Designing for the Next Generation of Student Life

Continuing from Part I of our Student Life Series, where we discuss strategies for student housing in the COVID-19 era. Written by Mike Porritt, Scion Advisory Services; Doug Campbell, Ghafari; and Mike Durand, Ghafari.

Social Distancing for the Residence Room

Student housing at many institutions has included a number of design features that could once again prove valuable in the COVID-19 era. Partial or ‘pony’ walls along with strategically placed furniture (like armoires) have been used to create privacy between roommates in the past, and now, these same strategies could provide an important room zoning function. At a recent project, where the design team was asked to adapt a former hospital into a student residence, focus groups noted that the ceiling-mounted curtains wrapping around beds could be saved or reinterpreted as a simple, cost effective, and flexible way to provide individual privacy. In today’s context, this privacy barrier also provides virus protection. We could design these curtains in a more attractive fashion, with color, pattern, and perhaps a clear plastic section for visual connectivity. Now, we have a feature that is protective in the short term and provides privacy and residential character in the long term.

In new construction projects, adding a small sink to a bedroom can allow for a notable decrease in the need for surface cleaning as teeth brushing and more frequent hand washing (another protective measure) are able to be done without leaving the room. Other benefits of a sink in the bedroom include limiting the exposure to community bathrooms and the separation of bathroom fixtures that often allows for greater use among roommates. As yet another benefit, a sink in the bedroom may be particularly attractive to students with religious beliefs that require additional washing, allowing them to more easily and privately do so. Something as simple as the installation of a hand sanitizer dispenser at the room entry door could be another cost-effective solution that we see in hospital and healthcare design.

Don’t Leave Out the Common Spaces

In the COVID-19 era, we would urge colleges and universities to re-design rather than eliminate residence hall common spaces. We know that these gathering areas promote student success in ways that are core to higher education’s mission and are among the most valued features by students. The rethinking of these spaces could include thoughtfully executed social distancing signage and cues that can be adjusted depending on the current circumstances. Think of a six-foot reference today that could be adjusted to more or less tomorrow. We have seen the separation of large spaces into smaller group settings with strategically placed white boards, TV monitors, and furniture arrangements. The furniture itself may adjust with high partitions that give an added layer of virus protection, social separation, and acoustic privacy.

We may even see common spaces used very strategically for distance learning. As universities look to de-densify classrooms, they could set up a residence hall lounge or living room as a remote classroom with live feeds and video chat capabilities. Common spaces could even be used to address the dramatically increasing health concerns (due to COVID-19) and psychiatric counselling demands (pre-existing) on campus by converting small spaces into ‘telemedicine’ chat rooms. As suggested here, the opportunity to pivot common spaces toward flexible, long-term value for students and the institution is significant.

Touchless Environments

Even though we are finding that COVID-19 spreads more frequently through face-to-face contact, we know that reducing water droplets through touchless environments can help reduce transmission. Keycard touchpads, automatic front door openers, and elevator card swipes are obvious place to begin (with many of these strategies already in place). Many schools have had interest in keyless, card swipe, or tap room doors but, have been deterred by the cost of installation. Perhaps the cost of installation will come down with a resurgent demand, or institutions will simply view this as a good time to invest. ‘Self-cleaning’ door handle sleeves may be another option here.

Bathrooms are the next obvious area for touchless advances. We are all familiar with touchless bathroom fixtures like sinks, toilets, urinals, and hand dryers. But, we may see touchless bathroom entry doors, or the removal of the door altogether, which can be designed to provide privacy, universal access, and gender-neutral options. At the scale of the individual room, we will continue to see the prioritization of occupancy sensors and voice commands tied to lighting and mechanical systems, eliminating these high touch points while helping with energy conservation.

Next week we will conclude with Part III of this three part series on our blog. To read the full article visit our partners’ website at

If you’d like to speak with our student housing experts, please contact or click below to Ask Scion.

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