For Universities, Living Smaller is Living Better

Looking at the housing and living challenges facing U.S. communities, one thing is clear: Smaller things are coming our way. Even in regions where open space is plentiful, living quarters are shrinking as more people simplify and economize. New houses are being built that are strikingly small, with some totaling less than 500 square feet, about a fifth of the average 2,600 square feet for American single-family homes. Some new apartment units are even smaller.
This growing trend, often called tiny living, is driven largely by two very different demographic groups: millennials and retirees. Both are sensitive to the cost of living and respond positively to dwelling arrangements with a focus on shared social spaces and amenities. The broad-based movement offers a reexamination of the essential aspects of housing and home life. The trend toward micro-housing is also coming soon to a university near you.

As the national discussion about the affordability of U.S. higher education has become a pressing social topic, more university leaders are considering ways to reduce debt burdens and even tuition for today’s college students. Housing is a big contributor and often an influence on cost increases for campus life. According to the College Board, the average annual cost of housing, transportation, books and fees at four-year, in-state public institutions is more than twice that of tuition itself. As universities are looking to more affordable approaches to student housing, an increasing number see value in reducing the footprint of housing or increasing the density of residential buildings.

This has led to a nascent movement among some innovative universities of applying unique and often unexpected approaches to housing. These schools emphasize quality over quantity and focus on creating places for activities, rather than underutilized rooms. Examples include the Gault Schoolhouse adaptive-reuse project at Ohio’s College of Wooster, where an old schoolhouse has been converted into student housing that flips the usual arrangement: sleeping areas are located toward the building interior, while social spaces are placed along the building’s exterior wall and big windows. The sleeping pods with built-in study zones are as small as is practical (and allowed by codes)—about 7 feet wide by 12 feet long—while the living rooms are ample, open and shared.

The initial reaction from parents is typically concerning, but when they see their children’s positive reactions to the sleeping pods and the added benefit of larger, well-lit living rooms that build community, their concerns are somewhat allayed. They see that smaller, more carefully crafted and designed can be better than larger and generic. One parent told his daughter at Wooster that “she better enjoy it because when she graduates, she likely won’t have a place as nice.”

While the design is economical, green and resourceful, it also reflects the institution’s beliefs in education and residential life. “This is probably the finest, most interesting college residential space that you are going to find on any campus, anywhere,” says Grant Cornwell, president of College of Wooster. “The design fosters our mission.”

This is not to say that quantity does not matter; to the contrary, providing sufficient beds to accommodate the student population is critical. When South Carolina’s College of Charleston faced the challenge of updating its Rutledge Rivers Residence Hall in order to meet code and ADA compliance, initial studies projected a 15% to 35% net loss in the number of beds. When the project team introduced a tiny living model for the upgrade, the project actually gained six beds, increasing the number from 103 to 109.

The design utilized lofted built-in single and double bedrooms as well as custom-designed sleeping pods to maximize space. Apartments accommodating four to six students each include a private bath, a living room and a kitchenette. In some cases, the pods are located on interior walls to borrow light from the living space—a strategy that decoupled the limit on the number of beds from the number of windows in the existing structure. Meanwhile the design team was able to program shared amenities on the ground floor that were not in the original building: a large community space, a laundry room, a public bathroom and a resident assistant’s program room. The update not only represents a way to increase the number of beds, but is a model for an enhanced student living experience.

Many others have begun testing the tiny living concept, too. In 2019 the University of British Columbia in Vancouver will debut a residential project with 70 units of 140-square-foot, single-occupancy student apartments—fully furnished, with a small kitchen and a bed that converts into a desk—at about CDN $675 to $695 per month. This beats their on-campus average of CDN $1,000, and is half the typical rent for a Vancouver apartment. European schools have also led by example: In Lund, Sweden, a 94-square-foot residential unit has been tested and the pilot is now expanding to 22 units, although they will expand to about 110 square feet each. Facing a national shortage of university housing, Sweden exempted the “BoKompakt” project from legal minimum size requirements. The units rent for about $375 per month.

In the U.S., cost is just one factor. More institutions see tiny living as an answer to changing demographics and a way to be more sustainable. And as at College of Wooster, the concepts can energize student life. In fact, the benefits of student micro-residences have inspired new conversations among housing officers and university life leaders, many hoping to adopt the ideas to simply boost overall enjoyment and quality of campus experience.

In New England, the organization University Student Living has projects with efficient-sized units in planning or underway, as part of its national rollout. One project is slated for Boston University.

In fact, one way to incorporate these new housing initiatives is to partner with developers or to encourage private builders to create more compact and economical off-campus housing. These models carry advantages for both the property developers and the universities, while simultaneously tapping an adjacent market: short-term renters. In fact, micro-units can address gaps in local rental housing markets as well as for student housing. A five-story example currently under construction in New Haven, Conn., has been conceived by Mod Equities to offer fully furnished, 400-square-foot studios that can be leased for any length of time—from one day to a full year.

An alternative to options like hotels, unfurnished apartments or on-campus rooms, flexible-term furnished micro-apartments can offer an enhanced experience for off-campus students at a reasonable rent. The Mod Equities building also offers high-quality shared amenities including a communal kitchen, fitness center and roof deck, encouraging exploration and informal interactions. Some developers and higher-education leaders are looking to similar models for off-campus housing, especially when the future campus populations might swing up or down.

The New Haven project is designed to accommodate graduate students and international students who come for fellowships and other academic programs. These students are sometimes older and may have spouses that have employment in other locals and do not want to make the major move to a new city. Residents will not have to buy a whole new set of household items for their short term residence—they only need to arrive at the beginning of the term and leave when their studies are complete. They don’t need to go to eBay or CraigsList to buy and then sell. In addition, for many universities have a large number of fellows, postgraduate researchers and visiting faculty who also are interested in such accommodations. As for the graduate students, the full-service model serves their needs as they will continue to maintain their primary residences.

So how should a university or college approach the question of whether to consider a tiny housing experiment? The first consideration is the demand for beds measured against the budget. Administrators may also want to consider the university’s stated commitments to sustainability and reduction of energy and resource consumption, as well as the availability of land for building new housing. Last, the institution must find new ways to be responsive to students struggling with housing costs or seeking alternatives to conventional dormitory models. Not only are they looking for better and more stimulating campus experiences, but they are also watching their costs.

Jay M. Brotman, AIA, is managing partner of the global architecture, art and advisory firm Svigals + Partners, based in New Haven, Conn. Thomas Carlson Reddig, AIA, LEED AP, is community global practice leader, with the international firm Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, Charlotte, N.C.

Photo of students “tiny living” at College of Wooster.

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