Scott Roberson: Insight Into Your Next Student Housing Project

by Katie Sloan

For developers and property owners of off campus housing, the challenge is attracting students/tenants and filling leases. The location of the off-campus properties plays a significant role because a desirable, well-located property will advertise and attract tenants easily. 

Off campus housing properties have to set themselves apart from the competition, providing high-end amenities to attract students/tenants, selling the lifestyles that individuals want to live.

In comparison to on campus housing, off campus housing offers greater diversity for students who meet others from all walks of life, not only students and faculty. 

Off campus housing is also more customizable and flexible — students furnish their own spaces, provide their own meals and live in a more real-world experience reminiscent of living at home. 

Off campus housing often delivers more convenient access to amenities like access to outdoor cooking facilities, pool areas, sound proof music rooms, study spaces and even jumbo-tron televisions. 

While off campus housing can deliver a location — a “happening area” near campus — there is a downside. These commuting students have to plan ahead for access to campus, from parking to classes and meetings. 

The Optimization of Off Campus Housing

A great way to optimize off campus housing is to deliver a great amenity package with style. In the south, pools are a great asset, offering students an area to hang out and relax after a long day of classes. Up north, courtyards are a great option with lots of areas for students to gather and relax. 

In addition, a business center, outdoor cabanas with big screens and fully functioning fitness centers are popular options for off campus housing. In today’s fitness forward society, a fitness center/gym setup with multiple stations and trainers is a big draw for students. 

A prime example exists at Northside 2, located on the northern edge of the University of Texas at Dallas, which offers a fitness center prominently located on the project’s southern edge, at the gateway from Northside 1 to Northside 2.  The high visibility of the fitness center and other amenities creates a dynamic entrance that appeals to students.  The pocket-park adjacent to the fitness center provides a highly visible extension to the residents’ active life.

Northside 2, located near the University of Texas at Dallas.

The next question faced in optimization is ensuring students (and their parents) buy into the ideal of off campus housing. 

This means property owners and developers can design the project with aesthetics in mind. Attractive properties market themselves. Location, neighborhood and community set the stage.  Appealing architecture and desirable amenities seal the deal. For instance, many developers avoid balconies, but often the market determines that add-on. 

An aesthetically pleasing structure includes orientation, material palette and style, but also trending options like sustainability, technology and active lifestyle. Off campus housing should be designed for the target audience, inviting them into the space and promising a positive experience, which includes a responsive management team.

How does a developer create this effect? Off campus housing should evoke the values of the community including the college and surrounding area. 

This includes a balance in design that is on trend, capturing the current vibe, but also classic with strong, bold color choices and blocking materials. For example, Northside 2 makes a visual connection, giving a “nod” to campus architecture by allowing the housing to blend in with the surrounding area. Common materials and structures, like rooflines, tie the projects together. 

Ease of access to campus, which can mean within walking distance to the university or mass transit, is also a big selling point for off campus housing projects. If the property is not conveniently located, some property owners opt to offer a shuttle service to and from campus as an added convenience for the tenants.

Residents are also seeking spaces to share ideas. While millennials seek privacy, they also desire a sense of community with interest in well-appointed living spaces — a trend that Generation Z is intensifying. Developers are responding with interactive technology-based solutions.

Optimizing Convenience in Off Campus Housing

As mentioned, convenience to campus is a prime concern in off campus housing. 

Once an off-campus site is selected for the project, the location can be developed to create a solid community capitalizing on the campus connection. If the housing is in walking distance, providing good pedestrian connectivity is key. If the property is farther from campus, subway, railway, or bus availability is necessary, especially for students without vehicles. If students will be commuting by car, the off-campus site can provide adequate parking.

It is important to monopolize whatever sets the off-campus property apart from others. For example, if shuttle service is provided, let potential tenants know it’s part of the lease agreement. If the property offers access to hiking, biking or pedestrian pathways, be sure to get the message across to the target audience. The off-campus site should offer leasing information that is easily accessible and understandable, so students don’t have to search for how to lease the property. 

Ease of access must be balanced with security, a point that makes gated off-campus communities popular among students and parents. Access like hiking, biking and pedestrian trails, should run along the perimeter instead of cutting straight through the property — helping with security while still presenting residents with a specific accessible lifestyle. 

What’s the easiest way to accomplish this? Offer parking in a parking garage or along one side of the building, also collecting the pedestrian experience into a grand amenity that ensures safety, ease of interaction and convenience.

An ingenious example which successfully celebrated the pedestrian connection is the Northside project — both Northside and Northside 2 — located just north of University of Texas at Dallas. 

A safe interactive pedestrian connection was an important piece in the overall project concept. The site was designed to provide primary vehicular access in a centrally located boulevard, but the boulevard’s secondary function was to serve as a functional space — a space to house events and functions while being pedestrian-friendly. 

This outdoor space served not only residents, but also the surrounding community. The space is multifunctional, offering circulation for vehicles, creating character for the property, and developing relationships between buildings. It offers a pedestrian-friendly street scape with access to a walkway on campus, which functions as a gateway from one building to the other. In effect, Northside 2 triples square footage by incorporating outdoor space.

The pedestrian paths connect directly with the meandering campus pathways, allowing people to walk from their home to class through picturesque landscaping. In addition, the site offers easy access to the clubhouse, pool spaces, courtyard and every building, reinforcing the concept of relationship between the property and the university. The land remains owned by the university but is privately developed and managed. The space’s highly open and visible nature fosters a safe and interesting property.    

At Northside, security within the project is managed carefully to invite students while offering residents safe, private areas.

With student housing, security is an important aspect which does not afford poor decision making in off campus properties. The pathways, landscaping and architecture should provide easy access, be aesthetically pleasing, and offer security to tenants and guests.

At Northside, security within the project is managed carefully to invite students while offering residents safe, private areas. Donut-shaped building layout offers security and privacy; for example, the pool is located in the middle of the donut. 

Nearby mass transit will ultimately connect students via a light rail system connecting with the rest of the city, while the location — right next to the university — creates the pedestrian path that flows from apartments to campus.

In all, the University of Texas-Dallas’ Northside 2 project lends insight to other student housing project developers who seek to attract students. Desirable, well-located off-campus housing blends design, amenities, security, sustainability, and community that affords living together with learning.

— Scott Roberson is partner and studio director with ARCHITECTURE DEMAREST.  He can be reached at 214.748.6655 or [email protected].

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