Student Housing Operators Embrace Multi-Purpose Spaces, Furniture

Student housing operators have always embraced furniture that can stand the test of time. Students can be a rough and tumble bunch, and experience (and budgets) dictate that it’s typically better to spend a little more up front for pieces that will last. 

The pandemic has taken this trend to a new level, however. First, there is the increased emphasis on sanitation. Then the fact that students are spending more time in their units and communities, particularly as hybrid learning and online classes persist. Finally, there are supply chain issues that have prevented some student housing operators from replacing or updating their furniture in their preferred manner. This has caused some owners and operators to rethink their buying strategies moving forward.

Many operators are now ordering even earlier  ahead of the next school year,  selecting multiple backup options and ensuring that whatever does arrive will be able to keep up with college kids for years to come. 

“Product selection has perhaps become less ‘boutique’ and more back to basic, purpose-built items,” says Jeff Zeng, founder of contemporary furniture line provider Blue Furniture Solutions in Tamarac, Florida. “There is a focus on clean, modern lines and proven materials that are readily available.”

Lines are far from the only thing that’s “clean” nowadays. 

“We have seen an increased interest in cleanability and durability specifications related to products,” adds Zaneta Daigle, marketing coordinator at Smarter Furnishings, a furniture supplier in Alabaster, Alabama. “This has made our 25-year warranty on case goods more relevant.”

The “sanitary” narrative has become en vogue over the past two years, a necessary but vanilla trend the industry must accept to keep students and their parents happy in a post-pandemic world. Then there’s the fun stuff. And students are certainly ready to have fun.

Breathing New Life Into the Student Housing Lifestyle

With a renewed emphasis on home, designers and furniture providers see today’s trends as a mix of celebratory and cozy, once again embracing that multi-purpose vibe.

“The pandemic has definitely gotten our design team to think outside the box,” says Tom Dobbin, director of student housing for UniversityLoft Company, a contract furniture provider in Greenfield, Indiana. “Fun geometric shapes and colors have been a hot trend, and being that spaces like lobbies or outdoor areas are prone to high-traffic usage, it’s easier to go a little wild. Some are even incorporating colors like lime green, orange, yellow. It’s definitely a fun time and departure from the old boring of everything that has to match.”

No matter what you choose, keep it cool, advises Mary Cook, president of interior design firm Mary Cook Associates (MCA) in Chicago. 

“Kids want authentic, unique, cool, one-of-a-kind spaces,” she says. “They are design savvy and recognize good quality. They want to show off where they live on Instagram and other social media channels, so we are sure to integrate at least one unique and memorable Instagrammable moment per project.”

So how do you define something as ambiguous as “cool,” especially among a demographic that’s known for eyerolling and counter culture?

“Color schemes, art, themes and accents should be driven by the brand position for the project,” Cook continues. “Great interior design is one of the best amenities you can offer, but if you want to maximize its impact and be relevant to the residents, it must align with the brand.”

This starts with a strong brand position and understanding your demographic, Cook asserts. 

“It’s our favorite part of a project,” she says. “Getting to know our target market and then concepting an idea that will blow them away and create a lot of buzz.”

At Lapis, a 1,086-bed community that is being built near Florida International University in Miami, this strategy inspired a Cuban-style coffee bar that paid homage to the area’s Latin roots. The space will serve as a lobby touchstone and “foster a feeling of home that anchors the students in an environment conducive to achievement and well-being,” Cook notes. The space will be complemented by a bold use of vivid blue colors, warm wood tones, graphic wallcoverings and patterned flooring to accentuate the authentic Latin aesthetic when Lapis opens in 2024. 

Lisa Pulsinelli, principal at SouthPark Interiors in Charlotte, North Carolina, also leveraged location at Legacy on Rio, a student housing community near the University of Texas at Austin. SouthPark created a custom wallpaper made of decals from local vintage brands that’s displayed throughout the community.  

“It’s a nod to the local culture,” she adds. “Custom art installations like a moss wall or a mural by a local artist also create impact and offer residents those Instagrammable moments.” 

Kris Benson, director of sales for Dickson Furniture Manufacturers in Houston, believes embracing what the students — and, more likely, what their families — have embraced can certainly create a welcoming atmosphere. This can also be just what students need in these uncertain times. 

“You want to provide the experience of being home — away from home,” he says. “As parents and students assess housing needs, the standard that’s used to measure comfort and style mirror much of what’s in their homes.”

Part of providing creature comforts is ensuring that student housing communities focus on their residents’ mental and physical health. 

“Physical health has always been important to residents, but mental health has become more important than ever,” Pulsinelli says. “We have been able to get creative with the kinds of amenity spaces we can produce for a property that serves both of these needs.”

She points to micro-fitness rooms/studios, additional private study spaces, and even a spa room with massage chairs and salt lamp therapy, such as the one SouthPark created for Legacy on Rio. 

“We try to take into consideration the wellness of all of those who will enter a space and how it will make them feel, both mentally and physically,” she says.

Indoors, Outdoors

Few things are better for mental health than a little fresh air and natural sunlight. Student housing developers and designers know access to the outdoors is a priority for residents as memories of lockdowns linger. 

But with limited space, this often means that, yes, even the great outdoors must pull double duty in terms of function and furniture. 

“Since the pandemic, it has become even more important to program outdoor spaces so they can be used for smaller or private gatherings, as well as larger community gatherings,” Pulsinelli says. “We are also focusing on making outdoor areas conducive for additional study or fitness areas to maximize the footprint of a community’s amenities.” 

Cook notes popular outdoor features include deep seating around firepits, high-top tables and chairs around bars and game areas, chaise lounges at the pool, cabanas (without curtains) for more intimate groupings, beanbag chairs and small drink tables on the movie lawn. 

“Mostly clean and contemporary in styling, popular outdoor furniture options include all-weather wovens, powder-coated aluminum with vinyl mesh seat, faux woods, and boldly colored molded plastic tables and chairs,” she adds. “Parasols, umbrellas and pergolas provide needed shade, especially in warmer climates, allowing students to move outside for quiet study and reading time.”

Pets also require outdoor areas. No longer content with a strip of artificial turf, today’s savvier housing communities boast top dog amenities. Literally.

“We’ve seen more rooftop spaces being utilized as upscale dog runs,” Pulsinelli says. “Some even have a space that is reminiscent of the dog bars that are popping up in cities, where residents can gather and socialize while having their pets with them.”

A fondness for open, fresh air spaces and a need for functional, purpose-driven spaces have led many student housing developers and designers to merge the two. At Canvas, an 856-bed off-campus development near Arizona State University in Tempe, MCA created a seventh-floor amenity space that opens to the pool deck and offers expansive campus views. The transition between the indoors and outdoors was broached by a hammock lounge. 

“The trend toward biophilic design continues to play a dominate role in the industry,” Daigle says.

Rob Johnson, director of higher education and military sales, for furniture rental company CORT in Chantilly, Virginia, has seen this grow in popularity as well.

“Everyone wants to take the indoors out and the outdoors in,” he says. “We are seeing thoughtfully appointed outdoor areas with mood-setting accents, such as rugs and even outdoor tables and floor lamps. Indoor spaces are pushing to be lighter and brighter with plants as the primary mood-setting accent. People are looking for the same cozy social experience indoors and out.”

This sometimes means furniture needs to serve multiple purposes as it’s rearranged and utilized for a variety of tasks.

“Both outdoor and lobby spaces are now being designed with the ability to cross-utilize or convert based on whatever usage is needed at that time,” Zeng says. “The use of modular or interchangeable furniture items indoors and outside is certainly noticeable.”

Public, Private

The pandemic has also created a tug-of-war of sorts, with competing priorities between public spaces that allow for collaboration and socialization and private nooks that bring peace and the ability to recharge. Once again, flexibility and creativity are the keys to providing both.

Some developers are integrating privacy through strategic nooks and layouts, both inside  resident’s units and throughout their communities.

“There is a greater focus on creating ‘cocoons’ of personal, functional and safe space to work and live in while still being able to socially engage with other students,” Zeng notes. 

Villas on Rio, a community within the West Campus area near the University of Texas at Austin, utilizes bedroom pods, while the Abbot near Michigan State University in East Lansing, places closets between a unit’s two rooms.

“Villas on Rio features a first-of-its-kind design incorporating a shared bedroom suite with a ‘bedroom pod,’” Dickson’s Benson explains. “The pod provides comfort and privacy for its occupants in a shared space. The Abbot used a different approach to separate a double-occupant room with a custom closet, which divided the room and provided privacy.”

Lighter colors were used in both cases, Benson adds.

“Villas on Rio used lighter laminate elements with a specific focus on a modern approach to furniture,” he continues. “With Abbot, lighter maple laminate colors were used to brighten the rooms, with black metal as a contrasting trim. Some communities will focus on lighter colors to brighten the area, or darker colors to compliment a specific design thought.”

What about outside the unit, where it’s harder for a student to convey whether they’re occupying a space in the hopes of being left alone, or with the intent of meeting new friends?

“Today’s tech-savvy students need quiet private spaces to study, but also collaborative spaces, equipped with the latest technologies and a place to spread out,” Cook says. “Furniture needs to be movable and adaptable to accommodate a variety of study styles and technology needs. Durability and suitability are critical as students will move pieces around to make spaces their own.”

Cook further notes that integrating booth seating into lounges or gaming areas can further bridge that gap. Booths are ideal for those expecting a larger group, she explains, while solo visitors can reconfigure smaller seating sections and still remain part of the action.

Privacy can also come in the form of chairs with side walls, soundproof mini-booths and podcast studios, ULoft’s Dobbin adds. Move the chairs together or add another person to the booth, and suddenly, it’s a social space.

Design trends like fun colors or shapes and furniture trends like chairs with high sides or powder-coated aluminum won’t last forever. They’ll stay as long as students appreciate them and until budgets can accommodate a new order — one that hopefully doesn’t involve the current degree of supply chain woes. What will remain is the impact these spaces and the items that fill them have on student housing. From the resident experience to occupancy and marketing, design and furniture will continue to play a pivotal role in the success of these communities. 

“Furniture and furnishings are the vehicles we use to create and outfit the spaces residents and their parents visit to see if this is the place they want to live,” Cook says. “They have a powerful and important role. When designed and curated well, furniture and furnishings can sell a community on their own merit. Ask any leasing agent how easy it is to rent their property when the interior design is on target.” 

Nellie Day

This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Student Housing Business magazine.