“We abused the hell out of that dorm…”

A month or so ago I had the privilege of touring a new residence hall at SUNY New Paltz. The mindful design of this building (by Architecture+ in Troy, NY) impressed me, and made me proud of DASNY’s involvement in this work for the State University system. There was a high level of thoughtful design, flexibility of the plan in support of the student population, and impressive quality of materials.

img_3278The residence hall has ample public areas, access to views (which are beautiful) and interior space configurations that improve community and physical activity. From the main entry, you can readily see upstairs and down and even out though the community spaces to the exterior. It is bright and cheerful and the stairs have open-form risers for added light and air movement. The elevator is present, but less prominent than the stairs, to encourage walking up and down (energy-saving and active design). Check out the Active Design Guidelines for more ways to encourage physical activity. The spaces for community are also designed for easy flexibility. Cooking areas can be closed off from “living rooms” with glass doors to contain smells but allow view, and the gathering rooms can be physically altered to afford small, cozy nooks for smaller conversations. Spaces become visually apart, but are still acoustically included. The hallways are wide and, unlike more traditional dorms, are not a long tunnel of consistent lighting and width, but varied, expressive, and ending in a big end window again affording excellent views and daylight.


In the 70’s and before, we designed dorms with gang bathrooms at the mid-area of each floor. At RPI in the late 1980’s the freshman dorms were of such an inflexible design, and each floor was single sex because of that arrangement. With a ratio of 6 men to 1 woman in 1985, most dorms at RPI were men only and the ones with women’s floor typically placed the women on the third floor, I guess to reduce peeking tom-ism. Cary Hall had the women on the second floor, which was odd. The story was that an experiment with a nitroglycerin derivative exploded the urinals on the 2nd floor and since they had to repair/replace, it was expedient to change that bathroom over to a women’s room. Fun times.

In the ‘90s and ‘00s, dorm designs changed over to suites with shared bathrooms, and some residence halls even had solely individual rooms and bathrooms. This certainly met many needs, and allowed better diversity of living when a floor could include residents of either sex, but it created a pretty big price tag as well as maintenance burdens.

img_3283The layout of the res hall at New Paltz bridges those two approaches quite well by having toilet rooms in a suite configuration, one toilet room for 2-4 residents depending, but accessible from the hallway instead of from within the suite. This means if your suite’s bathroom is occupied, and you need respite, you can go to any open bathroom. It still means the suite residents have ownership of the bathroom, but flexibility exists. Finally, it means diversity of resident types on the floor is achievable and variable, including addressing needs for handicap accessibility.

The most impressive part to me, however, is the high quality of materials in the design as well as the inclusion of many patterns of biophilia which support the physical, mental and emotional health of the students. Maybe that’s what a residence hall should use as a design statement, after all; “A Place that supports the physical, mental and emotional health of the student residents”.  My college living experience consisted of painted concrete masonry block walls and bulletproof nylon loop carpeting and vinyl floored kitchens. The community areas included prison-made blocky indestructible couches and chairs, often bolted to the floor. We abused the hell out of that dorm, because it was obvious we were expected to.

Wool divider panel

Wool divider panel

Textured wall

Textured wall

This residence hall at SUNY New Paltz has LED lighting with wood veneer, showing nature’s gorgeous patterns when lit. The walls around the common area are a gypsum wallboard (GWB) product formed with a wavy pattern, reflecting and morphing the light coming in from the ample windows, and the separations I mentioned in the common area consist of a dense wool felt product suspended from the ceiling as sliding panels with patterns of perforations keeping it lively. The configuration of the stairs includes a molded sheet glass product at the railings, and accidental rainbows appear as the day progresses. We did not include these types of high-end materials 30-40 years ago because they are not “bullet proof”. However, it seems that if you provide beautiful intentional surroundings, residents treat them with respect and care, even in college residence halls.

We abused the hell out of that dorm, because it was obvious we were expected to.

View from second floor overlooking community space, and outdoors.

View from second floor overlooking community space, and outdoors.

This brought to mind a volunteer project I was involved with when I traveled with Up With People. There was a slew of graffiti under the overpass along a river, and we spent the weekend not painting over the nastiness with grey paint, but applying our own art to the place. We did a HUGE mural up underneath where the road met the land, and each supporting highway pier received a small piece of art: theatre masks, peace symbols, funky stick figures reminiscent of dessert rock carvings. Our placement of mindful art did what we intended, let people know this space was important and of value, and deserving of care. The abusive graffiti did not return.

This is what I am thankful for, and will work to propagate:

  • Mindful interventions, co-created by the end users. This instead of bullet-proofed design that creates fear and defensiveness.
  • Respect for the potential, leading to improvements in action and gain. This in place of implementations that cater to the lowest common denominator, which invariably make that low-level of performance acceptable.
  • Inclusion of nature, in both directions so we benefit from it and support it. This in preference over raping nature for what we can get and dismissing it when we don’t feel it matters.
  • Flexibility of interaction in practical ways, allowing a decent level of comfort in each configuration for all who may use the space. This instead of one size fits all, all the time.

Be well, and be greener when you can,


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  • Well, I believe in that same dorm and floor, the person who supposedly blew up the urinals apparently used thermite and some steel bars to “weld” his RA into his room.

    That one I can’t confirm, and when asked, his only answer to me was “the statute of limitations hasn’t run out yet”

  • I am aware of the supposed nitroglycerin experiment (and the person who supposedly performed it).
    However, I can state unequivocally that it is false.

    I had more than one opportunity to check out the bathroom on that floor. The urinals were simply covered by a wooden “box” built over them. But, the box had no bottom. Simply by bending over and looking up from underneath I checked that the urinals were in fact intact. I was in fact curious 🙂

    But still a good memory.

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