Giving Space Back to Students: Innovative Residence Hall Environments to Enhance Student Learning

I read a story once that included this quote. “Academics will fight over money and kill over space.”

Yes, space is a serious, expensive business on college campuses, and students are often the ones who lose out.

We’ve seen again and again how campus space, overtime, gets absorbed by someone who needs it at the moment: new faculty, new administrative functions, new associations, even storage. In residence halls, what was in vogue in the 1960s when the hall was built—cubby hole convenience stores and walled off study areas—remain even as student preferences change.

That’s why a residence hall renovation, or a new addition to existing student housing areas, can be such a great catalyst for shaking up all the space and repurposing it more efficiently.

Catalyst for Change

At the University of Alberta, a proposed new residence hall is proving to be just that catalyst. The new hall is expected to be the fifth hall in what’s known as the Lister Community. The first three halls were built in the 1960s, the fourth was added about 15 years ago. The area houses 1,700 freshman students. The new hall will add room for 468 more. 

As the university began discussions about the new hall, questions emerged about how the entire complex worked for today’s students. Were spaces needlessly replicated? Was space being optimally used?

We helped the university look at all the space. Our goal was to give space back to students and to make those spaces vehicles to increase student engagement.

The space inventory revealed both good and bad news. The bad news? “We have spaces that are not in the right place or situated for the right use,” says Kelly Hopkin, the university’s Manager Campus Architecture. The good news? “We shouldn’t have to build so much new,” Hopkin says — if space is more optimally used.

 During the study, we took the University's Steering committee on a tour of four renovated student residences at the University of Michigan. Later, we used images from those projects to show what would be possible at Lister.

Welcome Home

For security reasons, there’s one main entry to the entire complex, at Lister Center. But the “front door” lacks a welcoming feel. Once inside, students encounter administrative offices, parking department offices, locked doors and rooms that have become storage. To even get to the front desk, they walk through a bland hallway. 

With the proposed redesign, the entry way will be student space. There will be a glass-walled tutoring and mentoring suite so students can actually see the faculty inside and be more likely to enter the space. A convenience store and the random seating around it will be turned into a dedicated event space with food nearby. Administrative offices, including those for parking, will be moved to other parts of the complex or campus.

“The front door is a first impression. Over time, it had been repurposed for administration. We want it to be something that welcomes students home to the residence,” Hopkin says. Once inside, walkways to the student rooms will be lined with spaces and services that engage and serve students, including study rooms for individuals and small groups and spaces for collaboration.

Changes to other halls are also part of the plan. The first floor of all of the towers will be student space intended to serve all 2,100 students. In the new residence hall, for instance, the university hopes to place a fitness center, multipurpose room and study spaces—all as close as possible to the other halls.

In another building, a room used for yoga is expected to be repurposed into a maker space. Why? The room has columns down the center and so isn’t good for any other athletic purposes. Yoga will move to the new building.

In another hall, a table/video games room will expand into a vacated student association space that had become storage. That student association now will have outposts in each residence hall to be more accessible to students. 

The numbers clearly reveal a renewed focus on students. Space devoted to academic support will swell to 14,337 square feet, up from just 386. The common space per student will grow to 45 feet with the proposed plan, up from 40 currently. Administrative/office space will shrink from almost 36,000 square feet to less than 20,000.

Helping Recruitment, Student Success

The stakes of managing campus space have never been higher. 

For one, institutions can’t afford wasted or under-utilized space. “We need to maximize the assets we have,” says Geoff Rode, Director of Operations, Ancillary Services, at the University of Alberta. Also, spaces that delight students will help recruitment efforts and boost student engagement. That leads to more successful students, and engaged future alumni.

So, yes, space is something to be fought over, and students should always win.

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