Dormitory design is being taken more seriously


BOSTON -- No more shadowy halls with door after anonymous door. No more sardine-can rooms with extension cords draping from every outlet. No more paper-thin walls and tacky lounge furniture.

Dormitories of today are having to respond to students' wishes as the college applicant pool shrinks and universities across the United States use every card in their decks to attract top students to their schools.

"Student housing is more amenable today than in the past, which was more prison-like than residential," says Greg Strickler, director of design and construction at MPC and Associates Inc., in Washington, a development consultation firm for universities across the country. "Students are becoming wise consumers. They want more bang for the buck."

Samantha Farber, a student at New York University, agrees. Making a dorm more like home "is really important, especially when room and board is so expensive now," she says.

"Universities are using housing to set them apart," says Earl Flansburgh, president of Earl Flansburgh and Associates, a Boston architectural firm that has designed more than 200 educational facilities and won the 1990 Walter Taylor Award for the best U.S. educational building of that year.

Roy Viklund, a principal in the Watertown, Mass., office of Sasaki Associates Inc., says the architectural firm designed the dorms at Boston College as apartments with the latest ammenities because the school was looking for an edge.

Voute Hall stacks four-person apartments, eight on each of four floors, with town houses on the top two floors. Scattered throughout the building are study rooms, TV lounges, music rooms, storage rooms, laundries, even its own library and exercise room, complete with rowing machines, standing cycles, and stair climbers.

Boston College students choose their residence halls and roommates and then are assigned housing through a lottery of computer-generated, random numbers, weighted to give seniors the advantage.

This dorm is in high demand, says Bob Capalbo, director of housing at Boston College. Mr. Viklund says waiting lists and lotteries often go hand-in-hand with new dorms; it is one way architects and administrators measure the success of a dorm.

Living in Voute Hall can cost up to $250 more per semester than it costs to live in other dorms on campus, but Mr. Capalbo says price does not seem to keep students from applying.

The University of New Hampshire's student apartment complex, which features steeply sloped, gabled roofs, has its own parking lot and food store with shelves lined with Lean Cuisine frozen dinners and Ben and Jerry's ice cream, and is designed to replicate apartment life more than traditional dorm life.

Another factor in today's dormitory design trends is the soaring rental market.

"Students were taking sleazier and sleazier accommodations," says Charles Oakley, campus architect for the University of California, Los Angeles. UCLA's first response, in the 1970s, was to build high-rises, eight to 10 stories with gang bathrooms at the end of the hall. That did not solve the problem. "There were vacancies, suggesting students would almost live anywhere except there," he says.

This fall UCLA students will move into a new complex of residence halls that are dramatically different from the institutional, egg-carton dormitories of the past. "Families" of 50 will nestle around a stairwell and living room in a series of two double rooms, linked by a bathroom. The wood-frame, stucco-style "houses" use natural light and interior design to make them more like home.

This intimate atmosphere is repeated in eight more dorms around a courtyard. Three courtyards pull together 12,000 students in the area, balancing students' wishes to meet many, yet know a few well.

"The innovations are less in the technical [area] than they are in the sociological," Mr. Oakley says of the UCLA dorms. But the technical is reflected in new design trends as well. With personal computers in almost every room, architects now include cables that connect individual terminals to a campus mainframe computer.

Mr. Flansburgh's designs include circuit breakers for each suite to isolate a blackout, safeguarding students in other parts of the building from losing everything they have not saved on their ever-active computers. Even the desks purchased by Tufts University in Medford, Mass., have changed. The school now buys bigger desks (42 instead of 36 inches wide) to accommodate computers.

Computers and other appliances popular with students have caused architects to increase the number of electrical outlets in each room. It is not uncommon for a dormitory room to house a refrigerator, toaster oven, microwave, radio-alarm clocks, lamps, two computers, two printers, a stereo, a TV, and a VCR, not to mention hair dryers, popcorn poppers, and coffee makers.

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