Dorms Designed to Lure Students
Colleges compete for students by constructing more functional, home-like housing units. CHANGING EDUCATION
BOSTON — NO more shadowy halls with door after anonymous door. No more sardine-can rooms with extension cords draping from every outlet. No more paper-thin walls and tacky lounge furniture.Dormitories of today are having to respond to students wishes as the college applicant pool shrinks and universities across the United States use every card in their decks to attract top students to their schools. "Student housing is more amenable today than in the past, which was more prison-like than residential," says Greg Strickler, director of design and construction at MPC and Associates Inc., in Washington, D.C., a development consultation firm for universities across the country. "Students are becoming wise consumers. They want more bang for the buck." Samantha Farber, a student at New York University, agrees. Making a dorm more like home "is really important, especially when room and board is so expensive now," she says. "Universities are using housing to set them apart," says Earl Flansburgh, president of Earl Flansburgh and Associates Inc., a Boston architectural firm that has designed more than 200 educational facilities and won the 1990 Walter Taylor Award for the best US educational building of that year. Roy Viklund, a principal in the Watertown, Mass., office of Sasaki Associates Inc., says the architectural firm designed the dorms at Boston College as apartments with the latest ammenities because the school was looking for an edge. Voute Hall stacks four-person apartments, eight on each of four floors, with townhouses on the top two floors. Scattered throughout the building are study rooms, TV lounges, music rooms, storage rooms, laundries, even its own library and exercise room, complete with rowing machines, standing cycles, and stair climbers. Boston College students choose their residence halls and roommates and then are assigned housing through a lottery of computer-generated, random numbers, weighted to give seniors the advantage. This dorm is in high demand, says Bob Capalbo, director of housing at Boston College. Mr. Viklund says waiting lists and lotteries often go hand-in-hand with new dorms; it is one way architects and administrators measure the success of a dorm. Living in Voute Hall can cost up to $250 more per semester than it costs to live in other dorms on campus, but Mr. Capalbo says price does not seem to keep students from applying. The University of New Hampshire's student apartment complex, which features steeply sloped, gabled roofs, has its own parking lot and food store with shelves lined with Lean Cuisine frozen dinners and Ben and Jerry's ice cream, and is designed to replicate apartment life more than traditional dorm life. Another factor in today's dormitory design trends is the soaring rental market. "Students were taking sleazier and sleazier accommodations," says Charles Oakley, campus architect for the University of California, Los Angeles. UCLA's first response, in the '70s, was to build high-rises, eight to 10 stories with gang bathrooms at the end of the hall. That did not solve the problem. "There were vacancies, suggesting students would almost live anywhere except there," he says. This fall UCLA students will move into a new complex of residence halls that are dramatically different from the institutional, egg-carton dormitories of the past. "Families" of 50 will nestle around a stairwell and living room in a series of two double rooms, linked by a bathroom. The wood-frame, stucco-style "houses" use natural light and interior design to make them more like home. There are some short corridors but nothing like the dark tunnels of the past. This intimate atmosphere is repeated in eight more dorms around a courtyard. Three courtyards pull together 12,000 students in the area, balancing students' wishes to meet many, yet know a few well. "The innovations are less in the technical [area] than they are in the sociological," Mr. Oakley says of the UCLA dorms. But the technical is reflected in design trends as well. With personal computers in almost every room, architects now include cables that connect individual terminals to a campus mainframe computer. Mr. Flansburgh's designs include circuit breakers for each suite to isolate a blackout, safeguarding students in other parts of the building from losing everything they have not saved on their ever-active computers. Even the desks purchased by Tufts University in Medford, Mass., have changed. The school now buys bigger desks (42 instead of 36 inches wide) to accommodate computers. Computers and other appliances popular with students have caused architects to increase the number of electrical outlets in each room. It is not uncommon for a dorm room to house a refrigerator, toaster oven, microwave, radio-alarm clocks, lamps, two computers, two printers, a stereo, a TV, and a VCR, not to mention hair dryers, popcorn poppers, and coffee makers. Mr. Viklund says his firm designs shelves built into the outside wall, encouraging students to put their stereos where they are least disruptive to other students. Thick concrete is poured between the walls, creating a sound-absorbing barrier. New energy-efficient technology is increasing the size of the average dorm-room window, says John Darcey, director of housing at Tufts. In trying to target what will attract students to dorms, designers are asking them what they want - something unheard of in the past. Mr. Strickler says the first thing MPC and Associates does after collecting school-supplied demographic and geographic information about students is talk to them. Using focus groups, surveys, and interviews, the firm will project the costs for single rooms versus double rooms to gauge student willingness to pay for privacy. Without that information, Strickler says, "It's really just a crapshoot as to whether the project will be ultimately successful." Finally, MPC and Associates follows up, tracking stud ent opinion in the first year, and again three to five years later to determine if the building is standing the test of time and whether the design can be improved. The most recent dorm constructed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was a product of student input, says Gordon Rutherford, director of facilities planning at UNC-CH. "Discussion is something new. I doubt there was any discussion of the high-rises," he says of dorms completed in 1968. Students serving on a special design committee said they liked the security of suites, but wanted to meet students in other suites easily. The compromise was a building with six eight-person suites, which sh are an interior hall, a TV lounge, and a kitchen. Bill Blackmon, a student at Duke University in Durham, N.C., unknowingly seconded many architects' conclusions when he incorporated the new trends, such as suites, more natural light, a quieter atmosphere and personal computer considerations in a dorm he designed for an architectual engineering class. He said he designed suites because "It's easier to get to know a small group of people first and then grow." Another reason for suites, Blackmon says, is that when students sign up for dorms, eight friends could choose to live together. But architects and university administrators acknowledge that no dorm, no matter how well researched or state-of-the-art will satisfy all of its residents. They have found that it is important to allow students to choose housing they will be happiest with: suites, corridor-style dorms, or student apartments In the words of George Ostergren, system vice president for auxilary service at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.: "More options is the name of the game."