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Function Reigns Supreme Over Fashion for Interior Design in Student Housing

by Katie Sloan

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the ways schools operate, how classes were taught, and how students learned and socialized in 2020. Though hospitalizations and deaths are waning thanks to a vaccine, life still hasn’t returned to normal for anyone, including students away at college. 

Interior design may seem like a lower priority in the wake of such a health crisis, but these professionals would argue the exact opposite — that it’s more important than ever. That’s because leasing, retention, and making students and parents feel safe and secure as they return to their college experiences is more important than ever. 

The pandemic shifted higher education from in-person classes to online learning in 2020. This gave students and parents an entire year to reassess whether going away to school was the right decision going forward. This has been compounded by a focus on increasing education costs, as well as many colleges announcing that the 2021 to 2022 school year would emphasize hybrid learning, with lots of classes remaining online as the Delta variant took hold. 

The cumulative result of all this was a 4 percent decrease in undergraduate enrollment in 2021, per the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Freshman enrollment for the fall 2021 semester start sank by 13 percent when compared to 2020 numbers. Speaking of 2020, colleges and universities experienced revenue losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars as about half a million college students chose to sit that academic year out entirely. 

Enter student housing design and its role in keeping capacity as high as possible. 

“In reality, the interior design approach for a project is just as much a part of the sales, marketing and leasing budgets as it is anything else,” says Josh Kassing, vice president of design development for Mary Cook Associates in Chicago. “Good interior design can quite literally allow the project to sell itself, meaning less sales staff, less square footage required for leasing and management and fewer hours spent on locking in leases. In contrast, bad interior design can mean the opposite — more sales staff, longer hours and slower lease-up.”

The Big Question Now: Does it Work?

Kassing argues that a space’s programming is the biggest priority of student housing design. He says it was before the pandemic as well, but many may have lost sight of that in favor of flashier bells and whistles. 

“I will tell you right now, an accent wall is not going to save your property,” he continues. “Good interior design evaluates a property at every level — from programming and volumes, to spatial adjacencies to finishes and furniture. The aesthetic is irrelevant if the program of a space doesn’t’ function or doesn’t’ respond to the users’ needs and wants.”

He advises student housing owners to focus, particularly, on those needs and wants. 

“It doesn’t matter how pretty a theater is if students need additional study space,” Kassing adds. “New furniture that costs $100,000 doesn’t fix the fact that there is no on-site fitness center. My biggest advice is to avoid the ‘lipstick on a pig’ approach to renovations, and understand that interior design is more than aesthetics.”

Emily Hiott, lead designer at SouthPark Interiors in Charlotte, North Carolina, has seen how purpose-designed gathering spaces can impact leasing and retention. She points to the 102-unit Stadium Apartments in Fort Collins, Colorado, which sits one block west of Colorado State University’s football stadium, as a prime example. The 388-bed complex recently underwent a renovation on its common areas. 

“Previously, this property’s amenity areas consisted of large, open, unprogrammed spaces,” Hiott notes. “Placing an emphasis on space planning, we completely reprogrammed these areas to create multi-functional spaces that could easily be private, but also used for community events as needed.”

The BHOM Student Living complex currently boasts an outdoor patio with a wet bar, gas grills, fire pits and lounge-style sundecks; a 24-hour fitness center; clubhouse with a fireplace; study lounges; game room; coffee and snack bar; rooftop patio with mountain views; dining zone; and a heated pool with hot tubs. 

“Stadium Apartments is a great example of a renovation that led to leasing numbers skyrocketing at the property,” Hiott adds.

The renovation also included the incorporation of earth tones, geometric patterns, and unique nods to the local skiing and snowboarding culture.

“Incorporating plants and greenery — known as biophilic design — and looking more in depth at landscape design helps balance interior and exterior areas, creating cohesiveness through the property,” Hiott continues. “This also enhances outdoor amenities as we have seen these areas become more important than ever in the last year.”

What the renovation didn’t include was a focus on single-use spaces. Hiott notes this trend has been waning, particularly since the pandemic. This includes giant pool decks that are only dedicated to the pool, as well as single-use spaces when you can add flexibility through multi-functional rooms. 

“It’s about more realized space at the pool area, including more landscaping and separately programmed areas for outdoor activities, lounge areas and more,” she says. “This gives both staff and residents who want to spend time outdoors that living space for activities and events. And when you create multi-functional rooms, areas can be utilized in different ways by staff and residents.”

An Education in Branding

When purpose meets preference, the design of a student housing community can leave a lasting impression on its residents. Some may argue that’s all fine and well, but what does that matter after they’ve done their four years? Kassing would argue matters a lot, at least for operators who service more than just the student housing space. 

“Toll Brothers Campus Living exemplifies not the latest design trends, but the forever design trends as it relates to student housing,” he explains. “They understand that in today’s world, an allegiance to a housing brand begins at the collegiate level. Students who have a positive experience at a Toll Brothers Campus Living property will be inclined to pursue a Toll Brothers Apartment Living market-rate unit upon graduation, and a Toll Brothers City Living townhome as a young professional and, ultimately, a Toll Brothers single-family home as they grow their family.”

Toll Brothers even has an active adult brand, taking you all the way from college into your golden years. 

“It’s not just about a college apartment,” Kassing continues. “It’s about establishing a level of trust and dedication to a company and brand that cares about its customers, and that transcends any ‘latest trend.’ In fact, it establishes a trend of its own.”

In this current market, many student housing and multifamily owners are diversifying. This increases the odds that a college student could easily transition into an urban apartment, starter home and beyond. Student housing developer Landmark Properties, for example, recently announced its expansion into the build-to-rent market. 

The Athens, Georgia-headquartered company noted the current demographic trends, as well as its integrated, scalable platform made this a natural expansion opportunity. 

“As millennials move into the stage where they wish to move out of apartments, single-family houses for rent have become an important way for the generation to take advantage of the benefits to a neighborhood without the long-term financial commitment to homeownership,” says Blair Sweeney, managing director of Landmark’s build-to-rent division. “We are excited to bring our track record of quality housing and unparalleled property management to a new segment of the market.”

Capturing consumers from college through other life phases means you also have to provide memorable touches that students not only come to appreciate, but to rely on. 

“Residents have to love where they live and the whole idea is to create a space where someone enters and immediately knows that this is the place they want to be,” Hiott says. “Designing purposeful gathering spaces has a big impact on leasing and retention, as this allows the property to build a community where residents feel connected to each other as a collective group, as well as to the property itself. In addition, a property has to provide the amenities that they’re looking for and expect, especially when compared to surrounding competition.”

This was the strategy SouthPark took in Austin, Texas, where it designed the new Legacy on Rio by Capstone Collegiate Communities near the University of Texas at Austin. The two- to five-bedroom community, which is already sold out for its inaugural 2021 to 2022 school year, features many memorable touches. These include a tube slide adjacent to the stairs that take residents from the second to the first floor; egg chairs on the rooftop oasis lounge that overlook hill country; state-of-the-art fitness equipment that lets you access your Netflix account while working out; a massage room with electric massage chairs; yard games next to the grilling stations; and a computer lab with free printing. 

Though not always possible, Hiott recommends bringing in a design team from the beginning, especially with new developments. This ensures every space is maximized and no detail is overlooked from day one. 

“Legacy on Rio was able to be programmed to function in many ways since our design team was brought in at the beginning of the project,” she says. “Thoughtful space planning to create multi-functional spaces is key. When you bring in your interior design team as early as possible, emphasis is placed on space planning from a design and management standpoint.”

A ground-up or renovation project may produce favorable results from a design standpoint, but Hiott knows you don’t have to undertake these large-scale endeavors to achieve an immediate positive reaction. Upgrading furniture, Hiott asserts, is an easy way to instantaneously update a space and draw in residents. She notes this can even be done in phases if budgets are tight. 

Kassing adds that there’s nothing wrong with a modest budget as long as you avoid the “lipstick on a pig” approach he previously mentioned. Instead, it’s all about knowing how to spend what you have that matters.

“Good interior design is not about spending the most money,” he says. “Good design is about spending money in the right places, with an appropriate cost-to-impact ratio. What the ‘right places’ are depend on a number of factors, including existing conditions, demographic nuances, geographic nuances, competition, etcetera, but at the end of the day, good interior design needs to be a part of the strategy.”

Nellie Day

This article was originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Student Housing Business magazine. To subscribe, please click here

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