Is the Pandemic Changing Student Housing Design?

Panelists at NMHC’s virtual conference discussed how the sector is adapting to COVID-19-induced requirements and offered insights into the related acceleration of design trends.
(Clockwise from top left) Walter Hughes, John Abisch, Kristen Penrod, David Senden and Brett Rhode
(Clockwise from top left) Walter Hughes, John Abisch, Kristen Penrod, David Senden and Brett Rhode

In these times of uncertainty, there are a lot of questions and only a few answers. While student housing owners and operators are updating their leasing and marketing strategies to keep attracting prospects—despite universities instituting different forms of physical distancing—developers and architects are also revising their properties’ and projects’ layouts.


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How exactly will the pandemic impact student housing architecture and design? Will this temporary issue create a permanent solution? Experts attending the National Multifamily Housing Council and InterFace Student Housing conference answered these questions and others in a panel moderated by Kristen Penrod, principal at Parallel.

On- and off-campus differences

Just like speakers at yesterday’s leasing panel, David Senden, principal at KTGY Architecture + Planning, noted that changes—if they were to be made—vary across the country, depending on how serious the COVID-19 situation is in each market. Additionally, he pointed out that there were different approaches toward on- and off-campus housing. “On campus, there is a general freak out about this.” Senden believes that some educational institutions have overreacted to the health crisis and “some amount of flexibility,” is needed.

Today, accommodating only one student per bedroom is a common solution to avoid infections and abide by social distancing policies. However, not long ago, developers started building more double and triple bedrooms so that “we can put it at a price point that students can afford,” Senden commented.

With so much uncertainty today, flexibility is key. Those developing off-campus student housing communities have made some changes, but they haven’t committed to anything long term. The changes mostly refer to creating more study areas where students can practice social distancing.

“We’ve been asked to put small kitchens into those one-bedroom dorms, so they don’t share that big amenity space in the ground floor,” Humphreys & Partners Architects CIO Walter Hughes said. “We are trying to figure out how to create a more flexible unit layout to provide a better option for a live-work or live-study scenario,” John Abisch, principal at BSB Design Inc., mentioned.

Rhode Partners Director Brett Rhode said that some developers are thinking of turning current six-bedroom projects into five-bedroom communities with extra space for Zoom rooms—as students will be attending less in-person classes—or dressing rooms which could easily be converted back to a bedroom once the outbreak subsides. ”Trying to figure out how we’re going to leverage, how to reuse, how to reconfigure,” he noted.

Growing interest in sustainability

One design trend that the pandemic has accelerated is sustainability, which means including more natural light across projects, UV lighting that kills bacteria and anti-microbial products. Developers are even looking at LEED or WELL standards that focus on indoor air quality and green materials, Rhode said. “Everything seems to be moving in that direction, students are requiring us to do more green and sustainable features (…) but when you add those standards to the highly amenitized properties, how much will it cost?” Hughes asked.

As for COVID-19’s long-term impact, all speakers mentioned that technology is here to stay as students will most likely be required to attend some classes online, even two or three years from now. “It’s a little bit hard because you’re sort of analyzing your game while you are still playing it,” Senden pointed out. ”We need to see where people’s minds start to settle on after we’ve passed through this,” he concluded.