This is especially beneficial in markets with high labor costs.

Modular design also emphasizes sustainability, which remains a key priority for both developers and residents alike — especially younger generations that have become advocates for the cause. Myriad studies indicate that construction and the ongoing operation of buildings are significant contributors to climate change, with some research noting that together they account for 33 percent of global energy consumption and 39 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

It is our responsibility as architects to improve these statistics and modular construction is a step in the right direction. Using light steel framing and modular construction can reduce the embodied carbon in a building by up to 20 percent and also yields less material waste. 

While we think this approach will become more mainstream, pre-fab modular is still in its infancy. We have proposed plans for two- and four-bedroom units that meet the many demands of an optimal student living residence. For developers not ready to commit to a fully modular unit, we are exploring various components, such as bathrooms and wall panels that can be incorporated into units built on-site. 

“Air” on the Side of Caution

Even as the pandemic subsides, air quality and access to fresh air will remain a top priority in student housing. CDC guidelines, combined with feedback from building operators and managers, are helpful in determining how best to dilute, filter and sanitize air throughout a building.

For public spaces and units, a dilution strategy that includes ventilation purge cycles and CO2 sensors to monitor and manage ventilation should be implemented. HVAC systems with a filter that has a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) of 13 or higher and are in operation 24/7 are recommended. 

Thoughtful design can also improve air quality by incorporating operable windows and balconies into residences and communal spaces. We are always looking for ways to bring the outdoors in, as the health and wellness benefits of nature are infinite. Where possible, we are extending the footprint of amenity spaces outside of the building and ensuring indoor spaces have access to the outdoors. 

All About Amenities 

Flexibility will be key when we look at the future of amenity spaces. When the pandemic forced these spaces to close, we all wondered if they would ever return in their previous form. Instead of completely reimagining these spaces, we chose to incorporate temporary solutions, like plexiglass dividers in fitness centers and improved spacing in study lounges, many of which remain in place today.

As we move into the ‘new normal,’ the amenities arms race in student housing may shift — not because students will need to quarantine or social distance, but because behaviors have changed based on the shared experiences of the past year. For many, studying within their residence or building, rather than on-campus, translated to improved productivity, which they will still want coming out of the pandemic.

As designers, we want to facilitate these behaviors by creating spaces within residences and throughout the building where students can focus on academics while feeling connected to the greater community.

Though residents still value the pools and fitness centers that have become omnipresent in student living, the needle has shifted over the past year and the emphasis on academic excellence and value-driven offerings is stronger than ever. Tomorrow’s residents will place as much value on study lounges and coffee bars as they do on golf simulators and game rooms. Versatility, flexibility and practicality are universal design principles that will never go out of style.

Like every industry, student living will look different as we come out of the pandemic. But rather than rewriting the textbook on student housing design, all that may be required is a revised edition that anticipates permanent behavioral and lifestyle changes in the context of broader industry trends that were underway before COVID-19.

With an acceptance of new design solutions like modular construction, and an invigorated interest in health and wellness, student housing will continue to thrive for both those who create it and those who call it home. 

—Kelly Naylor is director of interior design and senior partner and Jonathan Delcambre is design leader and partner at BKV Group.

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