Michael R. Ytterberg: Serving the Graduate Student Market with Market Rate Design

Michael R. Ytterberg Michael R. Ytterberg

There’s no question that urban areas are experiencing an influx of millennials who seek an experience rich lifestyle. Upon moving to a new city, matriculating graduate students enter law, business, medical or other professional programs a bit older, with years of work experience and savings, or with parents who are willing to support them. Their tastes are a bit more refined, but they still want to find living arrangements that are not isolating and that have a strong sense of community, like what they experienced as undergraduates.

The preferences of this population are propelling the development of many more high-end residential buildings catering to people in their late 20s and early 30s than cities have experienced in previous years. Thus, many graduate students at urban universities are opting out of the standard on-campus housing options provided to them and are moving off campus into spaces that suit their wants and needs.

Universities can design graduate student housing to compete with these growing alternatives adjacent to campus. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Design for the Audience

University officials should pay close attention to design trends. The student housing of the past served its purpose as a temporary living space in which students could reside between their classes and extracurricular activities. Of course, long gone are the days of the antiquated dorms comprised of bare necessities like cinderblock walls, fluorescent lights and communal bathrooms. 

The latest trends are known to all through Internet sites like Pinterest, and the prevalence of affordable-yet-chic furniture shops, like Ikea and West Elm, make cool furnishings more available than ever before. Graduate students want to live in apartments that feel stylish but comfortable at the same time. They desire the cool, industrial, generational appeal that comes with modern finishes.

Design should be focused on a variety of unit types — allowing individuals to live in small studios and one-bedroom units, or shared arrangements, which can mimic the dormitory style of living. Small, super-efficient units can allow for both high-end finishes and amenities and affordability at the same time. With small units, undergraduate and graduate student housing facilities can replicate their market-rate apartment with finishes such as granite countertops, tiled baths and wood look vinyl floors.

Make it Social

Graduate and undergraduate students are at different points in their lives, and thus have different needs. Their wants and expectations when it comes to having common spaces for living in a social setting, however, are continuous.

Common spaces can be used as an expansion to personal living spaces where graduate students can engage in social activities. University officials should plan to create lounging, fitness, entertainment and study spaces within residential common areas, leaving the individual dwelling unit as small and efficient as possible.

Lounges and entertainment centers equipped with sofas and high-top chairs, flat screen televisions, projector screens, billiard tables and other games are ideal for group studying sessions, as well as social events. Shared spaces could also include a community kitchen.

Walkability and Safety is Key

Graduate students value having an easy commute and minimizing the travel time from their housing to the university campus. To compete, university officials should prioritize walkability when planning for new student housing areas. For students who ride bicycles — an often-preferred means of transit for millennials — a locked space devoted to their storage is imperative.

Amenities are now the Bare Necessities

Once thought of as luxuries, amenities are now considered essential. While options and preferences vary by market and climate, they need to correlate with the lifestyle desired by the target community.

An outdoor courtyard complete with fire pits, grills and cabanas could provide students with a getaway from their rigorous coursework. Because graduate school can be incredibly demanding, many graduate students spend as much time in the gym as they do studying in order to de-stress. Cutting edge fitness centers and yoga studios are an essential part of enticing graduate students who maintain active, healthy lifestyles. Then there are pools, more common in the south, but also present in the north even if outdoors and only seasonally available. A resort-style pool is a great way to distinguish a property from the competition and appeal to the graduate student demographic.

To this end, the future of graduate student housing facilities lies in creating a multi-functional, mixed-use property complete with cafes, fast-casual restaurants and bars and seating and retail spaces on the ground floor.

Michael R. Ytterberg, PhD., AIA, LEED AP is a principal at BLT Architects in Philadelphia and has extensive experience designing multifamily projects.

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