Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.
– Chinese proverb
Volume 75 | Issue 5
September 2007

Design for a New Generation: Trends for student organization suites

Lawrence J. Payne

In an ongoing effort to forecast future student life trends and to assess the ever-changing role of student clubs and organizations, WTW Architects (2007) recently interviewed 14 U.S. institutions about the use and design of student organization spaces. The total number of registered student organizations represented by the institutions interviewed was approximately 3,600; the average of those registered student organizations that had assigned office space within student life facilities was approximately 11 percent.

The institutions selected had completed projects for which WTW Architects was instrumental in either the programming of the facility or had performed full design services. Institutions had completed projects that ranged from new construction to renovations and additions within the past 10 years. The demographics of the institutions varied from large public universities to small private colleges. Although some institutions generally had a high percentage of nontraditionally aged students (24 years and older) enrolled, all of the institutions interviewed had a majority of traditional students (18 to 24 years old) enrolled. The combined fall 2006 enrollment of all institutions interviewed totaled approximately 205,000 full-time and part-time undergraduate students. The smallest institution interviewed had an enrollment of 800, and the largest institution interviewed had an enrollment of more than 36,000. All institutions provided census information, and the average percentage of undergraduate students enrolled was 84 percent traditional to 16 percent nontraditional. Specifically, interviewers looked for feedback on how spaces were currently being used, what design and program features were successful, and what modifications might better address students’ needs in the future (WTW Architects, 2007).

Data collection was facilitated using a straightforward interview process. Floor plans of each institution’s suite were collected and each interview used a standardized questionnaire to ensure every institution reported consistent kinds of data. The interviews were either conducted via phone or in person. A synopsis of each interview was completed and included notes from each discussion as well as additional related demographic information. Details collected about each institution included: the latest undergraduate enrollment figures, the total number of registered student organizations, and the total number of student organizations with assigned office space within the facility. During the process of generating the individual summary sheets, it became clear that regardless of the size of the institution or the ratio of traditional to nontraditional students, there were several issues that universities and colleges were consistently raising about their current generation of students.

Trends for a new generation

An inherent goal for any architect is to design successful and useful spaces. In the realm of student life facilities, successful design aligns the synergies between architecture and the culture of each specific institution to ensure facilities have the greatest chance of being used to their fullest potential.

Today’s generation of traditionally aged college students (those 18 to 24 years old) fall into the category of millennials, or those born in or after 1982 (Howe & Strauss, 2003). Millennials are primarily children of the baby boomers, though some are children of older Generation X adults. Millennials are notably the generation that came of age during the Information Revolution, which centered on widespread adoption of the Internet. As a result, much of the contemporary experience of this generation’s cultural distribution centers on Internet mediated forms of media and communication (Raines, 2002). Comments made during the interview process generally confirmed the generational characteristics noted by Howe and Strauss. Some key characteristics of millennials include: heightened level of social consciousness, increased interest in volunteerism, highly collaborative nature, expanded racial diversity, technically savvy, and an inherent ability to multitask (NAS, 2006).

Based on WTW’s interviews, five trends were identified for the design of successful student organization suites. Each consideration is followed by a brief discussion that elaborates on how the current generation of college students is changing the amenities incorporated into these types of spaces. Model diagrams may be referenced while reviewing each of the discussion topics. The diagrams are schematic in nature and each could represent either a suite or an entire floor depending on the scope of the project.

Designs should align with the ethos of the institution

Most importantly, for the future success of student organizations is for the suite design to align with the ethos of each specific institution. Survey participants noted an important reason students attend their institution is because they "like the specific institution’s atmosphere." The culture and values of the institution are two important aspects that comprise an institution’s ethos; many individuals representing institutions WTW Architects (2007) interviewed repeatedly stressed the importance of this fact. Survey participants often reiterated that culture must be considered when programming office counts, amenities, suite layouts and ratios of office sizes, small office suites, and larger open lounges within suites.

Moreover, the ethos of the institution will affect the physical location of the student organization suite. Some institutions may place their suites on upper floors remote from other student life "activity zones" and still be successful. However, the majority of the institutions interviewed noted that today’s students prefer to be close, if not adjacent, to the "action." Some amenities students often cited having a desire to be close to included: food and retail establishments, recreation components, common lounges, and meeting rooms. Often, these amenities are located in high-traffic areas. Many institution advisors as well as student leaders noted having a presence in high-traffic areas was instrumental to the success of their student organization suites.

The nature of student organization suite design is one that brings various types of students together on a continual basis. Therefore, the most successful designs incorporate amenities that engage all generations and types of students including but not limited to: traditional, nontraditional, international, minority, commuter, part-time, and alternative lifestyle. Besides variations in office sizes and common work spaces, there has been an increase in requests for the incorporation of components such as flexible community spaces, small project rooms, cafés, and streamlined resource rooms that have not typically been incorporated into suite designs in the past. In addition, specific amenities such as wireless infrastructure, video game capabilities, Web-based scheduling programs, and even home-like elements such as fireplaces also are becoming increasingly popular.

Student leaders interviewed often noted a strong presence was essential for the success of many student organizations. Today, students are bombarded by so much advertising via e-mail and the Internet that they can miss relevant notifications relating to organization functions and news. Having a visual presence in the heart a student life facility where students can easily see updates via informational monitors of organization news and events while they are eating or just hanging out is seen as a definite benefit. Many students noted the student organization suite should not necessarily be just for organization leaders to use, but also for individuals not affiliated with organizations. The more people who know the organizations exist, the more potential that organizations have in being able to increase their constituent base.

Incorporate flexibility and mobility to easily accommodate changing student cultures

For the greatest chance of long-term success, student organization suites should incorporate flexible open designs and furniture layouts that can be easily reconfigured as cultural shifts between sub-generations occur throughout time. Due to millennials’ increased acceptance of collaboration as a means to an end (Raines, 2002), open suites with tables capable of seating up to six individuals were often cited as being one of the most popular components of suite designs. The ability to easily reconfigure the layouts of areas within open suites was an important amenity with many institutions. However, the success of open suites also depends on incorporating several key design strategies that encompass: the incorporation of current technology, the ability to secure the suite, the proximity to common resources, the adjacencies to "activity zones" (food, entertainment, recreation, retail), as well as the space’s overall atmosphere.

University advisors consistently noted that the current generation of students has been exposed to technology throughout their entire life. Current and future students now expect wireless technology in all student life facilities. As wireless laptops are quickly becoming the norm at many institutions, failure to incorporate wireless technology in addition to hardwired data and power outlets, will most certainly encourage students to seek other areas that do offer such connectivity. Several institutions noted that much of the work conducted by organization leaders revolves around relaying information to the organization’s constituents. Today, tasks involving recruitment, as well as communicating information about upcoming events and news, can just as easily be done from a lounge chair in a café as an office or row of cubicles.

Moreover, as long as there are student organizations there will be a need for organization suites; a sense of camaraderie is developed by conducting work within a dedicated space. At institutions where student organization suites encompass entire floors, and organizations with similar interests and goals are located in close proximity to each other, participants noted that multiple "neighborhood-like" regions developed within specific areas of the suites. Because each institution may view the formation of these neighborhoods differently, planners must continue to carefully consider micro and macro adjacency issues aligned with a specific institution’s culture.

Additionally, the incorporation of "plug and play" connectivity into modular furniture systems that could be quickly and easily reconfigured often was cited as a desirable amenity for suite designs. Institutions often noted that students inevitably will rearrange furniture as required to best work for a specific task. The benefit of flexible versus rigid suite designs is that they can more easily accommodate continually changing cultures, along with mixed generations and various types of students.

Create a ‘home’ for students

Amenities that create home-like environments within suites, whether through the incorporation of comfortable lounge furniture, monitors with video game capabilities, spaces for prayer or meditation, or fireplaces, are becoming increasingly popular. In addition, institutions are providing extended hours of access to suites. There are even institutions that are locating the student organization suites within a 24-hour zone. The idea that life is 24/7 is prevalent throughout all forms of media today. Institutions need to consider that millennials are goal-oriented (Raines, 2002), which in this case means that students may often seek alternative methods of accomplishing a specific goal than baby boomers or even Gen-Xers would consider. Designs that can accommodate these alternative processes, even if it is as simple as working from midnight until 2 a.m., will increase the potential for success.

However, planning for the daytime is equally important. Many participants noted that students come to the suites to unwind and hang out during the day. Several institutions said that a successful suite atmosphere during these times mimics a quiet study lounge. Once classes are over, the suite takes on a somewhat relaxed office environment with a mixture of students working and socializing. Student organization suites do not have to "look" like an office for work to be completed; they merely have to be conducive for doing work. However, it is important to note that an atmosphere conducive to completing these same tasks in the mid- to late-’80s is not necessarily the same atmosphere that today’s students desire.

Generally, student life facilities present many opportunities where students can go to "see and be seen." However, there are certain circumstances where students would
rather just work and not feel like someone is constantly watching them. Therefore, special considerations of three-dimensional, as well as two-dimensional, adjacencies need to be addressed when locating suites adjacent to public corridors. In this instance, designs might strive to incorporate strategies to diffuse vision at glass walls between various functions without detracting too much from the synergy developed by their adjacencies.

Encourage collaboration

Looking at the entire student organization suite, attitudes toward office and cubicle layouts have changed over the past 10 years as collaboration has increased as a design priority. Strategies for encouraging collaboration can be as elementary as considering the location of student organization mailboxes. Lounge areas near mailboxes and other common resource spaces can provide ideal opportunities for impromptu interaction for all types of students as well as administrative personnel. Cubicle layouts that promote collaboration are typically not arranged in rows, rather they are often arranged in "pods" with low walls to foster collaboration. Student organization offices are typically designed to accommodate between one and four desks. Suite designs are increasingly incorporating as much glazing (clear and translucent glass) at corridor walls as budgets and building codes will permit. Some administrators commented that if they were to redesign their space, they would substantially reduce the number of walled offices and program the area with more open areas that could easily be modified into lounges or furnished with systems furniture. Some suite designs have even incorporated small, movable conference tables that can easily be relocated and combined as needed.

Many institutions have seen an increase in nontraditional and continuing education student enrollment; consequently, some institutions considered spaces that encourage
collaboration between multiple generations to be desirable components for student life facilities. Depending on the culture of the specific institution, participants also noted synergies often were realized by combining advisor offices with student organization offices. A noteworthy cross-section of institutions commented they felt interaction between students and administrators was one of the best ways to help students further develop their interpersonal skills. Conversely, there were several institutions that noted they preferred that students not be in close proximity to advisors in an effort to encourage students to resolve disagreements on their own.

Provide adequate organization resource and storage components

Although paper usage may have diminished somewhat, it is unlikely that the use of paper will go away completely in the foreseeable future in any university office environment. Many institutions interviewed noted that even with the best efforts to reduce paper usage, storage and resource spaces will always be needed to some extent. Before resource and storage areas can be designed, institutions and organizations need to reach a consensus as to what the term "adequate storage" means to them. Several institutions noted that storage rooms were the first spaces to get renovated into offices, combined for conference rooms, or deleted entirely and used somehow as additional assignable square footage. More often than not, institutions said that they preferred larger storage rooms with banks of metal cabinets equipped with locks. That way, the rooms could be more easily renovated if they were eventually turned into space for some other purpose. Many institutions and users
assigned varying levels of importance to having storage facilities in close proximity to their student organization offices. But all survey participants agreed that adequate storage facilities were still critical to the suite’s success.

The notion of what is considered a resource also is changing. Previously, resource rooms could contain common printers, fax machines, high-capacity copiers, paints, large work tables, and general poster-making supplies. Today, many institutions have been able to decrease the assignable square footage of their resource rooms mainly because the layout area for poster making has decreased with technology. Today’s resource rooms contain graphic software and large-format color printers. Making the transition from paint and glue to electronic production methods of creating posters has also decreased the time required to maintain the spaces. Even if large-format printers are not available, many institutions that have a copy center within the college union can easily print large-format posters, thereby eliminating the need for students to interact with expensive printing equipment and reducing the downtime of equipment resources.

Millennial mindset as a broader cultural trend

The issues previously discussed will not only have a profound influence on student organization suites and student life facilities, but also on future open office suite designs in the public sector. A notable demographic shift should begin to occur in 2010 when the oldest baby boomers (born in 1945) hit the United States’ legal retirement age of 65. As baby boomers retire, more Gen Xers will take roles in middle and upper management and millennials will take on positions in the lower half of the workforce. Interestingly, the values and expectations of this new generation are trending upward. That is, older generations are adopting the desires and wants of millennials (Sheahan, 2007). This is evidenced by the fact that none of the institutions interviewed that had higher percentages of nontraditional students noted any differences in attitudes from traditional students pertaining to trends in design of student organization suites. Although some institutions noted nontraditional students and students in a continuing education curriculum frequently had different needs than traditional students, those needs were often program related and could be accommodated in flexibly designed spaces.

Ultimately, we may be better off to think of millennials not as a group of individuals that share a common range of birth years, but rather as an emerging mindset. Consequently, future employers of millennials should consider how the changes occurring in student office suite designs today will affect business office spaces of tomorrow.


Howe, N., & Strauss, W. (2003). Millennials go to college. United States: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and LifeCourse Associates.

NAS. (2006). Generation Y: The millennials – Ready or not, here they come. Retrieved August 20, 2007, from http://www.nasrecruitment.com/TalentTips/NASinsights/GenerationY.pdf.

Raines, C. (2002). Managing millennials. Retrieved August 20, 2007 from http://www.generationsatwork.com/articles/millenials.htm.

Sheahan, P. (2007). Understanding Generation Y. Available from P.O. Box 845, Gladesville NSW 1675, Australia.

WTW Architects. (2007). Student organization suite design trends [Internal].