Solving the Puzzle of Residential Life

Look at the color-coded campus map on your institution’s website. What color are the student residences? Chances are that student housing buildings outnumber all other campus facilities, which is a stark illustration of the importance of undertaking a residential master plan. Your residential life properties form a significant part of the whole of your campus and play a huge role in each student’s life. They merit a closer, more focused look.

Residential life facilities are taken for granted. Each fall, students arrive, trundling up the stairs, jockeying for elevator time, laden with bedding, posters, computers, microwaves, sports equipment, and even textbooks, to settle into nine months of campus life. Then each summer, after the last overstuffed minivan drives away, swarms of maintenance staff descend with paint buckets and cleaning supplies to spruce up the buildings before the process repeats the following autumn. Housing repairs may be planned or ad hoc, but they often run counter to the big picture. Should the bedrooms be refinished if, in fact, you need to reevaluate the ratio of singles to doubles?

Programming for Residence Life

Characteristics of campus life evolve and, with each passing semester, institutional leaders discover that expectations for housing and the role of residential life on campus have changed. As universities expand their focus beyond academic success to include student development and wellness, residences are more deliberately programmed to foster community, encourage interaction, and facilitate an integrated living and learning lifestyle. Housing is central to a student’s college experience. It is the place where they develop as individuals, learn to live within a community, and become the mature adults that they (and we) want them to be. Campus facilities, however, don’t always keep pace with such ambitions, and your existing residential stock may not be equipped to support the programming essential to this process. A residential master plan helps campus administration address these philosophical and cultural shifts proactively rather than reactively.

You may also find that, each September, members of your residential staff scramble to find extra beds or struggle to fill that residence hall sitting at the edge of campus. Perhaps there has been a deliberate university commitment to grow enrollment, or an unexpected demographic shift. Maybe students are seeking a community that they can’t find in that tower next to the gymnasium. Or students are moving off campus so that they can cook for themselves. A residential master plan examines trends in housing demographics and demand, aligns them with your institutional goals, and provides a plan for change that is realistic and manageable. 

Any one of these concerns — facility condition, outdated programming, or an imbalance between housing capacity and demand — point to a comprehensive examination of student housing at a strategic level. A successful residential master plan is guided by the institution’s culture and mission, grounded with facts and unbiased analysis, considers multiple ways to achieve housing goals, and, finally, produces a plan that is simultaneously visionary and achievable.

Study Campus Use Patterns

Campus use patterns are telling. Where do students live in relation to classrooms, study, dining, parking, and recreation destinations? How are rooms assigned? Has geography unintentionally segregated a portion of your student population? Are there distinct residential precincts, or is housing integrated into the campus fabric? Do a significant portion of students work off campus or go home to do laundry each weekend? Where do students go for the 10 p.m. pizza run? What’s more important to juniors and seniors: living next to the campus center or having a single bedroom? There are no correct answers, but housing policies, student priorities, and campus organization do influence how students choose their housing and how you might program your next residence hall.

Every college’s culture is unique and will result in different ideas about housing. For example, at Utah State University, the demand for married student housing challenged the norms of what many large universities provide for undergraduates, so the residential master plan focused on the development of neighborhoods for young families. At Massachusetts’ Amherst College, a smaller, elite liberal arts college, the driving issue was the creation of a Freshman Quad. Bard College, located in the bucolic landscape of New York’s Hudson River Valley, focused its planning efforts on new facilities that would bolster a previously isolated area of campus. And at urban MIT, where more than a quarter of the students live in fraternities, sororities, and other independent living groups, the master plan had to consider how minor changes in housing policy might unsettle these small communities and affect their ability to thrive.

Take Stock of Existing Facilities
Once you have established a residential life philosophy and gotten a grasp on the trends that are in demand for on-campus housing, it’s time to look at how well the current facilities serve your social and programmatic goals. Can that Gothic Revival residence hall be converted to suites? How many beds can you afford to lose as you add floor lounges with kitchens? If new buildings are necessary, how do they fit into the overall campus plan? It might suddenly be clear that your next project is not the apartment-style housing that the board has suggested, and is instead an infill building that completes the first-year quad. Can physical changes in housing be leveraged to support broader campus initiatives and influence the institution’s image to the outside world? A residential master plan provides a road map for renovation and new construction projects.

So how are you going to get all these projects done? What will it cost? How long will it take? With the analysis completed and a vision of the final plan established, university leadership can focus on developing an implementation plan. This means a financial strategy that accounts for capital expenditures, revenue from room rents, and the costs of financing. It also requires a realistic timeline that manages renovations so that the bed count is maintained, addresses essential infrastructure projects, and considers the level of disruption that the campus residence is willing to put up with. The key is to define a strategy that accomplishes your goals, not to establish your goals based on what is expedient and easy to execute.

A Rational Approach

A well-planned and well-executed residential master plan thoroughly explores programmatic opportunities and challenges and provides an institution with a more rational approach to managing those many, many residential buildings on the campus map. At the very least, it will save money by illustrating where a university’s housing assets are and putting costs in perspective.

A residential master plan also informs overall campus planning because it addresses such a significant portion of an institution’s buildings. It allows a more thoughtful approach to campus projects, so that a new science facility is not competing with a first-year community for university funds, building sites, and attention. And finally, an effective plan supports programmatic decision-making on campus, allowing leaders to look at their institution as a whole and focus on areas that need attention. If, for example, a university concludes that it must offer a first-year experience that bridges the transition from home to campus life, then it may need to reconsider placing freshman in three residence towers near the athletic complex because smaller housing communities are reserved for juniors and seniors. Here, the residential master plan would help by articulating the current system, how existing facilities could be used differently, and what new construction might be integrated into the campus fabric to achieve these goals.

It can be easy to be lulled by the expediency of repairing buildings each summer as issues come up, when the overall condition of residential facilities should be considered. Replacing bathroom fixtures in Residence X because it will reduce water consumption is good, but in a residential master plan, university leaders can see how Residence X fits into the entire campus and whether Residence X, new bathrooms or not, meets student needs and the overall residence life program.

So, take another look at that campus map. Individually, those little red or blue buildings aren’t so big, but they add up, and they deserve a thorough and thoughtful plan. 

Julia Nugent, AIA, is a principal with HMFH Architects ( With over 20 years of professional experience, Ms. Nugent has focused on college and university facilities and campus master planning assignments for clients such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and the Massachusetts State College Building Authority.

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