This is the second article in, “Where ‘U’ Live,” a five-part series on housing at the University.
A 2004 University Presidential Initiative described the future of student residence hall life at the University as creating a “good city.” Nine years later, the city is two major reconstructions away from creating a fully modernized and interconnected dorm life.
The Residential Life Initiative includes an array of both major and minor renovations to most of the 18 residence halls on campus. The RLI continues with ongoing renovations to South Quad Residence Hall, and will conclude with construction in West Quad Residence Hall starting May 2014.
University Housing spokesman Peter Logan described University President Mary Sue Coleman’s vision for the residence halls as an enhancement to the residents’ education inside and outside of the classroom.
“Our focus has been on improving the quality of the residential experience and strengthening that connection between living and learning,” Logan said.
Most renovations added enhanced study spaces as well as community areas, two items requested by students in early surveys on housing.
On a larger scale, efforts were made to connect students from different dorms within particular neighborhoods, Logan said. The dining halls have played a role in bringing different students together by creating communal dining locations — such as the Hill Dining Center and The Blue Apple at Bursley Residence Hall.
“Before the Residential Life Initiative, so many of our halls had individual dining places, and while students with their meal plans could still dine at other locations, the tendency was to dine where you live,” Logan said.
Logan went on to say that having fewer but larger dining halls rather than one in each dorm is cost-effective and helps create the neighborhood atmosphere the RLI project intends. New entrances between South Quad Residence Hall and West Quad Residence Hall will also serve to connect students between different halls.
Though a main focus of RLI is on student learning and interaction, Logan emphasized that the renovations were “not simply cosmetic.”
Construction focused primarily on older heritage buildings, while leaving major changes to comparatively newer dorms, such as the Mary Markley and Bursley Residence Hall, for later. The total project costs $750 million, funded by 2-percent increases in room and board every year since renovations commenced, Logan said.
There are no current plans to renovations non-RLI dorms, like Bursley and Markley.
Gregory Wright, assistant director of planning and design for University Housing, said the buildings included in the project needed facility repairs and those not included will likely need them soon.
All residence halls received upgrades to fire-alarm and sprinkler systems, and most dorms also required upgrades in wireless Internet capability. Many of the listed repairs in the RLI briefing included mechanical, electrical and plumbing overhauls in the outdated buildings.
“There was a lot of ‘band-aiding’ going on over the years, and that’s why they reached a point where they were putting Band-Aids on Band-Aids,” Wright said of the plumbing system.
Wright explained that many of the major issues came from trying to include modern systems in older buildings. Issues like improper floor height to accommodate Internet and other wiring, and inability to distribute electricity and plumbing in taller buildings, required improvised solutions.
The building renovations have also included updates in sustainability. Most notably, all buildings are now equipped with occupancy sensors for the lights, and many have low- or dual-flush toilets.
“I’m really excited about what we’ve done and what we’re still doing,” he said. “The transformation of these buildings is just incredible.”
Wright said the South and West Quad renovations will take a similar approach to the model used for East Quad Residence Hall.
The South Quad project will not alter dorm rooms, but instead focus primarily on lounges and the dining hall. It is scheduled to be completed by August 2014, a tall order according to Wright.
“There’s a lot packed into the short amount of time that we have,” Wright said. “It’s always touch-and-go, but we’ve always made it.”
The University isn’t the only Big 10 institution improving its residence facilities in recent years: The dining hall renovations and improvements are similar to those undergone at Michigan State University’s Brody Neighborhood in 2009.
The Brody dining hall, used by the six residence halls in the neighborhood, now includes a two-story student lounge and community spaces. The cafeteria, named Brody Square, features nine different eating venues. Five of the residence halls themselves have been renovated, and the sixth is currently under construction.
An $83-million renovation to Pennsylvania State University’s South Hall dormitories was also completed this year. The dorm rooms, lounges and community spaces were all upgraded and air conditioning was installed. Unlike renovations here in Ann Arbor, building exteriors were also redesigned. A second phase of renovations will be completed at Penn State in 2015.
Indiana University has upgraded and built several residence halls in recent years and hopes to improve all of its residence halls by 2020.
LSA sophomore Samantha Lyons never felt that her former dorm, South Quad, was desperate for repair, but after moving to Stockwell Residence Hall this year, she’s is glad to see the dorm updated.
“It’s nice to try and keep up with the other Big 10 schools and other schools around the country,” Lyons said.
When you ask a resident of the renovated dorms about their living situation, the word “hotel” tends to come to mind.
LSA junior Iqra Nasir lived in luxury last year in Couzens Residence Hall and said the dorm felt extremely comfortable.
“The areas set up in Couzens are wonderful,” Nasir said. “There are lounges on every floor, and it was really helpful to have study areas so close to your room.”
Since the implementation of RLI, the total dorm capacity of the past several years has been notably lower. After closing Baits I Residence Hall and beginning renovations to East Quad in 2011, housing priority was reversed — freshmen were given priority in dorm placement.
Logan said giving those rooms to younger students helped ease the transition into college life and relieve the burden of trying to find off-campus housing.
“That was not a popular decision,” Logan said, noting the frustration of the upperclassmen who expected precedence in the housing lottery. “What we’re anticipating is with our full complement of rooms back in order of Central Campus, we’ll actually have more choices for returning students.”
The dorm re-openings could also mean fewer undergraduates in Northwood Apartments I and II, though the specifics on the housing selection process have not been finalized.