What’s Shaping Student Housing Design?

New trends include a greater focus on creating spaces that promote both physical and mental health, experts from BKV Group and MHTN Architects agree.
(From left to right) Megan Van Beck, Kelly Naylor. Images courtesy of BKV Group

The health crisis has changed how space is utilized and reshaped design standards across all asset types. Student housing design principles are now focused on creating spaces that consider both physical and mental wellbeing, all while keeping students connected.

In the interview below, BKV Group Director of Interior Design & Senior Partner Kelly Naylor and Senior Interior Designer Megan Van Beck, along with MHTN Architects President Peggy McDonough and Director of Interior Design Amy Stevenson, talk about trends and challenges that will continue to shape student housing design in the future.


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What has 2020 taught you about student housing architecture and design?

Van Beck: The entire world had to adapt in 2020, and architecture and design were no exception. Adaptability and flexibility are more important than ever as architects and designers play a key role in shaping how students utilize space, including private residences and shared common areas.

2020 has impacted everything, from the leasing and move-in experience to day-to-day living. Today, there is a much greater emphasis on space planning, cleanability and the design and function of amenity spaces, especially those that promote health and wellness.

What are the most innovative architecture and design trends you’ve seen come to the market in the past year?

(From left to right) Peggy McDonough, Amy Stevenson, MHTN Architects. Images courtesy of MHTN Architects

Stevenson: During the pandemic, we saw a plethora of manufacturers advertise innovative plexi screens and sanitation stations. As people return to work and school, we expect to see an increase in technology that continues to improve the hybrid model of collaboration, simultaneous in-person and virtual meetings.

Van Beck: While we typically think of innovation as extreme technological advances or new state-of-the-art building materials, we believe the focus on mental health was one of the most important trends of 2020. And it’s one that’s overdue and born out of necessity. Today’s student housing communities must be designed to promote wellness physically, socially, emotionally, spiritually and environmentally.

What are some of the health and wellness features student housing communities shouldn’t lack in 2021 and beyond?

Naylor: Health and wellness trends focus on mind, body and spirit, with a much greater focus on overall mental health. Health programming may include mindfulness programs that focus on meditation, quality of sleep and nutrition—and our job is to create spaces that foster these healthy habits.

As we focus on wellness, we look to provide a strong connection to nature, amenities including study lounges and fitness centers are being designed in a way that brings the outdoors in, whether it be through large windows or operable walls that can be opened in warmer months.

Spaces that feed the spirit, such as maker spaces and performance rooms, are also on the rise, allowing students to release stress and hone their creative skills while connecting with peers who share similar interests.

Student Housing Lobby. Image courtesy of BKV Group

Stevenson: We must go beyond preventing harm from buildings—for example, red list-free building materials—to looking at how buildings can improve the health and wellness of occupants.

Research has shown that as wellbeing is increased, building occupants are more engaged, innovation and productivity increase, and health-care costs decrease. Also, it’s long been shown that engaged students have higher GPAs and graduation rates, outcomes that student housing programs aim to achieve.

How is it possible to design spaces that allow social distancing, yet provide a sense of community?

Stevenson: When student housing facilities are designed with rooms or apartments separated into clusters or communities, that adds a layer of security, connection and now infection control as well. Ideally, these communities are secure and separate from each other, with a physical barrier or door between them. The density of seating in lounge spaces will most likely decrease as we ease into post-pandemic normalcy. We will also see an increase in more private lounge seating—think wing-back or cocoon-type chairs—and mobile, flexible screens that can divide space.

Van Beck: Most students still want that traditional college experience. This means that we need to retain those social amenities, but we also need to rethink how they might function. There are simple changes we have made, like more spacious seating arrangements to allow for social distancing. We also find that providing flexible spaces that can easily transition from study to social space helps to keep amenity square footages from ballooning.

Student Housing Clubroom. Image courtesy of BKV Group

Tell us about a recent student housing project that you worked on. What are some unique design features you have implemented?

Van Beck: We have been working on a student housing renovation project in Orlando, Fla., over the past four years. It’s a phased project, and so it has been interesting to see how phase two compares to phase one given all that has happened in the past year. An added challenge is that we want the entire project to feel cohesive and aesthetically tied.

Fortunately, our original vision drew from the vibrant and lush locale. Florida’s tropical climate inspired a colorful and greenery-filled interior palette—biophilic design is almost assumed for any project in this region.

The connection to the five interior courtyards and four outdoor pools became even more important as we aimed to maximize the exterior amenity space. The elements of biophilic design are truly the most timeless features one can include in a space. What makes them unique is how they’re implemented, and we had a playful approach to our biophilic elements as we incorporated funky artwork into our greenery. 

McDonough: Kahlert Village in Salt Lake City, a new housing facility that was completed last summer during the pandemic, has a total of 992 beds in 344,514 gross square feet. The project includes housing communities of 36 and 40 students, group sizes recognized to provide a supportive environment to new students beginning their college experience. The ground floor features a 650-seat dining facility, welcome to all members of the university community, as well as 31,000 square feet of common area.

The color and finishes in the lounges and common spaces were selected to help foster a sense of community in addition to providing wayfinding in the five-story, three-wing building. 

Kahlert Village, MHTN Architects. Image courtesy of Scot Zimmerman Photography

Creating a variety of spaces for student use was key: space to socialize, space to work/study and space to rest. This was especially true in the dining facility, as a variety of dining and social settings allows students to choose the space that works best for them that day, along with a variety of food options. During the pandemic, seating was limited, but the dining program initiated an online ordering and pick-up system that allowed them to continue to serve the building occupants and campus community.

The building also houses an Inter-professional Education Room, a collaborative discussion and review space, a meditation room, providing a space for quiet functions such as yoga, prayer and mindfulness training, and two music rooms for practice and/or performance.

What major trends do you expect to continue shaping student housing architecture and design going forward?

Van Beck: Much like the global shift toward sustainability in architecture, the shift to design buildings for the health and wellbeing of occupants is certainly not a trend, but a design philosophy that’s essential and here to stay.

Student housing is intended to keep students safe, connected, engaged and inspired. These descriptors are certainly not new, but 2020 has challenged our industry to design with greater intention. Safe and connected became a new design challenge.

Kahlert Village, MHTN Architects. Image courtesy of Martin Van Hemert Photography

The virtual experience continues to evolve—students can now sign a lease without physically touring a space, they can attend class without stepping foot in a classroom, and they can participate in a group workout without heading to the gym.

However, students still yearn for that in-person social interaction and it’s our responsibility as designers to provide spaces in which they can do this safely. Maximizing outdoor space has become vital, and indoor/outdoor connectivity is on every developer’s must-have list. 

McDonough: Schools will continue to integrate academic and inclusive student life programming into residential environments. To inclusively recruit top students, schools are increasingly investing in living environments that develop and reinforce unique campus cultures and academic programs, while remaining competitive with higher-priced private market apartments.

Additionally, schools will prioritize sustainable technologies. Faculty and students alike continue to want to make a lighter global footprint and to be part of a proactive economic model that’s healthier for the environment.