Ron van der Veen: Inclusive Design Process Results in ‘Sold Out’ Residence Hall

by Katie Sloan

It was the first new freshman student housing project on campus with a 650-student waiting list!  Can you ask for more?  At first glance a prosperous development like this might be chalked up to the notion, “if you build it they will come,” but there is more than meets the eye in this success story. 

Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana, is in the midst of continued growth. The 2016 freshman class of 3,000 students is up 3 percent from 2015, meaning the university needed to take steps to support this increase in terms of both instructional and living spaces. In August 2016, MSU opened a stunning new 400-bed student housing project on the edge of campus called Yellowstone Hall. It’s so popular the university added beds in some of the lounges to accommodate the demand, and they have a waiting list of 650. MSU has since hired NAC Architecture from Seattle and SMA Architects from Helena — the design architect and architect of record, respectively, for Yellowstone — to roll up their sleeves and jump immediately into the 450-bed Phase II project. 


The commons area of Yellowstone Hall at Montana State University. 

What is the Magic?

Yellowstone Hall is a very traditional residence hall with most of the two-bed dorm rooms sharing community bathrooms. The real magic is not in the units but in the community spaces. The unique organic “Y” shape of Yellowstone comes from a confluence of site and program influences. A portion of the building is raised above a first floor pedestrian pass-through linking the rest of campus to the intramural fields. The serpentine form creates a strong connection to the adjacent housing/dining complex and the main campus. With the extended harsh winter in Bozeman, the predominant east/west façade acts as a “solar mitt” that collects sun during the colder months. A solar wall preheats hot air for the building, and sun shading mitigates summer sun. The project has received a LEED Gold certification.


Welcome Home

Establishing a vibrant freshman community that supports MSU’s student life philosophy dictated the floor plan design concept. Yellowstone Hall was imagined as a vibrant hub where underclassmen intersect, interact and establish community with their peers. It’s their home-away-from-home. The program creates a complex layering of small to large, introverted to extroverted, and indoor to outdoor spaces that encourage engagement and student interconnectivity. The design takes into account a variety of learning and socialization styles by introducing numerous types of interactive spaces throughout the building.


It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

It all starts with the peer group. Ten distinct 40-student neighborhoods were created throughout the building (three per floor), each with its own RA, shared bathrooms, and community study/lounge spaces. Modest room amenities and corridors that open to become rooms encourage students to casually gather. Additionally, each floor features a central “hub” that serves to connect the three residential neighborhoods to one another. It also houses high tech group study areas and the main vertical circulation. This strategic layout not only facilitates interaction within the respective neighborhoods, but encourages students to build connections across communities, creating a rich fabric of student life.

All of these neighborhoods come together at the first floor with the welcoming two-story “commons” that features a fireplace with comfortable seating, dramatic central stair, and opens up to outdoor barbeque areas. The ground level is also home to a variety of public amenities such a ski waxing room, a home for Iron Chef cooking competitions, group meeting areas, res life offices, and a place for mountain bike repair. All these conveniences recognize the particular culture of the campus and community. 


Designing the Design Process

From the very inception, MSU wanted this to be a very different residence hall from what was currently on campus. The NAC/SMA team knew they needed to design an iterative process of discovery to achieve a uniquely thriving live/learn community. The challenge was doing this within a very tight schedule and with no campus precedent. 

The journey began by creating an extended stakeholder group that would be involved in the project from design through construction. Next, this group took a trip together to tour comparable facilities in the region. Not only did this facilitate in-depth group reflection on their future residence hall, but it established tight bonds and trust among the team.

Student input was of the utmost importance for MSU. To engage them throughout the design process, a committee was assembled that included RDs, RAs, and students from various grade levels. This solicited a wide variety of feedback about what was desired in a new residence hall from the end users themselves. One specifically particularly successful exercise during the process was creating full size mock-ups of the units in the student union, complete with furniture. Not only did this provide invaluable design input, it also served to pre-market the residence hall and generated an exciting “buzz” throughout the campus. 

This design process was best described by one stakeholder as “communal.” By establishing a shared vision for this residence hall among all stakeholders, the group could make quick and decisive decisions. The extended stakeholder group was empowered to make choices and drive the project ahead while embracing a collaborative approach to innovative student housing design. 


Back to Tradition

Nationally, there is a trend among institutions to revisit the old models of traditional dorms. Residential life leaders are looking to seemingly antiquated ideas like shared bathroom and laundry facilities to create the building blocks for student well-being and academic achievement. If the vibrancy of MSU Yellowstone Hall is an indication, the old might become the hip new…new.

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About the Author:
Ron van der Veen’s career has been dedicated to higher education, student housing and sustainable design. He has successfully completed higher education projects throughout the United States, and his work has been recognized with nearly 20 design awards. He was recently elevated to a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects in recognition of his progressive design in student housing. 

About Montana State University Yellowstone Hall
NAC Architecture partnered with SMA Architects on the design of Yellowstone Hall, MSU’s newest student residence community. The 120,000 square foot facility provides incoming freshman with 450 beds in a modern, mixed gender layout with single, double and suite-style rooms. The design of Yellowstone Hall emphasizes place-making and community for both the residents and the entire campus neighborhood. Located within close proximity to MSU’s Roskie Beach, the “Front Door/Back Yard” concept at Yellowstone embraces and enhances the adjacent recreation space and encourages pedestrian traffic with its large, welcoming pass-through. The four-story structure is specifically designed to maximize solar orientation and views to the mountains, while offering amenities such as a two-story atrium/main lounge, secure bike storage, and even space for ski waxing. Other features include resident meeting spaces, spaces to accommodate collaborative academic work, and a kitchen area for group functions.

About NAC Architecture:
With origins in 1960, NAC Architecture is an award-winning design firm with 170 talented team members working in offices in Seattle and Spokane, WA, and Los Angeles, CA. Areas of expertise include education (PK-University), healthcare, senior living, and community recreation. The firm is passionate about creating places and spaces that advance learning, enhance healing, and enrich communities. For more information, visit 

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