Architecture & Design Trends: Modern is In

by Katie Sloan

Staying on top of design and architecture trends is challenging in any form of real estate, and doubly so in student housing where the market caters to an extremely young and constantly changing demographic. Yet there are many aspects of good design and space management that never go out of style, and even first-semester freshmen know a smartly designed building when they see it. As Generation Z continues to make its presence felt on campus and off, student housing architects and designers are having to up their game. 

“Our focus is on innovation and personalization,” says Brian O’Connor, founding partner of Cube 3, an architecture, interior design and planning firm with offices in Massachusetts and Florida. “Students are looking for more than a place to put their head, more than a building that feels like it has some amenitized functions. They’re looking for a sense of place.”

O’Connor and the other sources for this story agreed that student housing is continuing to mature, with less emphasis on plastering school colors and logos everywhere and more incorporation of elements that wouldn’t look out of place in a traditional multifamily complex. While developers and designers always keep college colors in mind — and it remains wise to avoid splashing around a rival school’s colors -— designers are being more sophisticated when it comes to interior choices.


The Deacon is a mid-rise project designed by BKV Group near the University of Cincinnati campus.

Generation Z is aware of sustainability, and many student housing properties now include sustainability green statements. For students selecting between one property or another, finding housing that aligns with their values may make the difference. Universities are often at the forefront of sustainability efforts, making housing a natural extension of the broader effort. Newer properties often feature not only efficient LED lights, but also variable refrigerant flow (VRF) air conditioning systems. 

Kelly Naylor, partner at BKV Group, says that while LEED certification is not emphasized as much as it was 10 years ago, many of its concepts are incorporated into building design, from infrastructure and mechanical systems to interior lighting choices and energy usage. Using materials with recycled content can be a smart choice as well. 

O’Connor says the sustainability question is often handled differently with on-campus properties versus off-campus. On-campus, colleges and universities often have clearly defined goals that are part of wider institutional commitments, which is less common with private developers. Usually, sustainability conversations are held at the very beginning of a new project in order to ensure everyone is on the same page. However, O’Connor feels that the differences between on- and off-campus product have shrunk considerably over the last two decades, in large part due to the increasing number of public/private partnership projects, and that students often barely notice the difference between the two. 

One trend that may be cooling both on campus or off campus is the amenity arms race of the 2010s, with more emphasis today on practical functions like study lounges. 

“One thing we’re really trying not to do is fall into the 10-year-old amenity wars kind of trap,” says O’Connor. “We don’t really like to spend time there. We like to program with our clients what the buildings should be now, and how to make them flexible in the future.”

Because students today are smart, savvy, and have seen a lot of interesting designs, developers must provide a product that relates to them and reflects who they are. At the same time, student housing is always designed with not just the student, but also the parent in mind. In both cases, that’s translating into an increased emphasis on study areas at the expense of fringe amenities. 

“Some of the trends that have been put out to pasture are the goofy swimming pools, tanning beds and amenities like that,” says Bob Keane, managing principal and director of higher education at WDG Architecture, which has offices in Dallas and Washington, D.C. “That stuff is usually included with projects that are not close to the campus core. When the real estate is tighter, the programming is usually tighter, and candidly the students tend to be a little more serious the closer they are to campus.”

Among WDG’s projects is a double tower near Georgia Tech’s urban Atlanta campus. One tower spans 30 stories and serves Tech students, while an adjacent 36-story tower is for traditional multifamily. But the look and feel of the two towers won’t necessarily be all that different from each other, as student housing properties have become more modern and sophisticated in design. 

WDG is also designing an on-campus project at the University of South Carolina called Campus Village, which has eight buildings in total and some 3,700 beds, plus a dining facility, retail space and structured parking. 

Another “amenity” which is catching on at some on-campus projects is classroom space on the first floor. 

“The emphasis is really on academics and students having a great experience both socially and academically,” says Keane.

In some cases study rooms are rising to the level of what looks and feels like a co-working space. There are quiet zones and, separately, collaborative space, with lots of USB-enabled power outlets and different places to work or study. Fitness centers and gyms are being rethought as well, often taking cues from CrossFit and other specialized gym concepts, with multiple smaller gyms, tire flips, battle ropes and climbing walls being installed.

“Students aren’t looking for a space where they’re sectioned off by themselves,” says Architect Media’s Michael Silvia. “Any way there is to collaborate and be in a shared environment, that’s where the resources are going.”

Silvia has seen the effort to connect and collaborate in real time extend even to the marketing of a project. For a development called Academy65 near Sacramento State, a food truck was deployed to various local events, serving food to students and plugging the project simultaneously. Virtual reality tours were also utilized. 

“Students don’t always want to walk into a sales office and sit down to talk to someone,” says Silvia. “Everyone is used to sending a text or interacting with some sort of bot. We’ve been doing a ton of virtual reality tours which can be done remotely.”

The actual design of Academy65 includes a good deal of color within a modern framework, with a white, gray and black exterior and splashes of color inside. 

“If you’re leaving campus and going somewhere, you will have an abundance of choices. You can certainly pick some sort of apartment that doesn’t cater to students. If you’re leaving campus you’re holding the cards,” says Silvia. “As a designer you’re basically trying to woo your audience.”

Sense of Place

The Standard at State College is a 12-story building featuring load-bearing exterior masonry walls allowing for mid-rise height without the expense of a steel frame. It will top 1,000 beds upon completion.

As land prices continue to rise, O’Connor says he’s seeing more mid-rise product which falls somewhere between eight and 14 stories. Cube 3 has two such projects underway, one at Penn State and one at Rutgers. 

“We’re seeing them as an economic response to land values,” says O’Connor. 

The Penn State project will top 1,000 beds upon completion and will be one of the larger buildings in the entire town of State College. The 12-story building, The Standard at State College, features load-bearing exterior masonry walls, which allows for mid-rise height without the expense of a steel frame. Similarly, the Rutgers project, The Residences at Easton and Hamilton, will span nine stories, with 9,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and 208 units, allowing for higher density. 

“A lot of the design challenge comes in sculpting these projects as they get taller,” says O’Connor. “We try to use innovative and interesting materials and make sure they will not only stand up but look like what they are, which is a new generation of design and development.”

Another mid-rise project, which was designed by BKV Group, is The Deacon, which touts itself as being only 200 steps from the University of Cincinnati campus. The Deacon offers a pool, six-story parking garage, 18 private study lounges, a dog park and pet spa, golf simulator and even a jam lounge and music rooms among its 17,500 square feet of amenities. 

But it’s the design, feel and function of the space that Naylor says stands out. 

“As soon as you walk in the front door you overlook the entire amenity program on the floor below and the amenity pool deck,” she says. “It really is a high-impact space you’re greeted with when you come in, and as soon as you walk in the door you’re able to take in the full amenity offerings for the building.” 

BKV made sure to emphasize sense of place with the project, in this case its physical location in the city of Cincinnati and its proximity to the college campus. The space includes neon graphic maps at the entrance, with the interior space closely integrated with the exterior amenities.

BKV also designs the renovations of existing student housing properties, a process that brings its own set of challenges. One recent renovation project was the YOUnion at Ann Arbor, serving University of Michigan students. The project involved reworking a 10-story building which had become outdated. According to Naylor, there was a lack of connectivity from the leasing office to the main lobby, and while the 10th floor fitness room offered great views, it was too small for the building it served. BKV reconfigured the main level to create greater connectivity and access for both staff and students, and made sure to incorporate lots of power and data connection points that today’s students demand. The fitness space was moved to the first floor and more than doubled in size, which also helped activate street-level frontage. The old gym space was reimagined into an expanded study area which doubles as a social and activity zone. 

“We really cleaned up the space, modernized it and made the furniture much more comfortable,” says Naylor, whose firm has offices in Minneapolis, Dallas, Chicago and Washington, D.C. “That gave students the ability to have a number of different settings they can work in.” 

Connectivity continues to be a major functionality trend, with both new build and renovated projects needing to incorporate plenty of power outlets and USB ports. 

“A common complaint we hear is, ‘the space looks great but they didn’t think about how the students would really use it,’” says Naylor. “We all want the space to be beautiful, but you have to look through the lens of functionality.” 

Maximizing Impact

WDG designed two towers near Georgia Tech’s urban Atlanta campus, one for students and one for traditional multifamily.

One of the biggest keys for any project is doing the most with the available budget. Communication is key for all involved parties, discussing for example the expected level of finishes. 

“No matter what somebody’s budget is, you can still create great, impactful design,” says Naylor. “We’re always on a budget, and I think it’s important to really assess and develop strong design concepts that can lead us through good decisions along the way.”

Selecting materials is important, but Naylor stresses that materials are more about working with the surrounding area and the unique aspects of each project than it is about national trends. A project for students at Boise State University in Idaho will inherently look different than one for Temple University in Philadelphia. Using regional materials is a good idea as well. 

“Everyone is reaching hard to try to find the next funky cool exterior envelope material,” says O’Connor. “What’s interesting is there’s definitely a lot of pressure toward creating buildings that feel warm and engaging, which is a good thing.”

Today’s buildings often include ground-floor retail, and architects try to maximize the interaction between the inside and outside of the building. Those individual concerns often outweigh broad design aesthetics. 

“It really depends on where we are,” says O’Connor. 

Keane says he’s seeing a lot of modern and spartan designs, with exposed concrete, polished concrete floors, natural wood tones in the interiors, and a color palette of more neutral-toned whites, grays and blacks.

“Nothing’s traditional anymore, everything is pretty forward-looking and contemporary,” says Keane. However, that trend is mitigated somewhat for on-campus properties, which often need to follow a campus-wide design aesthetic and architectural character. 

Student housing projects usually also need to follow a pretty strict timeline in order to ensure that new properties open on time, which is paramount from both a construction budget and revenue perspective.

One other industry-wide trend has been the growing popularity of renovations. Cube 3 has completed multiple renovation projects recently, including one in Philadelphia and one near the University of Illinois. O’Connor says a lot of institutions are looking at their economic assets and deciding that renovation is an easier path to achieving increased density, better efficiency and more responsive housing rather than tearing down and rebuilding. 

The Illinois project is called CLV Illini Tower, which spans 16 stories and 725 beds. Especially for taller buildings, when the cost to demolish, then design and get municipal approval for a new project is weighed, it’s economically more feasible to renovate instead. 

“It was a very 1960s or 1970s building, the rooms were nonfunctional, the bathrooms were nonfunctional, the windows did not open and the amenities didn’t work,” says O’Connor. “We gutted the building, rebuilt all the floors to new standards, replaced the exterior skin in certain areas, updated the windows and tore out significant portions of the base of the building and rebuilt the amenities.”

Student Housing Of The Future

Increasingly, students walking into a brand-new property will be greeted with a well-designed space that often transforms traditional notions of what constitutes student housing. Not only can new college-serving apartments match the look and feel of upscale traditional multifamily, they can transcend multifamily altogether. 

“There’s a trend now with multifamily, office and workspace where everything is looking more like a nice hotel lobby,” says Keane. “It has a hospitality feel, a vibe of comfort and openness. There’s daylighting, soft furniture and a wireless environment, and people are working everywhere. It feels more like a sophisticated hotel.”

— Haisten Willis

This article was originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of Student Housing Business magazine. To subscribe, please click here.

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