Gone are the days of cinderblock walls and students crammed two to a room on symmetrically opposed twin beds. Shared unisex bathrooms are becoming a thing of the past. A year (or more) of living with three-hundred-plus strangers in a crowded university dormitory — once considered by many to be a rite of passage in the American college experience — may no longer be the source of horror stories for future generations. The latest offerings in privately owned and developed college student housing prioritize quality and quantity, showing what can be accomplished when ambitious architects and developers embrace high-density zoning laws to implement their visions.
In some circles, the West Campus neighborhood adjacent to The University of Texas at Austin’s urban campus is considered ground zero for the luxury student housing market. Throughout the past decade, West Campus has consistently reflected, if not exceeded, the citywide increase in development in Austin. In 2004, the City of Austin approved the University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO) district in West Campus. The new UNO zoning laws proposed “high density redevelopment in the area generally west of the University of Texas campus” and aimed to “protect the character of the predominantly single-family residential neighborhoods adjacent to the district.” According to UT Austin professor and Page senior principal Lawrence W. Speck, FAIA, UNO brought thousands of formerly displaced students within walking distance of campus: “In the 1960s, there were maybe ten thousand students living out in areas from which they had to take shuttle buses to campus. It was extremely inconvenient, and it deterred activities at UT. The solution to this was the upgrading of zoning in West Campus. UNO was a smart move, no doubt.”
Among other things, UNO came up with streetscape improvements, allowed for one-hundred-percent impervious cover, and established a number of density bonuses for projects that comply with affordable housing and parking components. If a structure in West Campus sets aside 10 percent of the dwelling units to house residents whose household income is less than 80 percent of the median income in the Austin metropolitan area, it may add on 15 feet in height, or reduce its number of garage parking spaces to 40 percent of the city minimum. Nearly 15 years later, UNO’s goal of establishing a densely populated but livable pedestrian neighborhood is well on its way to being achieved.
Due to the nature of UNO’s up-zoning, the appearance and character of West Campus is slowly transforming, as more and more privately-owned, multi-story apartment complexes are replacing the battered single-family homes that have been familiar to generations of UT students. However, these multi-story projects are not just new spaces for the university population to be crammed into, dormitory-style. Architects are taking cues from student demand as well as from the young professional housing market, and forging a new path in student housing, one that creates a level of luxury and amenities unusual to college living spaces.
Since the creation of UNO, student housing projects developed within the district boundaries have shown that upscale living arrangements do not have to be limited to downtown skyscrapers. Features now standard in multi-story student apartment complexes in West Campus include expansive windows that create light-filled rooms and hallways, and provide sweeping views of the surrounding hills; sleek exterior finishes; and spacious single-occupancy bedrooms.
Lobbies are no longer environments to simply pass through; they have become inviting spaces in which residents can relax and socialize thanks to savvy interior design. In The Ruckus, which opened in 2017, the lobby, designed by Chelsea Kloss Interiors, rivals that of many boutique hotels, with modern seating arrangements swathed in opulent fabrics, framed art pieces on quirky gallery walls, and a muted color palette. The lobby in Skyloft, completed by Mark Hart Architecture and STG Design in 2018, receives abundant natural light, thanks to panoramic glass walls, and boasts a convenience store as well as a business center with multiple desktop computers and a printer.
Country-club-style outdoor amenities are now de rigeur in many new student housing projects. Skyloft and University House, designed by RHODE PARTNERS, have upper-level swimming pools overlooking the University of Texas Tower; both pool decks include outdoor lounge furniture, barbecue grills, and jumbo TV screens.
These developments are not unique to UT Austin. Two projects in College Station take their outdoor amenities to a level above anything seen in West Campus. The Barracks Townhomes offers residents what is described on the project’s website as “the region’s only $15-million-dollar Vegas-style playground for adults,” with lounge bungalows, a ProFlow surf machine, a wakeboard park, and a swim-up bar. In addition to a recreational pool and hot tub area, Campus Village includes a lazy river, sand volleyball courts, a basketball court, and a fire pit.
The Villas at San Gabriel, an STG Design project in West Campus, offers residents a more relaxed outdoor area, with a ground-level pool and hot tub next to lounge chairs and barbecue grills in the building’s center courtyard. However, Villas makes up for its lack of high-octane water sports with a number of interior amenities, such as a golf-simulator machine, poker room, and private in-home theater rooms in select apartments.
Playtime aside, many architects and developers in the student housing market are now taking care to create amenities that contribute to the overall mental and physical well-being of their residents. Study rooms are a common feature in many projects; University House, The Ruckus, and Skyloft in Austin and The Barracks and Campus Village in College Station have individual and group study spaces. These study areas offer student residents an attractive alternative to crowded, noisy, and harshly-lit campus study spaces, as they include quietly enclosed conference rooms and individual cubicles, comfortable seating, and soothing views of the surrounding neighborhoods. State-of-the-art fitness centers have become standard in student living spaces as well, helping to dispel the myth that college can be an unhealthy time for young adults.
Over the past decade, architects have been tracking changes in the types of amenities offered in student housing projects. Jack Tisdale, AIA, principal at STG Design, addresses this shift: “When I first started doing student housing, the big amenity to have was a tanning booth. You might as well have offered them a pack of cigarettes. That type of amenity is just not socially acceptable anymore. The two things that are still important, what the good projects are going to offer, are state-of-the-art fitness centers and study spaces.”
It is a frequently observed phenomenon in architecture that one’s built environment encourages certain behaviors and ways of living. A college apartment may be one of the most critically important living spaces in one’s adult life; for many, college is the first opportunity to live independently. The residential amenities available to students can have a profound impact on their crucial first steps out of the nest.
What responsibility do the architects and developers of student housing projects have to define students’ college experiences? As university tuition prices continue to climb, and pursuing a four-year degree becomes a more substantial investment, can these architects and developers help students get the best return possible on their investments? When buildings boast amenities that prioritize playtime and partying, one starts to wonder if all these luxuries will at some point conflict with universities’ academic missions. While it is reassuring to see more and more new projects including features that enrich the academic side of college life, like study rooms, architects and developers of college housing projects would do well to remember that students are notoriously fickle and undisciplined, and, in most cases, the less stimulation in their environments, the better.
In addition to college being a critical habit-formation period in one’s adult life, it is also a time in which many young adults develop and solidify their tastes and lifestyle preferences. For the first time in their lives, college students are allowed a glimpse of what “the real world” is like, and the city or town in which these students attend school often helps to construct their vision of adult life. On an urban campus like UT Austin’s, in the middle of a booming, high-tech metropolis, students are surrounded by Fortune 500 companies, and they live beside the young professionals who work at them. It becomes easy for students to envision themselves working on one of these high-tech, amenity-rich company campuses — and it is not uncommon for students from UT Austin and other urban universities to do exactly that.
Mark Hart, AIA, founder of Mark Hart Architecture, has worked on nearly 40 student housing projects in the West Campus neighborhood, including Skyloft and The Ruckus. He believes that the luxury student housing projects may encourage or entice residents to seek out similar arrangements, post-graduation: “Many of the big tech companies that are moving to Austin have their own campuses with their own luxury amenities. It’s almost like the students that live in these projects are being prepped for the professional realm, because after graduation they may want to go on to work for a company with a similar set-up, amenity-wise, to what they experienced in college.” Wilson Hack, director of marketing and business development at Mark Hart Architecture, says that she sees many parallels between the student housing market and the young working professional housing market. “People come to Austin for college, and then remain in Austin to work after they graduate. These people are in similar types of housing during both stages. People have tapped into this idea that you can create a demand for luxury urban housing in the student realm, before the students have reached the professional realm.”
If these luxury student housing projects are prepping residents for life as young professionals after college, they are doing it well. Many of the buildings emphasize the limbo that college students experience, with one foot in adolescence and one foot in adulthood. Architects employ a combination of playful accents against sleek and mature features; bright colors and lively patterns are common on both interiors and exteriors. Skyloft features a refined facade of concrete, gray metal, and tall windows, not unlike something one would find on a skyscraper in downtown Austin; on the inside, jewel-toned lobby furniture and bright blue-, green-, and pink-patterned walls are reminders that teenagers live there. The Ruckus has a lime-green exterior composed of different-sized, asymmetrical boxes encasing its sophisticated interior.
The guidelines dictated by UNO have created a framework within which architects can flex their creative muscles, rather than just reciting a manual of architectural style. This liberty to experiment is what Hart says he enjoys about working on student housing projects: “You’re working with a younger crowd. You have people in their late teens and early 20s, who are attracted to more colorful, funky-looking buildings. We can create things around campus that would not work downtown.”
While most architects and developers agree that this new type of amenity-rich student housing is a national trend, many believe it has been limited to Tier 1 universities across the country. (Tier 1 is a designation published by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education to refer to universities known for world-class research, academic excellence, an exceptional student body, and the highest levels of innovation, creativity, and scholarship.) But the question remains: What started this trend in the first place? Tisdale believes student demand was the driving factor. “A lot of the housing options available in West Campus, and also in the neighborhoods around other big universities, were old and run-down. These Tier 1 schools had a shortage of good student housing, and students wanted more,” Tisdale says.
Perhaps the students at these Tier 1 schools realized that their living spaces should match their world-class educations? Maybe. Regardless of its origins, architects, developers, and students across the country are wondering what the future of this trend will be.
Comparing the lists of amenities for student housing projects in West Campus, it seems as if each new high-rise is attempting to be more extravagant than the last. Both Tisdale and Hart referred to the trend as an “arms race.” With a new influx of residents entering West Campus every year, it is not illogical that buildings would attempt to compete for tenants by offering the latest and greatest amenities, such as cinema rooms and pool decks with downtown views. However, Hart believes that this arms-race tendency leads to a greater collection of housing options for students. “Everybody wants their building to be the coolest one out there, because next year someone is going to try and outdo your design, hoping that the students will move out of your building and into their building. But, this ultimately leads to choice in West Campus.”
Tisdale asserts that if you want to attract residents, you need to offer something unique in the building; however, many architects believe that this trend of adding extravagant amenities is slowing down in favor of a focus on affordability and academic-oriented features. “If you want to attract students, you need to offer some amenities,” Tisdale says. “However, I think the tendency of offering elaborate, resort-like features has toned down.” Speck also surmised: “Because there was so much development in the luxury student-housing market, now there are a lot of students who cannot afford to live in West Campus. Now, I think there are a lot of people interested in how we can build for that less-affluent market. Those country-club type of amenities are most likely not going to be done so much in the future. I think there is going to be more interest in the complete market, not just the high-end market.”
Regardless of its future, the luxury student housing trend has created a dynamic and aesthetically intriguing neighborhood within the urban core of Austin. There is no doubt that UNO was an extremely beneficial measure, not just for the West Campus neighborhood, but for the entire city; it protects the rest of Austin from the university’s population of 50,000-plus spilling over while creating a pocket of architectural styles not seen anywhere else in the city. The fact that architects and developers are recognizing the need for more affordable, less extravagant student housing bodes well for the trend; subsequent projects will hopefully still pursue intriguing designs, with a prioritization of quality over quantity in amenities.
Luxury student housing is far from becoming trite. Thanks to the success of projects in Austin and College Station we may see a new standard of student living be established across the country.
Mackie Kellen is a rhetoric student at The University of Texas at Austin and an editorial intern at TA.