What’s next in student residences

Ten trends from Chicago’s annual student housing summit

Last week, I took part in the Illinois Real Estate Journal’s 2nd Annual Student Housing Conference, held June 22, 2016 at The University of Chicago Gleacher Center.

More than 150 attendees from the real estate, development, higher ed, design and construction industries gathered in Chicago to hear expert opinions on today’s student housing market and trends in design, construction and property management for student residences. Christopher Merrill, President and CEO of Harrison Street Capital gave the keynote address with Lisa Skolnik of Intralink Global furthering the discussion.

Featuring a dozen experts in finance and real estate, university planning, design and construction, the event was broken into two panels. Moderated by Ryan Tobias of Triad Real Estate Partners, the State of the Market panel featured Michael Higgins, associate director, HFF; John Diedrich, SVP of investments, CA Ventures; Kevin White, acquisition director for Virtus Real Estate Capital; Don Shapiro, president and CEO of Foresite Realty Advisors. I joined moderator Robert Natke of UrbanWorks; Doug Campbell, associate vice president at Cannon Design; Wayne Magdziarz, senior vice president for Capital Planning, Loyola University; and Greg Werner, SVP and general manager for Mortenson Construction on the Today’s Design, Construction, Property Management Needs panel.

Horizon Village at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

Horizon Village at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh


I came away from the conference with a number of thoughts on the current trends, challenges and overall direction of student housing. Here are my top ten.

A growing market
Despite the rising expense of higher education and the looming shadow of student debt, more young people are attending college in America than ever. Enrollments are on the rise and are projected to rise further.  Thus, the market forecast for student housing is strong, more robust than the market for multifamily residential, in fact.

Aging housing, low budgets
University stock is aging, and some schools are looking at replacements for sixty-year-old buildings. Unfortunately, for many schools, budgets are low to non-existent for new on-campus housing. Schools are considering private/public partnerships or coming to accept that private off-campus development is inevitable.

Taking housing seriously
Today’s colleges and universities compete intensely for students and research shows that students consider housing options a significant factor in deciding on a school. Schools also look to research which shows out of class learning is crucial to success.

Proximity to campus
Off-campus options have been expanding to meet demand. And properties near campus are more resilient to market fluctuations. Student surveys consistently show that easy access to campus is a top priority. Universities understand that developers are going to be providing some housing near campus.

The Wabash Building at Roosevelt University

The Wabash Building at Roosevelt University


Must-have amenities
The “echo-boomer” has arrived, a generation of students that expect privacy and a range of amenities. Student needs are changing the nature of student housing design. Everything is available somewhere, from smoothie bars to hot tubs but not every student housing project features such luxuries. But there are some amenities that have emerged as essential. Technology is key—Wi-Fi is simply a must for today’s students, while private bedrooms and private or semi-private baths, kitchens and kitchenettes are nearly must-haves. Fitness rooms are desirable, but usually pale in comparison to what’s available in campus athletic facilities, making them less than essential.

Social spaces
Social spaces, where out-of-class learning and collaboration can take place, are more important than ever. To be successful, social spaces should be effortless and easy to fall into. Rooms that are too large or difficult to find can be hard to program or activate by students on the move.

Student behavior
In this digital, wired era, parents want college to be a place of social engagement, not technology-addled isolation. Parents want students to bond with other students.

Horizon Village at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

Horizon Village at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh


The flipside of this desire for social interaction is that parents also want management that can supervise student behavior. Secure entrances, enhanced by technology, are also a high priority.

Living and learning
Hybrid projects are becoming more popular, both because they are more likely to be financially justified and because they are emblematic of a resurgent model of education. These hybrids are grouping student residences on campus with classrooms, meeting space, libraries, student unions and other functions. The residential college model—previously seen in campus building designs of Saarinen and Stern–in which students live in the same building as their classrooms, is resurging.

Building flexibility
As an architect of both student residences and multi-family housing, I’m particularly conscious of buildings from the mid-century onward and their short lifespans. Just look around Chicago, where we’re knocking down sixties-era housing and refurbishing century-old warehouses as offices or housing. Sixties student housing product was inflexible, so what are we doing now to make buildings with the flexibility to last long? We can start by looking at those highly desirable warehouses with their high floor-to-floor heights and big windows. We need to think about long life uses for the next generation of campus buildings.

Leave a Comment

Write your comment