Successful Student Projects Balance Wants and Needs, Costs and Appearances

by Katie Sloan

If there’s one thing that’s ever changing, it’s college students. Their opinions, preferences and needs evolve during their four-year (hopefully) college careers. They are the opposite of, say, buildings, which are relatively permanent, immoveable and oftentimes iconic. 

Yet, one has to serve the other. Again and again. And not just those students for those four years, but student after student, year after year. Just as one cohort exits their college career, another will begin, ushering with it a whole new set of opinions, preferences and needs. 

This creates a tall order for student housing owners and the architects who help design their spaces. 

“Designing student housing is akin to solving an intricate three-dimensional puzzle,” says Mohamed Mohsen, principal at Niles Bolton Associates. “It demands a holistic approach to tackle conflicts, prioritize tasks and balance competing goals.”

Michelle Rademacher, business development director at Forum Architecture & Interior Design, notes that balancing competing goals will always be one of the architect’s top challenges in student housing because the students themselves are walking dichotomies. 

“What makes student housing as a market sector unique is the cohesion of playfulness with seriousness,” she says. “Students are looking for a place to feel grounded in their home away from home, as well as a sense of identity as a future alma mater of that college/university. Where they live is often where they study and enjoy the college experience.”

These communities must also remain perennial and relevant, as Jason Osborne, national director of business development at Rosemann & Associates, points out.

“The design of the exterior should be timeless and transitional,” he adds. “It has to outlive the first five-year ‘wow’ window.”

At the same time, these structures will take a beating from year to year. 

“Challenges unique to designing exteriors for student housing include accommodating high foot traffic, withstanding potential wear and tear from move-ins and move-outs and creating a sense of community within the design,” Osborne adds. “Balancing the need for privacy in individual units with the desire for social interaction in common spaces requires careful consideration of fenestration, balconies and outdoor gathering areas. Ensuring the exteriors are durable enough to handle the demands of student life while still maintaining an inviting, residential feel is a key challenge.”

Then there’s the superficial. “Great architecture effectively balances the equation of beauty and functionality,” Rademacher says. 

Not to mention the university’s needs and the community’s natural environment. 

“Exterior aesthetics for any student housing should respond to its context first — and that response can be to conform or contrast the surroundings,” Osborne says. “Public-private partnerships also come with unique branding challenges. Some universities have very strong design aesthetics that must be followed on any partnership properties.”

Strategies for success

When it comes to balancing the needs (and requirements) of the university, Osborne recommends architects take a proactive approach. This involves conducting a thorough site analysis, as well as discussions with university stakeholders. 

Proactivity is also needed to determine which priorities are competing for attention, Mohsen explains. Though he believes the overarching design vision and aesthetic aspiration for the exteriors should serve as an architect’s guiding principle, he knows these elements will influence and shape the community’s internal configuration. At the same time, certain programming, amenities and building functions may also be a priority, which will influence and shape the building’s external configuration. 

It can be a chicken-and-the-egg scenario.

“Neglecting one aspect or prioritizing one over the other will result in missed design opportunities, as both are interdependent,” Mohsen says. “We strive to maintain this balance throughout the design process as it is essential to arrive at architectural solutions that are both appealing and functional.”

Niles Bolton also studies the site’s history, its surroundings, and any zoning constraints or climatic conditions that may influence the project’s design. Finally, the firm will analyze the views both toward the project and from the project to leverage scenic vistas and skylines.

“This informs the placement of amenities, pedestrian connections through the site and focal points within the project that merit additional design attention,” Mohsen continues.

A balance between the three-dimensional puzzle of cost, function and appearance can also be achieved through a proactive approach. This can be especially true with high-density mid-rise designs, which represent the overwhelming majority of projects in recent years, according to Rademacher.  

She notes these types of projects typically feature light-frame wood construction with a concrete parking structure situated either at their core or within their base.

“Because this construction is similar to other types of multifamily, there is economic pressure for large percentages of exteriors to be comprised of lower-cost cladding materials against smaller percentages of higher-cost materials to create a cohesive and dynamic design that is on brand and attracts prospective residents,” Rademacher notes. “This balance of cladding cost and exterior design expression is as critical as it is delicate, and is best achieved through intensive collaboration with ownership, the contractor and the design team early in the process.”

Greg Faulkner, president of Humphreys & Partners Architects, adds that cladding technology has advanced significantly, but there are certain elements that still require time and attention. 

“On the ground level where we have high traffic, masonry materials will be preferred since they tend to be more durable than stucco or fiber cement materials,” he says. “Also, we need to make sure the rain screen is correctly detailed and installed behind the cladding as they provide the foundation for the cladded exterior.”

Branding a building

If social media has taught us anything, it’s that appearances matter. They may not be everything, but today’s top architects understand that a first impression can leave a lasting impact.

“The exterior of the building plays a key role in how projects are perceived,” Mohsen says. “It serves as the first point of contact for residents, visitors and passersby.” 

This is where materials, design and colors can really shine. Rhode Partners, for example, created a memorable sawtooth roof design at Lumen on Ninth, near Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. 

“Lumen on Ninth is a good example of how we worked closely with the neighborhood and community stakeholders to present façade designs that honored the adjacent community and its goals,” says Brett Rhode, the firm’s founding partner and director of design. “The roof illuminates at night and architecturally links the high-rise modern buildings along High Street to the lower-density residential east along 9th Avenue, a unique solution to providing architectural interest to the building without overwhelming the neighboring buildings.” 

The metal-clad sawtooth roof created a jagged profile against the skyline while providing vaulted ceilings for fifth-floor units. This one design element ultimately gave Lumen on Ninth a unique branding identity, Rhode adds.

Osborne sees texture as a great way to create and emphasize a brand. This can be further enhanced by adding color. 

“Color and texture play a vital role in creating visually appealing exteriors that evoke a welcoming, vibrant atmosphere for students,” he says. “By using a mix of complementary colors and materials with varied textures, such as smooth metal panels juxtaposed with rough stone or brick, we create depth and visual interest.”

Color was front and center at Rev, a mixed-use student housing development in College Station near Texas A&M University. Rhode Partners carried out various color studies to determine the proper hues for the community’s exterior panels.

“We landed on varying shades of blue,” Rhode says. “We used parametric modeling software tools to create a dynamic pattern that created movement and visual interest in the amenity courtyard. These shades of blue continue along the north, west and east side of the Rev, accentuating the curvilinear design.”

Naturally, incorporating a school’s colors is another way to express identity and pride. Humphreys & Partners utilized this approach at Sterling 920 next to Arizona State University in Tempe and at Aspire San Marcos next to Texas State University in San Marcos. 

Aspire, for example, features maroon and gold accents throughout. These colors extend from the building’s façade to the gym floor, delivery lockers and even the cushions on the pool lounge chairs. 

“Student housing is an extension of campus life,” Faulkner says.  “This is where they live, study and meet fellow students. The school’s colors play a big role here in creating this environment, so we normally try to incorporate school colors as an accent on the building exterior, as well as in common spaces and amenity spaces.”

Osborne adds that this strategy can also bolster the relationship between the university and the student housing community if it’s an off-campus project. 

“Incorporating university branding through color schemes, signage and subtle architectural details helps strengthen the connection between the student housing development and the institution,” he says.

A layered approach

The interior function, level and layout of a space must also be considered in the exterior design and material selection processes. 

For example, Faulkner notes that most student housing contains a “strong mix” of four bedrooms, so this is a design feature architects are almost guaranteed to work with — or around. 

“These inline units normally form the bases for building rhythm,” he says. “How to treat them and make them stand out is always challenging and interesting. Creating prominent corner conditions with specially designed corner four bedrooms is also critical to bring character to the project since the corners are normally anchors for the project.”

Another interior challenge that can impact the building’s façade is repetitive unit layouts, Mohsen adds. 

“They demand careful attention to detail to avoid monotony,” he says. “Design techniques that help break up the building mass are crucial when dealing with rows of small bedrooms — especially if living rooms and balconies are limited, as they tend to provide some relief.” 

Rhode Partners utilizes unique massing and exterior solutions when it has to balance density and design in student housing. This was the case at both Torre and Villas on Rio in the West Campus neighborhood near the University of Texas in Austin. This neighborhood also has zoning restrictions that can be challenging to overcome in terms of density.

The firm took a layered approach to Villas on Rio, which was wrapped around a historic Victorian home that now functions as a coffee shop. 

“The tower accentuates the 62-degree setback plane with a dramatic curtain wall, creating an opportunity for unique living spaces in the respective townhome units,” Rhode says. “On the façade, the custom formed, faceted EIFS (exterior insulation and finish system) panels reference this setback plane, sparking an angular language continued throughout the tower’s interior architecture.”

Torre also took on a tiered composition due to zoning constraints and program requirements. 

“A 62-degree setback on the north side of the building, as well as an even distribution of townhomes and flats informs this layered approach,” Rhode continues. “Each strata represents a shift in program while directly responding to the zoning setback plane.”

Multiple functions can also lead to multiple building materials. The multi-phase Identity Logan Park near the University of California, Berkeley, included 204 residential units across five levels, in addition to a rooftop deck and sky lounge, three courtyard areas, a fitness facility, and ground-floor parking and retail.

“A diverse mix of materials, including glass, masonry, metal, fiber cement and stucco, was strategically employed to break up the scale of the project and ensure a seamless integration with its surroundings,” Mohsen says. “The design focused on functionality and student well-being by incorporating outdoor gathering spaces, greenery and a mural wall that runs along the building edge. These features enhance the overall visual appeal and foster a dynamic and energetic atmosphere conducive to social interaction and outdoor enjoyment, thereby enriching the student living experience.”

Further enriching the student living experience are contemporary styles that integrate sustainable features and foster a sense of community, Osborne asserts. These styles often feature clean lines, large windows for natural light, and a mix of materials, such as metal panels, wood accents and masonry. He notes green roofs, solar panels and rainwater harvesting systems are also becoming more popular as universities prioritize sustainability. 

While strategies, materials and school colors may vary, Rhode believes one design element will remain steadfast in student housing. 

“Student housing projects provide an opportunity for playful, youthful design energy,” he says.

Just like the college experience these structures are built to provide, it seems there’s a time for structure, discipline, theory and, yes, a little fun in those four years — and beyond.

Nellie Day

This article was originally published in the March/April 2024 issue of Student Housing Business magazine.

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