Sara Stein: Residential Community Spaces Crucial to Student Success

by Scott Reid

Residential community spaces, including lounges and study areas, come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are crucial to the engagement of students within residence halls. A mix of these spaces, including rooms for small group study and project work, create environments that are highly conducive to student learning while positively impacting a student’s perception of his or her overall residence hall experience.

As important as they are to a successful student life experience, these spaces are often unfortunately the first to be eliminated when cost reductions occur during design. Since residence halls are important and major revenue producing facilities, spaces that might be perceived as not directly impacting the bottom line are often value engineered out of projects. Grouping residential community spaces into this category, however, is not healthy for a college or university’s big picture of student engagement and success. In fact, the proper mix of community spaces, in addition to student rooms, can result in numerous big picture benefits for students, and in turn, their respective institutions. For instance, an engaged student population builds a strong sense of community, which then directly links back to individual student satisfaction. Engaged and involved students are much more likely to stay on campus at their institution, give back to the community at large, and likely contribute back to their campus as alumni.

EYP’s research reveals that there is a behavioral response to the built environment. Students are significantly more likely to interact with peers in their residence halls when there is an adequate number of flexible community spaces provided. Further, and interestingly, these interactions are not merely social.  Common spaces throughout a residence hall allow intellectual conversations amongst a diverse peer group that blur the line between living and learning and allow the academic conversation to continue well beyond the classroom.

Spaces that are critical in successful residential environments include comfortable furniture and natural lighting. These two items routinely top the list of qualities that students cite when describing their ideal community space. Many campuses struggle though with deciding whether to choose lightweight and therefore easily movable furniture, creating the most flexible space, versus heavier weighted pieces, which are less likely to be removed from community spaces and taken into residence hall rooms. Furniture that is easily moveable allows students the flexibility of studying alone or grouping tables together for team-based conversation. The next frequent item on the list of qualities in active spaces that engage students are rooms that are quiet, conveniently located, and frequently accessible. These community spaces could have keycard entry to students who live in the building for security purposes, but the perception shouldn’t be that these spaces are hard to access. Additional features such as writeable or moveable wall surfaces also add flexibility and increase student engagement.

The quantity and placement of common spaces are also important factors to consider. Residence halls are typically sub-divided into neighborhoods, each with its own resident advisor. It is best practice to ensure that each neighborhood has a dedicated community space. These spaces are best and most utilized when near a building stair or elevator so they’re somewhat centrally located. While spaces at the ends of long corridors are good for supporting quiet environments, students at the opposite end of the neighborhood may feel discouraged or uncomfortable with travelling the length of a corridor if it is perceived to be a part of someone else’s space. When end-of-corridor study areas are designed into a residence hall, it’s a good idea to have a centrally located lounge that belongs to the neighborhood.

Providing community lounges and study spaces that are focused on comfort and convenience will both encourage academic engagement and greatly increase students’ satisfaction in their residence halls.  The type of community that results is one which affects students’ perception beyond social and academic factors.  Including a proper mix of residential community spaces can result in greater student satisfaction in regards to safety, degree of privacy, fellow residents’ concern for academic success and living environments.

— EYP Academic and Student Life Planner Sara G. Stein, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, has more than 10 years of experience as an architect focusing on college and university student life. With a passion for designs that blur the traditional boundaries between academic and residential life programs, she is actively involved in leading EYP’s research on behavioral responses to living-learning environments.

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