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College Choice is as Much About Education as it is About Hospitality

University Business, Nov 2010

Prospective college students and their parents use a much different barometer today to select a university. Yes, the value of education is important. But increasingly, so is the square-footage of a student's room, quality of cafeteria food and lobby decor. It's no coincidence that university student centers and residence hall common areas share the same color palettes found in the latest Teen Vogue and have the same kind of finishes you'd expect to see in three-star and above hotels and upscale apartments and homes.

While educators would prefer to focus on what students learn in the classroom and not the flat screen and furnishings in the student lounge, the reality is that universities are vying for top talent. They know that to be in the game, they have to think about modern comforts the Millennial Generation expects and demands.

Millennials - also known as Generation Y - want wireless connectivity, small classrooms, collaborative spaces and green campuses. Generation Y has grown up with individual conveniences - their own bathrooms, bedrooms and schedules. Many aren't willing to sacrifice those comforts when heading off to college. Likewise, their parents want to make sure their children have every advantage possible.

When Purdue University began talking about remodeling and renovating Windsor Halls, its oldest, all-women's residence hall at its West Lafayette, Ind., campus, we discussed how to update the antiquated mechanicals. We also talked about how a renovation of Windsor Halls, a structure that includes five separate residence halls connected by tunnels, could be updated to appeal to the needs and wants of incoming students.

Purdue University Housing Facilities Director Tim Gennett wanted to ensure residence halls would help the university be competitive in attracting top students. He also wanted to create campus life that would entice students to want to stay beyond their freshman year. Like other top universities, Purdue knows the lure of a chance of more freedom by living off campus in rental homes, apartments and the Greek system.

Purdue launched a $65 million, multi-phase project that has included the renovation of Windsor Halls. Design and development of the final phase of the project began this summer. As architects of the project, we needed to understand Purdue's philosophies and how students make college decisions, live on campus, study and spend their free time.

Purdue involved its housing directors and many students during the design process.

Every detail was on the table, from individual rooms to lighting fixtures. I'm sure no one talked about whether the fluorescent lights caused Amelia Earhart eye strain when she lived inside Windsor Halls' Duhme Hall. But, that's exactly the kinds of discussions we had with university staff and architects. Every detail of student life was considered.

This design project would have been so much easier if we had a clean slate. Instead, we had to work within the envelope built over the span of two decades starting in the mid-1930s. Renovating the existing buildings brought with them a set of advantages and disadvantages. However, it was imperative that we retained the integrity and the history of the buildings within the walls of the structure.

We focused on five key concentrations to make this renovation project appealing to current and future Purdue University students:

Students want flexibility. In the individual rooms, we used drop ceilings to add more recessed lighting within the room without losing ceiling height for lofted beds, something we knew was important. Flexible space also was important in common areas. Students like to collaborate. There needed to be spaces for students to get together in intimate settings to study and areas for more impromptu activities.

College campuses are enjoying success as all-inclusive resorts. Universities aren't just in the education business. They are in the hospitality business. Generation Y is not the fast-food generation of a decade ago. They demand quality over quantity. Students also have varied eating habits that have led to cafeterias to remaining open for extended hours and offering a variety of food, including cuisine from Africa, Cuba or the Mediterranean. The Windsor Halls dining court looks more like an urban marketplace, offering a Soho market, Portobello Road for vegetarians and vegans and Abby Road that serves up sandwiches and bakery items with freshly made goodies. Purdue - like many universities - has opted for higher-end finishes and bolder colors throughout their dining courts and common areas that appeal to students.

Students want to stay on campus. Because universities are adapting and adopting this all-inclusive philosophy, they're keeping students on campus. With all the comforts of home in the residence hall, there's less reason to explore off-campus areas and more reason to sign up for campus housing year after year. Movie theaters, play rooms and laundry facilities all are tied together throughout the halls.

'New' doesn't necessarily mean better. Shiny and new does have its appeal. But Windsor Halls also has a place in Purdue's history. Students like to know that famous people, such as Amelia Earhart, once stayed there. That history was preserved during the renovation. Date rooms, once used for young women to meet their dates as men weren't allowed on the residence hall floors, have been replaced by common areas. The renovation included restoring the ornate coffin ceiling, original woodwork, formal fireplaces, window seats and the fieldstone floors. The character of the residence halls was preserved in a variety of ways throughout the collegiate-Tudor-style facilities.

Students want and need their privacy. After all, most students grew up with their own rooms and private bathrooms. When possible, we worked to create more private rooms and bathrooms. Because of the age of the buildings, however, we were limited by the mechanicals system to create an abundance of private rooms. To compensate, we used residential-style finishes and created more amenities so Windsor could compete with newer campus living options.

This trend toward hospitality within the college campus is going to continue. Universities that understand what their students want, need and demand will be better prepared to compete for top students - and their parents. At the end of the day, Purdue University's administrators know that it's all about meeting the needs of their students.

Sanford E. Garner is president of A2SO4 in Indianapolis, an architecture firm that specializes in university, community and urban planning and design. Garner also is president of the 2010 National Organization of Minority Architects.

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