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Designing for the Digital Age: Architectural Trends Shift to Meet Demand of Gen-Z Students

KWK Architects, St. Louis

By Catherine Sweeney 

Architecture firms are rethinking the way they are designing student housing, as more of Generation-Z heads into higher education. According to Paul Wuennenberg, associate principal with national design firm KWK Architects, today’s students are “practical” and “cost-conscious,” and student housing designs are shifting to reflect that. 

“I’ve been working in that particular area now for probably 34 years. I’ve seen quite a bit evolve and, continuing with it, I do focus groups with students all the time so I get to hear about their issues and see that evolve. Personal research on students’ values and what they’re looking for becomes really important,” Wuennenberg said. 

According to the St. Louis-based design firm, Generation-Z, or those born between 1997 and 2012, are the most digitally engaged age group. Because the generation of students has never known a life without the internet, universities are increasingly implementing technology in new housing developments. For instance, university housing providers are implementing keyless entry, providing stronger bandwidth and even allowing access to streaming services on campus.

Despite the digital engagement, KWK Architects finds students continue to find value in daily social interaction while also craving large open spaces to study. In fact, the architecture firm finds students rarely use designated desks in their dorm rooms and would rather study in large communal spaces with access to a variety of seating options. This allows students to be both social and around their peers while also providing functional space for students to complete assignments. 

“It’s interesting also in terms of how practical they are, it’s kind of studying before playing. The number one amenity they’re looking for is study rooms, but it’s really providing a variety of spaces…they want to be able to see each other but be able to put their earphones in and focus on what they’re doing in a communal way,” Wuennenberg said. 

In addition, students today are extremely cost conscious, according to Wuennenberg. This means amenities that would have been enjoyed by previous generations might not be as much of a necessity for today’s college students. Instead, students are more likely to pay for high-value items. For instance, students today are finding more value in housing with good security, such as camera technology and having buildings in well-lit areas. Students also are more likely to pay higher costs for good internet access and smart lockers for package deliveries, due to increased amounts of online shopping. 

“They’re very value conscious. They don’t want to spend money for the sake of spending money,” Wuennenberg said. “When you talk about millennials, they were maybe more concerned with what school they went to. This generation, after seeing their parents struggle through the great recession, are more interested in the value of everything they do. They’re very informed, and the same goes for education and housing. They’re not not willing to spend money on amenities unless it is of maximum value for them, so it can’t be frivolous.”

Moving forward, KWK Architects products universities are also going to need to continue designing sustainable spaces as well. As well as for the environment, students are requesting more sustainable building designs. The architecture firm is also seeing more students involved in health and wellness, so designing open spaces with large windows, natural light and large open staircases with seating can help bring about the environment students today are looking for. 

“This is coming not so much from the universities themselves but from the students who are wanting that, who are demanding that,” Wuennenberg said. 

KWK Architects was founded in 2013 and specializes in the design of colleges and universities across the United States. With expertise in student housing,dining, academic and science/technology spaces, the architecture firm has completed more than $1 billion in construction-valued projects since its founding.