Cutting Calories and Carbon: Rethinking Residence Life to Promote a Healthier Campus

| October 30, 2019

by Blake Jackson

If you lived in a college dormitory, you’ll recall the cramped conditions, lack of privacy, and the mounds of ramen that contributed to your “Freshman 15.” Whether it’s nostalgic to you or not, the college residence-life experience for most is lackluster compared with the impressions left by the main quad or central library.

A wave of new projects is reversing this trend, putting residence halls center stage as students – and parents – demand better services, memorable experiences and, above all, socialization and safety.

Workplace Theory Applies to Campuses, Too.

The impact a campus plays on occupant health and wellness is profound. Considering residence halls are where students spend most of their time, their renewed importance offers a key health and sustainability opportunity.

In quantifying the value of time spent indoors by students in the same way that office workers are measured, there is an opportunity to disrupt campus planning and operations for the better. Evidence-based approaches attest there is a direct correlation between metrics for “success” and an occupant’s access to green space, fresh air, natural light, and physical activity. One can argue that quantifying student success this way will impact their academic and personal performance on campus and beyond.

So, what if residence halls were rethought through the lens of workplace health and wellness, considering criteria from the WELL Building Standard and Fitwel?

For example, an area where programming may be added is a mindful eating space with filtered drinking water and healthy, seasonal snacks where 25% or more of the student population within the building or floor could congregate. Such a space would promote socialization and healthy eating without creating redundancy in a full cafeteria.

Biodiversity is another opportunity. In the illustration below, we see the rooftop, with reduced HVAC&R equipment through electrification and heat/energy recovery systems, can be fit with a large photovoltaic array atop a green roof. It can also contribute toward the project becoming net-positive for energy.


This visualization illustrates how campuses can rethink their residence halls’ potential for teaching and promoting healthy, sustainable lifestyles.

From Spartan to Spa

Private quarters can take a page from healthcare, where natural elements, views onto nature, daylight, and private rooms are the norm. These features promote energy savings, mental wellness, and greater acoustic privacy for better sleep.

The diagram below shows a single or potentially double occupancy room featuring a polished concrete radiant slab floor to promote thermal comfort and energy savings while reducing the building volume to save materials. The envelope is built to Passive House standards, providing optimal indoor air quality, acoustics, and thermal comfort, while reducing campus energy consumption.

A plan of a typical single or double occupancy dwelling unit highlights opportunities to impact student health and wellness in personal quarters.

Operations Crucial for Well-being

Occupant health is not realized when the building is completed; rather, it involves ongoing engagement between the owner and tenants. Residence halls offer a major opportunity for campuses to promote health and wellness, teach sustainable and healthy lifestyles, and “walk the talk” of greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Building performance monitoring, coupled with seasonal post-occupancy evaluations, becomes a learning opportunity that keeps students and staff accountable and engaged. Beyond physical buildings, policy is another instrument for promoting health and sustainability. A smoke-free campus, for example, is the best way to discourage the use of tobacco and e-cigarettes. And a green cleaning plan can promote indoor air quality standards.

Residence Halls and Health

Colleges are no different than any other business in that they must stay relevant to remain successful. Students are more scrutinizing than ever about their dollars, time, and experience. There simply is no way to lose if campuses not only go green but go healthy too.


Blake Jackson

Blake Jackson is the sustainability design leader at Stantec.


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Category: All, contributor, Green

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