Developing a Comprehensive Housing Strategy: A Case Study

Developing a Comprehensive Housing Strategy: a Case Study
by Tim Marsters and Kelly Bliss

In the current highly competitive higher education market in North America, many colleges have identified the importance of upgrading their existing residential housing facilities as part of their strategy to attract and retain students. The case study discussed in this article describes the successful planning process used by Perkins+Will and Simmons College to develop a comprehensive housing strategy and plan for the college for the next 10 to 15 years. The process involves five steps, which will yield a realistic and consensus-driven housing strategy for any institution.

This case study shares successes in developing a long range comprehensive housing strategy for a college with two noncontiguous campuses in a dense urban, cultural center. Some of the successes included are assembling the in-house planning team, using the institution’s mission statement to guide planning, anticipating needs, understanding available resources, and developing a staged strategy that maintains operational continuity.
In the current highly competitive higher education market in North America, many colleges have identified the importance of upgrading their existing residential housing facilities as part of their strategy to attract and retain students. This strategy requires providing new amenities, increased security, and a modern technology infrastructure (including a wireless environment), as well as offering more choices in housing types. According to Abramson (2005, p. 1), “the need for more and better facilities, the cost to students, and budget cuts that affect maintenance and operations are considered the three major issues facing chief housing officers through the next five years.” To be competitive, colleges need to establish strategic plans for the future growth of their residential facilities to handle the anticipated rapid increase in student campus populations. This situation has created substantial interest in effective approaches to designing housing planning strategies.

The case study discussed in this article describes the successful planning process used by Perkins+Will and Simmons College to develop a comprehensive housing strategy and plan for the college for the next 10 to 15 years. This process entailed five steps:
(1) assembling the in-house Simmons College planning team,
(2) considering the impact of the college’s mission statement goals on the proposed housing strategy,
(3) identifying the types of housing desired by the college with estimates of the space required,
(4) evaluating the resources available to the college

to implement the desired housing, and (5) developing a strategic plan for housing — a multiyear comprehensive housing strategy.

Many of the specific issues raised during the planning process discussed here are unique to the academic culture of Simmons College. However, the process of developing a successful housing strategy entails steps that can provide guidance to other colleges facing similar challenges. Therefore, the key lessons learned from this experience are also discussed. However, as is always the case, a retrospective description sounds more orderly and logical than the process actually was.

Simmons College: A Case Study

In 2000, Simmons College, located in Boston, Massachusetts, hired Perkins+Will to develop a campus residential master plan that would incorporate its existing buildings, land, and financial resources to provide its students with the range of housing types required by a high-quality institution of higher education. Perkins+Will is an international planning and architectural firm recognized for its extensive experience in campus planning and the design and planning of student housing. To remain competitive and continue to attract excellent students, Simmons College needed a strategic plan that would include the upgrade and renovation of existing residences, the addition of desired amenities, and a future direction for the overall campus residential community.

Simmons College is located in the Fenway area of Boston, nestled in a lively academic area with other colleges, medical facilities, and museums, so space for new buildings is limited. This mandates clever growth solutions such as infill, underground, and building reuse. Another complication is that the Simmons College campus is actually two noncontiguous campuses, the academic campus and the residential campus are separated by the Emmanuel College campus and two busy streets.

The focus of this discussion is the urban residential campus, which is home to approximately 1,100 students. The students are housed in nine buildings that date from the 1950s and 1960s, although some have been nicely renovated since then. In addition to these residential buildings, there is a central dining facility and a recreation building with a swimming pool, gymnasium, and support programs (figure 1). The buildings are arranged around the perimeter of the campus, forming an attractive, leafy, secure internal courtyard.

The standard model in the 1950s and 1960s was dormitory housing, with a central corridor, double bedrooms on each side, shared bathrooms, and a common room on the ground floor. This housing type is well represented on the Simmons College residential campus. Although this floor plan is efficient because it requires relatively low square footage per student and encourages social

interaction, students now expect, and typically get, the opportunity to shift between types of housing as they progress from freshman to graduate students (e.g., to suites and apartments for multiple students). Important upgrades were also needed in several buildings to improve accessibility for all students (e.g., ramps, elevators, and accessible kitchen counter heights and bathrooms). This case study explains the process used to plan a strategy to reduce the dormitory housing space and increase the space for students who want to live in suites and apartments.

Step One: Assembling the In-house Planning Team

The first step in the process was to identify the in-house staff who would be working with the architects and the consulting team throughout the planning effort. It was tempting, for the sake of efficiency, to keep this in-house team small, since control and consensus generally would be easier. The danger was that if all points of view were not represented in the planning process, key people might not buy in to the results, which would be destructive for any planning effort. At Simmons College, the planning group therefore included representatives from the Dean’s Office, residential life, facilities, administration, finance, and project management.

The in-house team leader should be a respected listener and a well-organized and effective manager regardless of his or her position or department. At Simmons College, the team leader was chosen from the Facilities Department because he had the characteristics of the ideal team leader: he was patient and well respected and had excellent communication skills. His responsibilities were to establish the project goals and schedule; organize and chair meetings; and ensure that all voices were heard so that the planning process was open, responsive, accessible, and productive. This was a challenging task because the process was intensive and required a strong commitment to overall project goals.

In a pluralistic college environment like that of Simmons, differing opinions are inevitable, and people are often passionate in the expression of those opinions. In this planning process, the issues raised ranged from strategic (Is housing the best use of limited financial resources? Should it be our highest priority for investment?) to curriculum (Do we want to integrate living and learning on our two campuses, or do we want to continue our existing separate residential and academic campus model?) to programmatic (Why do we need apartments at all? Why not have everyone in the same suite arrangement?). There were more than a few occasions when the team leader had to patiently remind team members which topics were under consideration, which had been resolved, and which were not within the purview of this group.

Step Two: Using the College Mission Statement to Guide Planning

A comprehensive housing strategy must be shaped by the college’s mission statement because it provides guidance on specific institutional goals. If the mission statement is not clear, the first task of the planning team is to seek clarification from the appropriate college leaders, whether central administration or trustees. A wide variety of stated goals will directly affect decisions about housing strategy, as illustrated in figure 2.

Simmons College had recently conducted a frank reassessment of its mission and completed a college-wide comprehensive strategic plan that identified goals, initiatives, and operational plans to define the college’s future. Components of the strategic plan that framed the housing strategy ranged from general goals (e.g., to build a diverse community, to “honor the college’s historic commitment to women,” to define the Simmons College brand as “women-centered”) to specific recruitment and retention strategies based on improving the quality and variety of housing options. The institution describes itself as a “small college atmosphere infused with university benefits and urban conveniences,” offering a “private, historic, “quintessential New England” residential campus’ (Simmons College 2006, unpaginated Web site). In articulating the housing strategy, these were all important aspects to consider in support of the college’s overall mission.

In addition to the stated mission goals, there also may be existing policies that are not included in the mission statement that can be supported by the housing strategy, as well as guidelines from a strategic plan that should be considered. Examples of policies include the use of thematic housing such as language or honors programs; “live and learn” settings where the academic curriculum and residences for students, teaching assistants, and professors are physically integrated; and the potential for alternative revenue sources like summer camps, executive education seminars, and conferences.

Simmons College believes strongly that the residence halls should be active living/learning centers that complement the academic programs of the college. By offering special gathering spaces such as a new lounge, students will feel more comfortable in their multipurpose living space and have improved access to services. These amenities in the residential life space program, as it came to be called, were important in order to appeal to the contemporary student population. Simmons College’s nine residence halls offer lifestyle options that include quiet floors, community service floors, limited visitation, and wellness areas that emphasize holistic health. Rooms are also designed for commuter students who need to occasionally stay overnight.

Step Three: Developing the Residential Life Space Program – Projected Needs

The residential life space program (RLSP) is a list of the living spaces required to accommodate the projected student population. At this point in the planning process it is not important where or in which buildings these spaces are located. What is important is that the spaces are listed by housing type (e.g., dormitory, suite, or apartment; common spaces; support and administrative spaces), as shown in figure 3. Thus, the RLSP is the key element on which the comprehensive housing strategy will be based.

The point of departure at Simmons College was to build upon the strengths of the existing buildings. The planning team therefore used the information in the RLSP to develop the “housing assignment strategy” document that linked the projected student population by class with each type of housing, as shown in figure 4. The housing assignment strategy was based on a number of factors, including comparisons with other colleges in the area, stated student preferences, and market trends. Based on this information, the Simmons College planning team decided that approximately 46 percent of the proposed bed space would be dormitory-style, 43 percent would be suite-style, and 11 percent would be apartment-style for upperclass and graduate students.

Once the desired living units were identified, support spaces had to be included. An institution’s policies will help determine what types of support spaces are needed, as illustrated in figure 5. These policies reflect the philosophy of the institution toward community in general and student housing in particular, so they must be at the core of the housing policy. At Simmons College, diversity, security, and community were formative policies. At this stage of planning it is not necessary to assign specific square footage, but rather to identify what will be needed to be consistent with institutional goals.

The list shown in the RLSP (figure 3) is the “ideal” housing mix for Simmons College developed by the planning team. The resources of the college, including access to financial resources, existing housing stock, available sites for new construction, and institutional priorities will define how and when the RLSP can be implemented. Steps four and five discuss how to move from the ideal to the actual implementation, which is designed to come as close to the ideal as the available resources permit.

Step Four: Analyzing Resources Before Implementing the Residential Life Space Program

With the RLSP in hand and approved by all critical project stakeholders, it was time to evaluate the resources available to renovate or build as appropriate. The three key resources were the building fund, including alternative strategies for accessing building funds (a discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article); land; and the existing building inventory. Having open, available building sites for future residence hall construction is a luxury that many colleges, including Simmons College, do not have. Land is an asset that, like capital, should only be expended after careful analysis of all development options.

Perhaps the most apparent and immediately useful resource was the existing building inventory, whether those buildings currently housed students or not. This inventory was evaluated to determine its physical condition, as well as its current and future contributions to the mission and environment for either housing or other uses. At Simmons College, the physical evaluation included the inspection of the physical condition of the nine residence halls on the residential campus on a variety of criteria, as shown in figure 6.

A wide array of other questions can be asked to evaluate a building’s current and future contributions to the college budget (both revenue and costs), campus aesthetics, environment, and safety. If the building is used as housing, is it housing a reasonable number of students on a square-foot-per-student basis? How does it compare with other housing options on campus? How efficiently can it be operated per student (in terms of energy cost and annual maintenance per student)?

The long-term value of a building for residential use often will be defined by its location on the campus and its physical attractiveness. Does the building location support the existing and proposed “use zones” (e.g., residential, academic, and athletic zones) on the campus? Is this an attractive building that is a positive contribution to the campus fabric? If not, can it be renovated to be more attractive? Is there an opportunity for multipurpose use such as classrooms and social space that would be available to the general student population? For example, Simmons College renovated a basement space into a highly successful student lounge with food service, games, and performance space.

One of the most important considerations in assessing the value of an existing building for future residential use is its potential for creating a secure student environment. Security can be seen as existing on two levels, which for current purposes will be called “visible” and “invisible.” Visible security is what concerned parents see when they consider entrusting the well-being of their freshman to the college. This includes the visibility of the campus police, the way in which access to the campus and residence hall is controlled, the presence of a guard at the front desk, lighting of the pathways, and the presence of emergency telephone call boxes. Invisible security is more subtle. Students are, for instance, notorious for finding the shortest distance between bed and tablet armchair in a classroom and will go through alarmed doors, windows, fences, forests, traffic, and whatever it takes to shorten the route, regardless of safety. Invisible security is the care taken by the college to keep students safe in spite of their creative instincts.

The product of this resource analysis was a facility assessment summary (figure 7) of Simmons College’s capacity to accommodate the RLSP developed in step three. It includes a synopsis of the existing building conditions, identification of potential current and future residential building sites, delineation of existing and proposed campus activity zones, and the location and condition of the campus infrastructure network. This document was a key tool in matching resources to the RLSP requirements later developed in step five.

Step Five: Developing the Comprehensive Housing Strategy: Planning over Time

At this stage in the planning process Simmons College was prepared to develop a multiyear comprehensive housing strategy for 2000-2015. This strategy had to consider the current housing situation, which included more of the dormitory-style units and fewer of the suites than the RLSP identified as optimal. Consequently, a key decision was how to achieve the desired housing mix: tear down and replace buildings, add buildings where land was available, renovate some of the dormitory-style halls into suites and apartments, or some combination of these options.

Because of its urban location, Simmons College did not have the tear-down option in the near term because it could not lose beds for the year or two required for construction. Also, if a building is to be renovated, the work must be done when the college can function without the beds, and this is typically during the summer. So residence hall renovations must be not only creative adaptations from one housing type to another, but must be amenable to completion in 90 days.

Based on the availability of building funds, the condition of existing buildings, and bed demand, the planning team developed a three-phase strategy, with freshman dormitory housing to be addressed first.

Phase one: upgrade existing dormitory facilities by renovating Arnold Hall. This building was selected for renovation because of its generally poor condition and because it was not a candidate for demolition to create a new building site.
Phase two: convert dormitory-style housing to suite-style housing by renovating Smith Hall. The factors contributing to this decision included the building’s generally poor physical condition; its size, which was conducive to an efficient conversion to suites; and the opportunity to develop a student lounge in the basement level.
Phase three: address the need for more apartment-style housing and continued phased upgrades to existing housing.
Phase one, the renovation of Arnold Hall, a 114-bed neoclassical building built in the 1950s, was completed during the summer of 2003. While the basic dormitory floor plan and number of beds was not changed, significant amenities were added at each level including additional bathrooms, laundry facilities, a student kitchen, and a lounge/study area. Building systems were fully upgraded: complete wireless technology and an elevator were added and double-hung windows with insulated glass were installed. New finishes, furnishings, and lighting provide a comfortable, safe, and modernized residential environment.

In phase two, Smith Hall was completely renovated during the summer of 2004. It was changed from a 145-bed dormitory-style floor plan with double bedrooms on each side of a central hallway to a 102-bed residence hall with two-, four-, and five-bedroom suites. This transition required the removal of all interior partitions. A new elevator connecting all levels and a new stairway from the first floor to the basement were added to allow secure access to the new student lounge in the lower level. All building systems were upgraded, a new roof membrane and new windows were installed, wireless technology was added, and existing lintels were repaired.

During the planning for phases one and two, an interesting option was developed to increase the bed counts in each building: build a new “connector” building between Arnold and Smith Halls, as shown in figure 8. This new connector building would house an elevator and stairway and serve as the main entry lobby with security. Shared facilities such as group study rooms, laundry, trash, recycling, and kitchens would be located on the upper levels. The addition of the connector would have increased the combined bed count for Arnold and Smith Halls from 216 to 234. Ultimately, this option was not selected because it could not be completed in one summer, but it does remain a viable option for the future.

With the completion of phases one and two, Simmons College had achieved its goals for the dormitory and suite components of the RLSP. At this time, phase three is underway as the college works on planning for the apartment component of the RLSP. This includes upgrading more traditional dormitory-style residences to apartments and adding new services, elevators, redesigned central bathrooms, wireless technology, and common spaces. The rooms will have larger built-in closets, cabinets, shelving with mini-fridges, and new finishes and furnishings throughout.

The phase three strategy required two interrelated decisions: what floor plan to use for the apartments and whether to renovate an existing building or build a new building. The planning team reviewed apartment types and layouts obtained from site visits to other colleges in the area and Perkins+Will’s national database of unit types, ultimately developing a unit design that reflects Simmons College’s preferences while incorporating the planning team’s experience. The resulting floor plan reflected preferences for separating the living room from the bedrooms and bathrooms within the unit, bathroom layouts that can accommodate all residents simultaneously, a kitchen directly related to the common area, and a flexible bedroom and living room layout (figure 9).

The selection of this apartment layout answered the second question: whether to renovate or build new. The 1,200-square-foot size of the selected apartment could not be efficiently accommodated into the existing buildings as a result of the required exterior walls for windows and the desire to have a “community” of six to eight apartments per floor. Therefore, the decision was made to include a new building in the comprehensive housing strategy. The new building would house apartment units for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students, as well as support areas including security and retail services.

Two sites were considered for the new building. Site A (figure 10) involved the demolition of the single story dining commons at the center of the residential courtyard and the construction of a new high-rise tower, the first floor of which would house food service. This site had the advantage of not losing any student beds for the period of construction, but would require a temporary alternative food service site. The alternate Site B (figure 10) involved the demolition of an existing residence hall, which would require leasing beds from a neighboring institution for one academic year. Both sites remain viable options since this building will be built later in phase three of the housing strategy, some years in the future.

Simmons College is several years into its comprehensive housing strategy. It renovated one dormitory residence hall (Arnold Hall) and one suite residence hall (Smith Hall) during the summers of 2003 and 2004, respectively. The changes in the quality of student life that resulted from implementing this comprehensive housing strategy have been dramatic, judging from student feedback and the fact that the “new” halls are in high demand. A recent post-occupancy evaluation tour by the planning team showed that the residence halls look great with minimal wear, indicating that the students respect the new environment and are taking care to preserve its appearance and quality. Feedback from students during the tour was positive and acknowledges that the facilities have been well designed and meet their expectations.

Simmons College is currently considering options for the next step of the comprehensive housing strategy. Options include the continued renovation of existing residence halls and new construction in one of two potential sites.

Lessons Learned

Every college is unique, so every comprehensive housing strategy will be different. However, if the five steps discussed are followed, the resulting housing plan will be realistic and consensus-driven. It will make the best use of existing buildings and campus space while providing housing that reflects the institution’s mission, culture, and community. It is highly advisable to undertake this strategic review prior to any investment in residential facilities to ensure that such an investment is a well-considered part of a long-term, comprehensive plan.

We have developed several guidelines for successful planning, based on the housing planning experience at Simmons College. These lessons learned should be considered as any college embarks on the development of a comprehensive housing strategy:

Effective leadership is the key to successful outcomes in housing planning. It begins with the senior leaders of a college providing to the planning team a clearly stated purpose in a succinct mission statement and clear guidance about how the college should grow academically and culturally. The housing program can then be designed to support this growth.
The members of the planning team and, in particular, the planning team leader should be selected carefully. This is a challenging position that calls for diplomacy, creativity, patience, and credibility.

Positive achievers who have a history of active and effective group participation should be selected to serve on the planning team. Teams with these types of members have the positive energy and perseverance to guide a successful planning effort.
The planning team should be encouraged to be creative and open-minded in its assessment of existing facilities. For example, an old library building might be a unique student residence if it can be renovated in a cost-effective manner.
The planning process should be spirited, creative, and inclusive so there is buy-in by the key parties at each stage of the process.
With a clear vision, strong leadership, and an enthusiastic planning team committed to creative solutions, a comprehensive housing strategy can be successfully developed and implemented for any academic institution.


Abramson, P. 2005. College Housing 2005 Special Report. College Planning and Management, June: 18.

Simmons College. 2006. Quick Facts. Retrieved November 3, 2006 from the World Wide Web: /overview/facts.shtml.

Tim Marsters and Kelly Bliss. 2007. Developing a Comprehensive Housing Strategy: a Case Study. Planning for Higher Education. 35(2): 37–47.