How Can We Design Pandemic-Ready Student Housing?

When students finally go back to college campus communities, what kind of housing should they move into?

With the holidays approaching, universities and colleges continue to try and cope with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. A relatively small number of college campuses resumed class this past fall, and more plan to reopen doors in the spring 2021 semester. Others have locked up until at least fall 2021.

According to KWK Architects Principal Sara Koester, universities and colleges that look to design new residence halls after the current global health crisis will be challenged to safely house students while still providing for their social and academic development. 

“Social interactions have taken on a new normal: social distancing, limited-size gatherings, and a responsibility to act in a manner that does not make someone else sick,” she says. “Residence hall design will evolve to reflect the current pandemic condition.” 

Size of Safety In University Housing



Close-quartered dormitory rooms will give way to more-carefully structured, contact-sensitive sites, as colleges respond to the coronavirus. Credit: AJ Watt/iStock

Koester says that safety and security will be paramount for future students and their families, likely resulting in a desire for single-occupancy bedrooms in residence halls. “Single-bedroom units can provide a safe haven,” she notes. “[A] personal retreat where students can relax away from others.”

She stresses, though, that this configuration may be too isolating for a student away from home for the first time. Many residence halls are designed specifically to house freshmen, and studies have shown that freshman students in double bedrooms with a roommate have a higher rate of retention. 

A “next best” bedroom style that will be considered is a double bedroom designed as a “paired-single” unit—two singles side-by-side—with each occupant having furniture, a closet, an operable window on “their side” and only necessarily shared elements, like a corridor door and mechanical unit/thermostat centrally located. The bedroom shape would be wide and shallow, allowing beds, desks, and closets to be located further apart. 

“The two sides can be marked with floor patterns and paint finishes to distinguish the two zones within the room,” Koester explains. “The two roommates will function as a ‘family unit’ since they are, indeed, sharing a room. These resident students will have experienced the pandemic in their formative years, and can rely on their prior experiences to understand the importance of appropriate space boundaries.” 

New bathroom designs may favor a clustered single-use bath arrangement where private-use bathrooms—each containing a toilet, lavatory (sink), and shower—are located together. When grouped with a community lavatory area, this offers opportunities for socializing while still providing for privacy. 

Two entrance/exit points to the facilities will allow for a one-way traffic pattern to be implemented when environmental health conditions warrant. The common lavatory area, with ample space between fixtures, will allow for ease of hand washing, as well as a chance to chat with other residents while maintaining social distancing, Koester notes. Meanwhile, new staff training and procedures will be required to ensure a constant—or at least much more frequent—cleaning cycle to safeguard the safety of all building users.

Interactive Actions In Residence Life

Social spaces, such as floor lounges and studies, will be sized and organized to allow for social distancing with distinct “stations” at appropriate intervals, according to Koester. Areas can be demarcated with floor patterns. 

Kitchen facilities should, ideally, be arranged for one-way circulation and appliances spaced to permit multiple work areas with adequate buffers between, Koester notes. And handwashing stations should be ample and sufficiently-spaced with accessories at each station. 

Design - COVID Bathroom Design-web

A new dorm bathroom design may feature clustered, private bathrooms with their own toilets, sinks, and showers, flanking a community lavatory area that offers opportunities for either social connection or privacy. Courtesy KWK Architects

“It has always been important to provide a variety of social spaces that allow for a range of activities—[such as] ‘quiet’ to ‘active’ and ‘small group’ to ‘large group,’” she says. “But now, residence halls should consider including single-person study spaces where a resident may go to focus on studies or simply decompress in a private, safe zone.” 

Circulation spaces in residence halls will need to evolve, Koester remarks. There are quite a few mandatory changes: 

  • Entrances to buildings will need to be wider and feature multiple single-entrance doors to avoid compressing residents as they enter the building. 
  • Lobbies should be large enough to allow for pedestrian flow to the elevators or stairs while social distancing, and elevators should be sized to accommodate multiple occupants at opposite corners. 
  • Additional elevators may be needed to safely address reduced elevator capacity due to social distancing restrictions. 
  • Corridors will need to be of ample width, and preferably feature one or more small alcoves at regular intervals off the main hallway, and perhaps one or more small benches with views to the exterior. These can serve as places to “step out” of the way and not be in the traffic flow. 
  • Doors to bedrooms should be located in recessed pockets off the corridor, allowing a student to transition into the main corridor flow. 
  • Airflow exchange and mechanical systems may need to be reevaluated with more-frequent filter changes.

“While the program for outdoor spaces in residence hall design has always been important, this will take on a heightened importance in providing places where residents can go for relaxation and space-distant socializing, with individual areas articulated in the design of the hardscape, landscape, and outdoor furniture,” Koester says. “Individual outdoor activities, like hammocking and swings, can offer places to unwind, while outdoor terraces and patios can offer places for small groups to safely meet while social distancing.” 

With careful and thoughtful planning, residence hall design can balance environmental health concerns and living preferences of students and their families—and foster community interaction and provide a nurturing environment, she adds.

Research information for this piece courtesy of KWK Architects