Purpose-built student accommodations can be traced to the founding of University College at Oxford in 1249.  Before that time, students at the university were expected to find their own living quarters in the town.  The presence of hundreds of students living in unsupervised houses led to friction between town and gown, which occasionally erupted into rioting.  After Oxford and Cambridge set the pattern for residential colleges, they became an enduring feature of higher education in the English-speaking world.  English colonists in North America established several colleges, and eighteenth-century student residence halls survive at William and Mary, Harvard, and Yale.

Ralph Adams Cram's Graduate College at Princeton follows the English model.

Ralph Adams Cram’s Graduate College at Princeton follows the English “entry” model.

Like their prototypes at Oxford and Cambridge, the American examples followed the “entry” or “staircase” system, in which student suites open directly from the stairway landings, with no corridors. Early suites consisted of a study and from one to three individual bedrooms; later examples added a bathroom.  In the nineteenth century, an alternative plan, in which the student rooms open from centrally-placed corridors on each floor, became popular.

This image shows an Italian precedent with double-loaded corridors.

In the monastery of San Marco in Florence, all of the cells open into an internal corridor.

The corridor plan, like the staircase plan, originated in the Middle Ages, when individual cells for monks and friars were often arranged in this way.  Corridors appeared at Oxford at Keble College, designed by William Butterfield in 1867.   Later in the nineteenth century, the corridor plan became well-nigh universal at women’s colleges; during the following century it became increasingly common for both men’s and women’s dormitories.

In recent years, the combination of students who prefer suites, building codes which require two stairways for egress, and accessibility regulations which require an elevator has led many colleges to adopt a hybrid plan, combining suites for four to eight students with corridor access.  Although a residence hall of this type is more expensive to build than one consisting of double rooms strung hotel-style along a corridor, the suites satisfy both students, who want quieter, more private living quarters, and college administrators, who hope to attract the most highly-qualified applicants.

Just as comfortable, attractive suites are the key to successful internal planning for residence halls, a residential rather than an institutional character is the key to successful design of their exteriors.   When a residential effect is the goal, a pitched roof always trumps a flat roof.  A lively skyline, with gables, dormers, and towers is certainly an asset.  Windows which vary in size and spacing are also a plus.  Finally, the architectural style chosen for residence halls should enhance the cohesiveness of the campus.  When a student takes a whirlwind tour of several colleges, he or she is far more likely to retain a favorable impression of a campus that is well-planned and architecturally coherent.

The slides below show a proposed dormitory of this type at Providence College.