In the fall of 2011, the college launched the Residential Sector Planning (RSP) process by charging a Work Group to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the college’s housing facilities and programs for upperclass students. The Work Group’s goal was to develop a vision for upperclass residential life at Williams and to articulate how the program’s facilities can most effectively support that vision. The Work Group was asked to prepare a plan for the short- and long-term facilities modifications required to achieve that vision as the key driver of a comprehensive capital renewal plan for upperclass residence halls and houses. HMFH Architects was hired to support this process by assessing current building conditions; surveying and integrating student opinion on current housing stock; developing systemic planning options to achieve the stated goals, including financial information; and documenting the process and findings.
The report that follows this summary is the comprehensive outcome of the RSP effort. It is attached in three sections – the Final Report, Appendix A, and Appendices B through E – totaling just over 500 pages in all. The Appendices consist of the backup analytical work, including all of the student survey responses (Appendix E), all of the building condition evaluations, and myriad granular details of the work that took place. We present this Executive Summary as a helpful overview to help orient you regarding the principles, goals and objective outcomes that led to the development of the flexible decision matrix tool that will guide implementation decisions in the future.
Planning Principles and Goals
The purpose of the Residential Sector Plan is to ensure that programmatic master planning decisions around investment in the campus residential portfolio are guided by student developmental principles and the educational vision and programmatic core values of the College. The Work Group defined a number of guiding principles that emphasize the following:
- the role of residential life in each student’s intellectual, social, and emotional growth
- the cultivation of community
- and the campus commitment to sustainability
Additionally, the Work Group developed a number of specific goals for housing that, when implemented, would create residential communities that embody these principles.
During the course of the work, the RSP Work Group and the HMFH Planning Team articulated how the guiding principles and residential life goals are manifest in bricks and mortar. Ideas about cultivating strong residential communities, for example, are explored through different arrangements of bedrooms and various approaches to common space. Specific goals for residential programs, facility upgrades that enhance them, as well as future capacity needs are outlined and have been used to measure the success of various options.
Assessment and Analysis
Student Housing Preferences and Use Patterns: To better understand the student perspective on multiple aspects of the Williams housing experience, the team conducted a series of focus group meetings and a web-based survey that received over 750 responses. The assembled qualitative written responses and statistical information combined to verify the general understanding of student housing preferences while revealing additional concerns and inclinations. The Work Group also benefited from very strong student member participation throughout the process.
Building Programs and Space Use: On a parallel track, the planning team assembled physical and demographic data for each building. Common housing metrics such as bedroom size have been recorded and used to compare housing across the campus. The level of accommodation that each residence hall provides is quantitatively compared with the average and extreme examples on campus as well as national programmatic benchmarks. Demographics for each residence hall were also analyzed, revealing both class-year and gender occupancy patterns.
Facility Conditions and Code Compliance: The Planning Team completed a comprehensive evaluation of the current physical conditions and programmatic context of Williams’ upperclass residential life system. The quantitative and qualitative data collected form a picture of upperclass residential life on campus and create the basis for the recommendations and options presented in this report.
The Planning Team also completed comprehensive assessments of the condition and code compliance of the housing stock. Review of existing documentation combined with detailed visual inspections were used to assemble a conditions report for architectural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection systems. All buildings are compliant with required critical life safety codes, including fire protection systems and building egress. While the team found all buildings to be clean, safe, and operational, a number of the houses are overdue for either partial or full renovation. All but seven of the buildings are partially handicap accessible, meaning they provide access to the ground floor and to an accessible bedroom and bathroom. Only two buildings include handicap access to all floors.
Campus Context: The relationship of upperclass student housing to the broader campus was documented and analyzed from a number of perspectives, including:
- program distribution across the campus
- neighborhood organization
- walking distances
- landscape patterns and building types
Issues such as distance, proximity, and programmatic coherence give context to why some campus locations are more popular than others. Based on this analysis, the team identified renovation strategies to improve the quality of experience in unpopular houses as well as potential building sites for further analysis should new construction become an option.
Current Bed Capacity: An analysis of Williams’ bed capacity and occupancy patterns over the last several years shows that the current upperclass housing stock meets demand for beds in a typical year, but does not provide the extra margin needed for peak circumstances. At the current capacity, there is no swing space, which is essential for regular planned renovation of any of the houses. In addition, as mentioned below, Winter Study and study abroad participation cause seasonal fluctuations in residential demand that put pressure on existing capacity opportunities. There is also the potential for future program and facility upgrades to decrease capacity as bed space is converted to common space and elevators are inserted into existing buildings. We have done our best to quantify the impact of these kinds of renovations. The resulting decision matrix – of which several examples are embedded in the report – allows us to sort through a variety of demand scenarios and to modify assumptions and related planning variables along the way.
Based on the findings of the Assessment and Analysis phase, the Work Group developed program, design, and scope options to address each of the major areas of study: residential life programming; facility condition and code compliance; bed capacity; and residential system organization. Although they inherently overlap, these topics are presented separately for the sake of clarity. For instance, program enhancements may trigger code upgrades and accessibility improvements may reduce bed capacity, so most of the proposed changes address multiple issues.
This section also reviews various ways to implement the proposed physical and programmatic changes. Schedule scenarios demonstrate ways to achieve the planning goals while maintaining or increasing bed count over time. Order-of-magnitude costs in fy12 dollars are also presented for comparison of options for various residence halls and to demonstrate how achieving various planning goals play out financially.
Class Mix in Residence Halls: The Work Group discussed two philosophically different organizations for campus housing – one that emphasizes a mix of classes within neighborhoods and buildings, and one that emphasizes class-year cohesion. The current situation is a hybrid of these two philosophies and we learned that this approach, in fact, offers students a range of choices that is valued. The variety of housing options – different architecture and building sizes, house types, class-year mixes, and campus locations – ensures that more students will find a residential arrangement that suits them. The Work Group concluded that, rather than engineer the system towards a particular universal organization, proposed changes should focus on bringing existing housing up to baseline standards with regards to program and facility condition.
Program Enhancements: The analysis phase revealed that certain buildings had abundant common and personal space while others were clearly lacking in one or the other. The housing survey, particularly in the comments, showed just how critical common spaces – and their size and location – are to a student’s sense of community. Consequently, the focus of recommended program changes is to bring each house up to a minimum standard for shared spaces such as house common area, floor/group lounge space, and kitchens. Likewise, many students commented on the inequity of bedrooms available across the campus, so program changes in this area concentrate on improving the least accommodating of the single and double bedrooms. Bed losses are expected with both types of program changes and these have been factored into the future net need calculations.
Facility Upgrades: Based on the facility condition assessment, the Planning Team developed a general scope of renovation work. Each house is categorized according to its physical condition and a general scope of renovation work. Physical condition of housing varies from extremely poor to newly renovated (within the past ten years).
Access Upgrades: As the college moves forward with planning for ongoing construction and renovation of residence halls, we will address issues related to accessibility, including equity in housing choice and equal access to public spaces and social activities across campus. To this end, the plan proposes that all buildings become at least partially accessible in the course of renovations. Changes to accomplish this are relatively modest and achievable in all buildings. As we gear up to make some of the recommended changes, we will continue to revisit earlier agreements with the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board as part of a long-range accessibility plan rather than addressing the issue on a project-by-project basis. Access changes that will result in bed loss as they are implemented have been included in the bed capacity goals.
Future Bed Capacity: The Work Group spent significant time developing capacity goals. After quantifying areas of concern and engaging in many rounds of discussion about the governing assumptions, the team produced the numbers contained in the planning options. While recognizing that bed capacity and occupancy are dynamic figures, the approach we ultimately took generated a net need for 100 beds (in addition to whatever solution is reached regarding the 41 beds in Garfield). We need to keep in mind that this number should be viewed as being flexible and may change to meet Williams’ needs based on ongoing conversations. With this in mind, the interactive decision matrix tool that was designed for this report provides an excellent and highly adaptable calculator as we make critical real-time decisions regarding investments in new construction, renovation and the timing pathways associated with each approach.
Defined Capacity Goals
- Provide flex space to accommodate fluctuations associated with Winter Study, study away, and emergent mid-semester room reassignments.
- Provide swing space to house students displaced by renovation.
- Replace perceived sub-standard beds that were added during the enrollment increase.
- Replace beds that will be lost due to accessibility and building condition upgrades.
- Replace beds that will be lost due to program upgrades.
Options to Increase Capacity: The Work Group explored three ways to increase bed count: 1) construct new housing, 2) insert new beds into existing houses, and 3) add onto existing buildings. The renovation approach works easily where there is excess common space that is readily convertible to bedrooms; much of this work can be done over a summer. More impactful renovations to increase bed count require extensive reconfiguration and are only feasible in the course of a full renovation. Additions to existing buildings and the conversion of non-housing buildings were not explored in detail, but are also possible.
New construction is a more direct way to achieve increased capacity goals. While it doesn’t necessarily require students to move, there is a longer lead time involved for planning, design and construction. The Planning Team identified a number of potential sites for new houses.
Perimeter campus locations, such as land near Tyler, Thompson, Agard, or Garfield, afford the opportunity for new housing to increase the density and critical mass of these somewhat isolated communities.
Infill sites, such as land near Dodd, provide more housing in already desirable locations. These sites, however, might also be suited for other campus uses.
The Work Group discussed three different building scales in light of the student feedback that we’d received during the data-gathering phase. Both residential life staff and students voiced a preference for smaller buildings. New housing can also follow a number of different typologies, including traditional residence halls, suite or apartment style buildings, and co-op houses. This choice is largely based on the intended population, with traditional halls being more appropriate for sophomores and juniors and apartments or co-ops as more suited to the desires of seniors.
Schedule Scenarios: The overall scope of housing changes proposed will take years to complete. Such factors as the need to maintain bed capacity while renovating, the amount of construction that can occur in any given year, and the availability of funding influence how quickly the plan can be implemented. These are constantly shifting and interdependent forces, so it is not possible to come up with a definitive approach for renovating 33 buildings. However, the Planning Team developed a method to outline various scenarios to complete the plan. Once a direction is set, the decision model can be adjusted to reflect changing circumstances while still achieving the desired end result.
In all schedule scenarios, the first step is to increase bed capacity enough to create swing space for major renovations. This increase can be accomplished though the construction of new housing or as a series of summer renovations in several buildings. The schedule scenarios also look at sequences that prioritize the planning goals differently. For example, implementation priorities can be sequenced by renovating the buildings in the poorest physical condition or the buildings with the greatest program needs or the buildings that require access upgrades.
Cost Considerations: The final component of the planning options is a cost evaluation of the competing proposed changes. The team developed order-of-magnitude renovation costs, broken out as either facility upgrades, access upgrades, or program upgrades. As the work scope for each building is not fully defined, the costs cannot be used as project budgets, but they are helpful as a way to compare work in one building versus another or to understand the costs associated with adding beds to an existing house versus building new beds.
In keeping with President Falk’s charge to the Work Group, the report doesn’t make a single set of specific recommendations. Instead, it provides the building blocks from which any number of flexible plans might be generated and modified over time. Key components of the report include:
- Guiding principles for residential life
- Ways in which building design supports those principles
- Full analyses of the physical condition of the facilities and their systems
- Statistically significant survey data from students regarding the varying levels of success with which the residence halls and houses support key aspects of residential life as currently configured
- The development of a complex decision-making tool that enables the college to engage in flexible short-, mid-, and long-term strategic capital planning exercises that replace our historic building-by-building approach to major renovations in these residential spaces
- Schemes for five different sites and approaches to residential community development if new construction is an option
Some salient takeaways from the report:
- We have an extremely diverse portfolio of building types, ages, and architectural styles and this variety is generally valued by students.
- The majority of survey respondents (89%) are either satisfied or very satisfied with their current living arrangement. When broken down by house, a more precise picture emerges.
- In 15 buildings, every student reports being satisfied at some level.
- In 10 buildings, more than 20% of the students report dissatisfaction with their housing.
- At one extreme – Garfield – more than 65% of residents who responded are dissatisfied.
- While most students choose housing based on the desirability of the bedrooms, some base their decision on the house size or amenities available, and others looked for the ability to accommodate a large pick group
- Buildings that rank high in all categories are prized, and the best rooms go to seniors early in the room draw process. For houses with a single negative aspect, such as poor physical condition, students accept the flaws if there are compensating factors such as large bedrooms.
- Three concerns about bedrooms were voiced by students in the survey: the size of bedrooms, the availability of singles, and the disparity of bedroom choices across the neighborhoods. While these are universal concerns for college students, Williams students, by comparison, have better bedroom choices than those on most American campuses. This underscores the impact of the expectations that Williams students carry forward from their first-year housing experience and the high percentage of singles in the entries.
- Williams students tend to sort themselves by class-year, due in large part to the strong affiliations made with their first-year entry mates. This is not seen as problematic within the upperclass houses except when one group dominates the social scene, leaving others to feel disassociated from the house.
- Some patterns are obvious but worth noting. Buildings with large single bedrooms are occupied primarily by seniors, while buildings with mostly doubles or small singles are dominated by sophomores. Few buildings are balanced across the three upperclass cohorts.
- Across class-years, students prefer living in mid-sized communities of 8 to 16 students; however, only 23% of first-year students prefer groups of 7 or fewer, whereas 50% of seniors prefer this arrangement. Younger students generally seek situations that maximize social connections, while older students want to live with a few close friends.
- Building size follows the same pattern: younger students prefer mid-sized buildings, and older students prefer small buildings. Few students stated a desire to live with more than 75 students. However, three of the largest residence halls, Prospect, Morgan, and Mark Hopkins led for “first choice” houses last year, indicating that other aspects of housing selection outweigh building size as a factor.
- The desire for small common spaces is similar across class-years. Nearly three-quarters of students stated that, ideally, group lounge space should be shared by 6 or fewer students.
- When students were asked how they use their floor or suite lounges, 90% responded that they socialize in the space at least a few times a month, and 43% reported daily use. Other frequent floor lounge activities are studying, watching TV, and spending time alone.
- House common rooms see far less use. In every activity category except socializing with friends, more than 50% of the students stated that they never use the house commons.
- Students’ feelings about kitchens are less universal. Some appreciate and use the large, social kitchens that attract group activity. Others want to cook each day and want a kitchen shared by a few friends. They want to be assured that their food will be untouched and cooking messes will be cleaned up. To some degree, these sentiments break along age lines.
- The majority of students cook, snack, or socialize in their kitchen at least a few times a month. 10% of respondents have no kitchen, and presumably a portion of these students would use one if one was available.