Three key trends in student housing for Boston’s higher education community

Student housing remains a leading focus for the city of Boston and its higher education institutions.

By Lynne Deninger, CannonDesign May 25, 2016

Building communities with a focus on education

Student housing remains a leading focus for the city of Boston and its higher education institutions. Just last year, Mayor Martin J. Walsh released Student "Housing Trends: 2014-2015," the first-ever comprehensive report on trends in student housing in Boston. An interagency collaboration between the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, Inspectional Services Department, and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the trends report outlined strategies for two key goals:

  1. Ensuring all students reside in safe, suitable housing
  2. The creation of 18,500 new student-residence beds by the year 2030 in order to return 5,000 units of workforce housing to the market.

Trends in student housing and residence life

The mayor’s report highlighted the fact that Boston’s thriving academic institutions face strong pressure as they work to accommodate more than 148,000 students enrolled in institutions of higher education in Greater Boston. No doubt, part of the solution to alleviating this pressure is creating new, dynamic campus housing options that appeal to students over the next decade.

As local academic institutions embark on these new student-life projects, they should consider key trends in housing to help them maximize value. We believe the creation of new student housing brings an opportunity to enrich campus culture, advance the academic mission, and improve student engagement and outcomes. Here are three trends/typologies we have experienced that begin to share a vision of where housing may be going in the next decade:

1. Fusion facilities integrate and bolster academics

CannonDesign’s Boston team is collaborating with the Yazdani Studio of CannonDesign on one of the leading-edge housing projects in the country—Lassonde Studios at the University of Utah. This breakthrough fusion building combines 400 student residence beds and 20,000 sq ft of "garage" space where students can build a prototype, attend an event, or launch a company. It is the place, on campus, where students will live, learn, and launch companies. This level of integration between housing and academic space is unique. The new make/hack residence hall opens this fall and University of Utah is seeing high demand from students interested in living in the exceptional place. With this new building, Lassonde Studios will continue to bolster the university’s national ranking for entrepreneurial education.

This integrated live-make approach may not make sense for every institution, but universities should realize the value of incorporating right-sized, mission-specific learning spaces into student-life facilities. More than just a strategic use of space, this integration can increase student engagement and academic success.

2. Microunits and student housing

Developers and designers are beginning to focus on creating microhousing units that provide housing options near universities at a reasonable price point. One particularly forward-thinking developer that we have been exploring opportunities with is University Student Living of The Michaels Organization. They are currently developing just such a space near Boston University. The new housing facility renovates a previously vacant commercial building and fills it with microhousing units between 325 and 400 sq ft, with each offering a private kitchen and bathroom. The mixed-use building contains 6,200 sq ft of retail space on the first floor and community areas, such as a fitness center, multimedia room, and common areas to drive connectivity.

"We really see microunit housing as a product that can alleviate Boston’s housing challenges. It can potentially locate students and young professionals closer to campuses and high-activity areas in the city, leaving other options for families," said Kristina Vagen, vice president of development for University Student Living. "Moreover, these buildings are flexible and could be adapted for other uses over time, if necessary. In a city where land is scarce, this is a solution that is remarkably efficient with space and cost."

Microunit housing is an idea that could drive advantages in other parts of the city, too. Strategically locating these units in areas where several universities are clustered together would allow multiple institutions to use them. The space- and cost-efficiency that comes with microhousing units make them advantageous to Boston as the city continues to solve its student-housing challenges.

3. Leverage student-life amenities to increase retention and academic performance

Institutions work hard to recruit new students. They need to work equally hard to ensure their campus assets are calibrated to retain these students. Research indicates one of the leading reasons students leave school is lack of engagement. Student-housing projects can help address this by introducing spaces that enrich student engagement. Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s East Hall proved ahead of its time as it addressed this issue a few years ago by providing fitness spaces, tech suites, meeting spaces, and music rooms all within the residence hall.

Newer projects are building on these trends by incorporating spaces for advising, programmed events (indoor and outside), group study/collaboration, wellness, and dining into campus housing facilities. At Pratt Institute, CannonDesign is incorporating maker, design, and pin-up space to engage the first-year cohort. Facilities like Lassonde Studios are also starting to organize students by academic focus area rather than class. Designing housing facilities in this manner helps first-year students connect and be mentored by upper—division students, which can strengthen student-retention rates. More importantly, these types of enriched student-residence halls can improve students’ academic performance.

Incorporating these strategic, collaborative spaces encourages students to meet others, engage with peers, and connect with the larger student population within and outside their university. With a confluence of academic institutions in Boston, it will become incumbent upon each to assess, leverage, and expand upon these ideas to grow their own mission-driven culture in student life. As Boston’s higher education institutions work toward the mayor’s goal of 18,500 new beds in the decade ahead, they should consider how these planning concepts may enrich their next student-life project.

-Lynne Deninger is a member of the Board of Directors and CannonDesign’s Boston Office Practice leader. She is respected for her interactive and collaborative approach to design which has built a strong degree of trust and confidence with her clients.This article originally appeared on CannonDesign. CannonDesign is a CFE Media content partner.