How student housing is making Gen Z harder to please

by Meg White

How student housing is making Gen Z harder to please

You might think if you’re not brokering rentals you don’t have to worry about what the student housing market is doing. But according to Rene Pabon, you’re missing out on a key forecasting tool if you don’t.
Developers of both dorms and off-campus housing are offering smart design solutions that create a sense of community in an organic, inconspicuous way. And according to Pabon, young people look to replicate that when they start “adulting” after college. “It’s changed the way students are living in their student housing,” said Pabon, president of Chicago-based interior architecture firm Childs Dreyfus Group. “And that’s an expectation that they’re going to have when they move to their permanent residence.”

One key reason dorms are becoming a more attractive style to copy is because average unit sizes are going down, so multifamily developers are trying to find ways of making shared spaces more useful and comfortable, according to Pabon. “What we’re going to see more of is this co-living idea,” he said. “What happens outside of [a resident’s] unit is going to be equally as important or more important.”

In terms of properties he’s not involved with that nonetheless speak to these trends, Pabon likes the luxury apartment buildings at 111 W. Upper Wacker Drive and 500 Lakeshore Drive in Chicago. On the latter, he called out the impact of communal spaces on residents and visitors alike. “The sense of arrival in the lobby, the integration of materials and the spectacular two-story stairs allow for gracious vistas and an uber-luxurious, but approachable, first impression,” Pabon said.

One distinction to keep in mind is that not all young condo owners are looking for spaces in which to throw a party. If a resident can feel comfortable hanging out in communal spaces without feeling out of space, Pabon said that’s a victory for designers. “It’s allowing the voyeur in everyone to come out of their house and experience it,” he said. “Be in it but not of it … that’s what Gen Z is used to.”

Real estate professionals working with young buyers who are considering new construction condos would do well to ask the right questions in the home-search process. While developers might include an enticing list of work-life-play amenities, Pabon said it’s important to examine the listed spaces to make sure they’re the real deal. “They might have a rooftop deck, but it’s only Astroturf and furniture,” Pabon said. “What are the contents of the business center? If they have true collaboration spaces, that means the developer is sensitive to people in the young professional demographic.” He added that he also likes end-hall lounges as a method of using small spaces to allow residents to “just go sit and be on a cellphone and not be in your unit.”

Pabon noted that one of the biggest challenges designers face is the need to transform all spaces — even transitional ones like lobbies — into attractive, usable destinations. “You walk through some of the buildings and they’re beautiful, but no one’s using them,” he said. “We see flex space and [focus on] utilizing spaces outside and giving them a more defined use and function so that people would find themselves wanting to use them more.” Some helpful additions that make these areas more attractive to use are powered furniture, so homeowners can charge their devices as they hang out, and acoustical chairs with high, wrap-around backs that allow people to sit very close to each other and have separate conversations without being overheard.

This generation also values amenities that offer local flavor and authenticity. And smart developers are paying attention to that, too, adding evening popups with local restaurants and breweries, smart boards in elevators that curate neighborhood events, and displaying local art for sale in the lobby. “We’re finding something that’s going to tie them back to the neighborhood,” Pabon said. “It’s all about tying the neighborhoods back to a story that they can share with friends and relatives when they visit.”

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