Innovations in Student Housing

Rising construction costs, rapidly rising tuitions, density requirements and the need for sustainable communities are driving an array of creative innovations in student housing.
The shipping container trend is expected to soon hit ground in the U.S. It has already played a big role on several college campuses in various European countries and Israel. Pictured is a student housing apartment building in Le Havre France.
Among the latest innovations in student housing, the shipping container trend is one that has not yet taken off in the U.S.  But it has already played a big role on several college campuses in various European countries and Israel. Pictured is a student housing apartment building in Le Havre France.

Daniel Kroft’s family has been in the shipping container business in Toronto for nearly 70 years. Until the early 2000s, Giant’s Containers’ main focus was manufacturing and selling containers for logistics users.  Then Kroft’s father began purchasing containers to rent out for storage space. Kroft joined the business and eventually the company began selling containers to real estate developers, who have used Giant’s containers for affordable housing, single-family homes and retail applications. In the company’s next iteration, Kroft hopes to join those who are forging new innovations in student housing.

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“If you look at the U.S. and North America, there are a ton of container projects but nothing on a large scale that addresses student housing,” said Kroft.

Kroft said college student housing developers are constantly reaching out to Giant to ask about the shipping containers. And he already has a design in hand.

At the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Mackey Mitchell is collaborating with two other architecture firms on a 700-bed residence hall that will be the first student housing project of its size in the U.S. to use mass timber technology as a primary structural element.
At the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Mackey Mitchell is collaborating with two other architecture firms on a 700-bed residence hall that will be the first student housing project of its size in the U.S. to use mass timber technology as a primary structural element. Image courtesy of Mackey Mitchell

Shipping containers are just one of the student housing trends emerging to address high construction costs, lack of land, the rapidly rising price of a college education, and environmental concerns. The construction technique has already played a big role on several college campuses in Europe and Israel.

KTGY is currently working on five shipping container housing projects in the Los Angeles area that will serve as future housing for the homeless, and student housing is a strong contender for the next consumer market segment, said Principal David Senden. 

In addition to being more sustainable, Mackey Mitchell’s Kyle Wagner said studies have shown that building with wood makes people feel healthier, reduces stress and improves productivity. And from a development standpoint, structures are completed faster, since the materials are often manufactured offsite.
In addition to being more sustainable, Mackey Mitchell’s Kyle Wagner said studies have shown that building with wood makes people feel healthier, reduces stress and improves productivity. And from a development standpoint, structures are completed faster, since the materials are often manufactured offsite. Image courtesy of Mackey Mitchell

“Because student housing is so repetitive, and units are so standardized, it does make a lot of sense,” Senden said, adding that they are still somewhat in the “beta” phase of using the materials. “The designer in me cringes a little bit, treating housing like a commodity, but I think it’s definitely the right time for that kind of thinking.”

Thinking Small

Another bold idea designed to address rising costs for developers, institutions and students is microunits. In 2016, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, created a “Nano Studio” unit that includes a kitchen, bathroom and a combination sleep/study space—all in just 140 square feet.

How do they do it? One of easiest areas to cut is the kitchen, which is also typically one of the priciest parts of a unit to build. It can save big money, while still offering everything a resident would need. The traditional four-burner stove is reduced to just two burners. The hulking oversized refrigerator is downsized to a smaller minifridge in both common areas and individual bedrooms.

In 2016, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, created a “Nano Studio” unit that includes a kitchen, bathroom and a combination sleep/study space—all in just 140 square feet. Microunits could be the solution to rising land values and construction costs. Images courtesy of Picture + Color Media
In 2016, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, created a “Nano Studio” unit that includes a kitchen, bathroom and a combination sleep/study space—all in just 140 square feet. Microunits could be the solution to rising land values and construction costs. Image courtesy of Picture + Color Media

“The evolution we’re going through this time is interesting because it’s focused on the Millennial generation that is now also in graduate school and is really building to their co-living needs,” said Jamie Swick, an executive managing director at Colliers International.

While their designs may not go so far as to qualify as micro units, most designers and developers and are reconfiguring layouts to increase density and lower unit prices. Instead of every student having their own bedroom and bathroom, builders are shrinking bedroom sizes and even mixing different price points within single apartments. Besides the practical reasons for fitting more housing in less space, the growing student debt burden is mobilizing this trend.

“I think finally, after so many years, student debt has finally reached a point where people are talking about it,” Senden said. “Everyone’s trying to find a way to make housing affordable to students. And students are demanding it.”

“Nano Studio”, created by University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Image courtesy of Picture + Color Media
“Nano Studio”, created by University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Image courtesy of Picture + Color Media

The downsizing trend also applies to amenities. Developers are eliminating the extravagant pools and outdoor areas and emphasizing study spaces instead. Spaces used exclusively for entertainment are being designed as flex spaces instead—to support both work and play. Rooms with study carrells, quasi-library spaces or outdoor areas with a strong wi-fi connection (of course) are in demand.

“Wi-Fi is a little like water these days: It’s a utility, and if it’s not there, it would be a catastrophe,” Senden noted.

Making It Sustainable

Many of innovations in student housing today are a response to students’ strong desire for sustainability, a feature that is becoming as essential as Wi-Fi.

“My daughter is in college and they are really invested,” said Lisa Hale-Meindl, a senior director of real estate operations at Greystar. “I think there’d be an appeal to move into a facility that’s energy-efficient or built with sustainable materials.”

Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University (left) and Tooker House at Arizona State University. (right). Jason Wills, chief marketing officer at American Campus Communities, said many students today consider recycling, composting and reducing one’s carbon footprint as activities that are just part of daily life. Images courtesy of American Campus Communities
Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University (left) and Tooker House at Arizona State University. (right). Jason Wills, chief marketing officer at American Campus Communities, said many students today consider recycling, composting and reducing one’s carbon footprint as activities that are just part of daily life. Images courtesy of American Campus Communities

While helping the environment, sustainability also cuts down on operation costs. Jason Wills, chief marketing officer at American Campus Communities, said many students today consider recycling, composting and reducing one’s carbon footprint as activities that are just part of daily life.

“Right now, we’re taking an influencer’s approach to sustainability—visibility, education and influencing future behavior,” said Wills. “Everything we’re doing in communities is accommodating or making sustainability a behavioral norm.”

Kyle Wagner, a principal at architecture firm Mackey Mitchell, said his firm building on the idea of sustainable student housing.

David Blackwell Hall at University of California, Berkeley. Image courtesy of American Campus Communities
David Blackwell Hall at University of California, Berkeley. Image courtesy of American Campus Communities

Mackey Mitchell is collaborating with two other architecture firms on a 700-bed residence hall at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark. The college dorm is the first student housing project of its size in the U.S. to use mass timber technology as a primary structural element.

In addition to being more sustainable, Wagner said studies have shown that building with wood makes people feel healthier, reduces stress and improves productivity. And from a development standpoint, structures are completed faster, since the materials are often manufactured offsite.

“I think there’s a lot of win-win using this technology, which is something we’re excited about and we see it becoming more popular in the future,” said Wagner.

Read the May 2019 issue of MHN.