Design Considerations for Student Housing

To create a successful design for higher education student housing spaces, our Higher Education studio has identified the items that need to be addressed.

When our team is approached by a higher education client to design new student housing, there are a number of questions that we need to have answered throughout the design process in order to create a successful design. We’ve identified the items that need to be addressed as project goals, unit design, construction type, building envelope systems, types of MEP systems, maintenance considerations, construction schedule, and incorporation of important trends.

Project Goals

Understanding the philosophy of a school’s housing strategy and the role student engagement plays in that strategy influences how our team approaches a design – does the space need a community room? Does the space need study areas? The next step is to review the project’s budget to determine what materials are used, and the overall scope of the project, to ensure that we’re creating a quality design within the boundaries of the client’s budget. We also consider the revenue the building will generate based on student room rates and the finance structure for the project – will the building pay for itself in 15 years, 20 years as a result of these variables? We want to help our clients know what they can afford to spend on a project based on their goals.

Unit Design

This also impacts a project’s budget. For example, an apartment style building will take between 400-500 sf per student. The square footage has a direct impact on the cost per bed/cost of the project. There are 5 basic models of unit design, listed here in order of square foot per bed rules of thumb – traditional “dorm,” pod, suite, single bed/single bath, and apartment. The decision about unit design might have as much impact as doubling the cost per bed.

Construction Type

The selection of construction type will have an impact on not only the budget but also the maintenance schedule and long-term sustainability of the building. Choices may be based on campus standards or goals for maintenance budgets, code requirements, or strictly on the budget goals for the project, or some combination of those three. Options here, listed in order of least costly to most costly, range from wood frame to load-bearing metal stud to structural steel frame to load-bearing masonry and concrete structures.

Building Envelope Systems

A building’s envelope is the exterior walls, windows, and roof – everything that protects it from the elements. Options here are often driven by standards – is the campus filled with limestone or brick or siding? Or more of a contemporary look, like glass or metal? This influences the selection of materials, but often must be weighed against the project’s budget. Many times, a combination of materials helps to balance a budget while sticking with campus standards.

MEP Systems

Decisions involving MEP typically revolve around campus standards. Does the campus have a central plant for heating and cooling, or does each building stand alone? What are the requirements for tying the building into the campus central controls? Do we need to consider sustainability? These answers will determine what MEP systems are best suited for a project.

Maintenance Considerations

When choosing construction type, materials, MEP systems, and finishes, the long-term maintenance plan needs to be considered as it will influence the ongoing budget of the campus. For example, selecting brick for a building’s exterior is a long-term, low maintenance material that will withstand decades and require very little maintenance.

Construction Schedule

All the decisions that I’ve addressed so far will impact the construction schedule. If the goal is to have the new housing open within a specific timeframe, which is typically the case, it will influence many of the decisions that have been outlined so far.


In the boom of student housing that we’ve seen over the past two decades, there have been many trends that have come and gone. First, students want the fastest internet available to them because technology drives a campus. Obvious things, but important to students, are carpet, locally controlled AC, and storage space. Proximity to amenities spaces like study spaces, fitness centers, laundry rooms, and community kitchens, will always be trending. Things that seem to have gone away in popularity are game rooms, large open lounges, and in many cases, individual bathrooms because of their detraction from building community. Shared spaces encourage community building and help reinforce responsibility.


Student housing design must respond to an important and ever-evolving list of criteria. It’s critical that your design team asks the kind of questions that deliver a project that is successful in all aspects—aesthetically, functionally, and socially.

Kevin Scully, AIA, NCARB
Principal, Architect