Article Title

Observations | (Re)Building Student Housing for COVID-19

Rona Room


Many people across the world are embracing a new reality embedded in virtual connectivity as they slowly transition into limited face-to-face contact. For higher education faculty and students, the upcoming school year raises a shared feeling of uncertainty that poses a key question: what is the impact of COVID-19 on the present and future of on-campus housing? For designers the question becomes how can we help mitigate the spread of illness in on-campus housing while maintaining its cultural experience?

Crowded Dining Hall
Dining halls can no longer serve as a gathering place as they were originally designed to be. (Source)

Current Issues in Context of COVID-19:

Higher Education Institutions are simultaneously facing an economic, social and health crisis, increasing awareness on how well our campuses are managed and their preparedness for crisis situations. Universities pride themselves on offering all students the dorm living experience – one based on constant social interaction and a shared “eat-work-live” environment. But these very amenities are now creating major challenges as students return to live on campus.

One major concern is the residence dining hall. Modern dining halls act as a watering hole for students to eat, study, and socialize, often with self-service salad bars, cafes, and cafeteria-style service. Now university leaders and staff must work to develop alternative methods for food service and delivery. Will food be delivered to students and by whom? How will food be served and where will students eat? Especially for those who test positive for coronavirus. All remain unknown.

Shared spaces, like restrooms, laundry, and lounges pose another challenge. A huge issue is not only how universities will enforce new precautionary measures but how can a positive social and cultural experience also be retained. Students benefit from the built-in community culture that is created from the sharing of knowledge and experiences, supporting one another, and forming lasting relationships. With limited face-to-face contact, students might find it difficult to develop relationships with one another, communicate and socialize daily.

And finally, the dorm room itself creates the third challenge. Many students choose to have a roommate or multiple roommates and want guests to visit in the rooms. Should students have roommates or be allowed to have guests in the rooms? How can a student properly quarantine if they contract or meet someone who has tested positive for COVID-19?

Many universities have already informed their faculty and students of the new mandates stating the instruction for classes and on-campus regulations for health and safety measures. What does this mean for the adaptability of the built environment in the short term and medium term? What about the long-term implications for future health concerns?

Hls Dorm
Single student dorms such as the above at Harvard Law School will need to become the norm during a pandemic. (Source)

Possible Design Strategy Solutions:

For dining halls, the cafeteria-style service will need to be eliminated or altered to protect the food, students and staff from any contamination. Meals from the dining halls could offer grab-n-go, take-out, or delivery, using disposable utensils, napkins, and containers. Dining halls could also section off seating areas and clearly mark seats with a minimum six-foot distance to indicate where students can eat safely. Removal of several tables, chairs, and self-service food stations could allow more spaced-out seating as well. Additionally, student housing managers can anchor chairs to the floor to dissuade too many individuals at a table if enforcement is a concern. Students who desire to prepare their own meals could receive meal kits from the dining hall. Meal preparation could happen in a student’s bedroom with a small kitchenette or during reserved times in a communal kitchen, if available.

As the value of privacy and safety rises exponentially, increased occupancy in single-dwelling units will be seen, especially if many common study spaces are to be off limits. Although there are certain to be several empty rooms, due to a limited number of roommates permitted, these vacancies could be used to support student housing in decentralizing and replicating the common spaces throughout the building or complex. “Micro communities” can be developed around these shared spaces by using a “clustering” organizational method. For instance, a smaller laundry room, lounge, restroom and kitchenette could be placed next to one another for a small group of students to share. This clustered arrangement of shared amenity space could then be repeated throughout a dorm building to create small communities that provide students a sense of self-reliance and strengthen social interactions. The future of student housing design has already begun to head toward the trend of communal spaces and pod clusters to create more intimate living communities.

Student housing could also readily adapt study spaces and bedrooms into conference rooms for virtual needs, which could flexibly support some students enrolled in the same virtual courses or forming study groups to enhance the feeling of a living-learning community.

Notably, so much of our perception and interactions rely on the sense of touch, and we must recognize its potential risk for spreading illness. In order to prevent or mitigate it, the integration of improved technologies should play a critical role in creating flexible and adaptable environments. Sensors, such as automatic doors, retrofitted foot-operated door handles, and AI technology, such as facial recognition and body temperature screening, could alter the way that staff and students enter/exit and navigate through their dwelling units and amenities while minimizing contact with potentially contaminated materials.

You might also ask what can be prepared for the students who contract the coronavirus during the school year. Due to the offering of in-person, online, and hybrid courses, several students might opt to live at their permanent homes and take only online courses while other students might feel safer to defer a semester. In such cases, some universities plan to use their empty rooms and dining halls for a temporary quarantine setup for rapid testing, treatment and secured boarding. Only a few might have the means to construct new temporary facilities on campus. If the above cluster method is used, students will have the necessities needed to quarantine without threatening the rest of the facility. However, for rest of the student population living in dormitories, quadruple and triple sized units will need to de-densify to units of two, and double units might need to be reduced to a single private unit. Entry access into dorm buildings, quarantine spaces and floors with dwelling units could also be monitored and limited to only the people who work and reside there with card readers or AI facial recognition while visitors should be limited and pre-approved.

A Call for Action:

While many universities are being reactive to the current pandemic, we as designers can strive to be proactive in providing our knowledge and skills to help shape the healthy, safe and stable environments that campuses need now and in the near future. We have the power to transform the negative impact of COVID-19 into an opportunity for positive change to rebuild around the principles of equity, health and the human experience. This is a call to action for designers to find alternative ways to rebuild and maintain the social connection and cultural experience that students need in student housing/on campus.


Lauren Garriott is a designer working out of Bailey Edward's Champaign Office. Her passions lie in the intersections of health, well-being and design. She strives to incorporate these values into affordable housing, public housing, and humanitarian architecture.  Lauren is a member of NOMA and received her Master of Architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign