How do you design student accommodation for community and friendship?

What’s the best size and structure for a flourishing residential student community on campus?

I like to ask colleagues about their personal ‘student experience’, and particularly how they managed in their first year living away from home. The responses vary enormously, but are always fascinating.

Some are quite extreme: from a friend who was allocated a bed space on a redundant hospital ward with eight students to a room (he had a great time!); through to a client who arrived late through the clearing process and ended up boarding with a family in an entirely different town to the University (he hated it – and left the university).

One strong theme that emerges is that the friendships made on arrival at university are critical to a fulfilling student experience.

“Friendships made on arrival at university are critical to a fulfilling student experience.”

It is natural that the place where people live together is where most of these important relationships are formed; with communities growing from these friendships. For institutions, this means creating student accommodation where friendships are easily formed is vital to student engagement and retention.

So how do you design to foster a sense of community? How do you design for friendship and well-being? And specifically, what is the best size for a residential community on campus?

This paper explores these questions, looking at how to create the best possible student accommodation with ideas on sizing accommodation to maximise the benefits to community.

The importance of making friends when you first arrive

Instinctively as a parent you know the importance of friendship to your children, particularly at the stressful times when there are big changes in their life. This is never more important than at the transition from home life to university.

Making connections at the start of term helps with transition to a new way of life, leads to greater engagement with the university and the start of a new social life.

In recent years it has become even more important to establish your friendship group at the earliest time. One of the key factors is meeting compatible people to live with in your second year at university.

The pressure for new students to make friends fast is increasing

The pressure to form your future household has been massively impacted by changes in the marketing of shared houses and returner accommodation. In some University towns accommodation is marketed in the November prior to September occupation, with the best properties let immediately, and most shared houses let before Christmas. First year students therefore need to form their future households in the first term – just 8 weeks to decide who you are going to live with for the next 12 months.

Within in our own office many placement students talk about choosing who to live with, not based on who is likely to be most fun or a potential lifelong friend, but who is the least risky option. A fellow student who is definitely safe and reliable is seen as preferable over taking the risk on someone who is perhaps more compatible – but you haven’t had time to get to know properly. This seems to me to be a wasted opportunity.

A challenge for universities is to try and reduce this pressure, taking the heat out of the lettings market, so that freshers do not rush into signing a contract. Unipol’s ‘Don’t Let Yet’ campaign in Leeds is a successful example of where pressure is beginning to impact on the market.

Designing student communities for friendship

Student communities are unique

On-campus residential accommodation has unique characteristics:

  • The accommodation is temporary, typically having less than 12-month residencies.
  • The residents are relatively homogeneous in age and are linked to a single institution; although they may have very different backgrounds and attitudes.
  • The residents are likely to be at a time of significant change in their lives.

These factors make student residences a distinct community type, with challenges and pressures for designers and managers.

What does a model student community look like?

For designers and architects like us, the unique characteristics of student residential accommodation and the increasing pressure to make friends raises lots of questions:

  • What does a model student community look like?
  • What is unique about the way of living for students?
  • How do you design for friendship?

We are always looking at how to create the best possible student accommodation. Below are some of our findings, from a range of sources, on sizing accommodation to maximise the benefits to community.

Designing for community means providing the spaces and places for new students to make friends

Community size matters

For our larger campus projects, where the number of bedrooms runs into hundreds or thousands, the first question is:

What is the best size for a residential community on campus?

So how do you size accommodation to maximise the benefits to community?

Looking outside of the HE Sector, there is some excellent research sources on the optimum and maximum size for communities.

1. Dunbar’s Number

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research suggests there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. Comparing a wide range of different types of social groups, he found that humans can comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships. The limit to group size being the mental capacity to process the information necessary to maintain relationships in which “an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person”.

The cognitive limit relates to community size (it is not the maximum number of friends you have) and applies whether the people within the community are co-located or not. Dunbar informally defined the relationship as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”.

Since the research was published there has been debate as to the potential maximum size for cohesive social groups with proposals which lie between 100 and 250.

Any modern teenager would scoff at the thought of a social network that was limited to 150 (as they checked their number of friends on Instagram). However, there is strong evidence that Dunbar’s number would apply to a discrete community such as a student residence.

2. Tiered Communities

The book Shaping Neighbourhoods is a manual on how to build sustainable and healthy neighbourhoods. Recognising that there is no universal template for towns, it identifies three distinct levels of neighbourhood that are sufficiently predictable to offer a basis for planning practice: Home-patch, Neighbourhood and Township.

  1.  The level of Home Patch correlates closely with Dunbar’s number – giving a range of 20-200 persons with a shared identity or character.
  2. Campus compares to Neighbourhood, at a range of 2,000 to 10,000 persons in an area which has a distinctive identity.
  3. Township is given as 15,000 to 40,000 at which size a range of local facilities can be supported – equating to a large university population including staff.

When applying the ideas of tiered communities to student accommodation, we should insert some additional levels:

  1. Home, the number of residents in a flat or house;
  2. Building, the residents who share a common staircase; and,
  3. The Site or College, the common size for a distinct development, often based around common facilities and a single management structure.

In the early 2000’s there was a debate around the ideal size for a cluster flat, either five or six bedrooms – this is unthinkable today where eight, ten and twelve bed units are common. Looking back, this debate was driven more by the commercial concerns of construction, management, ease of maintenance and damage deposits than what was best for students.

It is generally recognised that larger units provide more diversity within a flat, and gives the greatest chance of positive bonds being formed amongst residents. Operators and universities vary in opinion, but 10 bed flats and 12 bed townhouses are common maximum figures. We are working with two universities where larger flat sizes have been designed – but these have compensatory measures in the design of their kitchens and social spaces.


The number of rooms within a building is usually a function of configuration, flat size and number of storeys. Design efficiency will normally determine this decision rather than social issues. However, we are increasingly being asked to distribute study and social spaces in such a way that each building has some element of non-residential accommodation, creating a focal point and unique identity.

Shaping Neighbourhoods HE / Student Residential Military
Township 15,000 - 40,000 University staff and students Division 10,000 - 20,000
Neighbourhood 2,000 - 10,000 Campus Undergraduate population Brigade 5,000
College / Site Average of 475 students Battalion Typically 500 - 800
Homepatch 20 - 200 Dunbar’s Number Company 80 - 150
Home Household Unit 6 - 12 Squad 8 - 14

The Collegiate Model

Working with Durham University has given my practice a fascinating insight into how collegiate universities structure their accommodation to maximise the benefits of community living.

Similarly to Oxford and Cambridge, Durham University manages growth by increasing the number of colleges rather than increasing the size of existing colleges.

We have recently secured planning consent for two new colleges of 500 bedrooms each. The roll for each college will exceed this number – but the built form of the college will accommodate 500 students, mostly undergraduates.

Typically Oxford Colleges average around 400 students. At this size there is a sufficient student body to support a Principal and administrative support and a large JCR committee of sabbatical and non-sabbatical officers. The college is focussed around a college building that contains Junior and Senior Common Rooms, as well as social and administrative functions. Communal dining and college social events play a critical role in the formation of the college community. Inter college competition at a wide range of sports attracts very high levels of participation.

It is immediately apparent that the collegiate system achieves exceptional levels of engagement. When meeting a Durham student, they will identify themselves by college first, then course. To ‘insiders’ the differentiation between colleges is distinct. The college colours, student make-up, buildings and specialities create a college character that passes from year to year. The mixing of year groups within accommodation and college officer level help to promote this continuity.

The college offers an intermediate tier of engagement between the student and the university – a human-scaled community at which to participate. College sports are a great example; you may not be good enough to play for the University – but there will always be a place for you in a college team.

The Mount Oswald project for Durham University provides 1,000 rooms divided into two colleges of 500 students each.  The colleges have distinct architectural and landscape character, with defined ‘territories’ and their own common rooms and social space.

The optimum size of student communities - Conclusions

The pastoral care of students has become increasingly under the spotlight in recent years. The frontline for care will always be univesity Student Services, however, the role architecture can play in supporting community building and the well-being and mental health of the students is an avenue well worth exploring. If a University wants to put ‘making friends’ high on the list of what a student development needs to deliver, where do they begin?

It makes sense to think about the size, structure and types of the community you’re looking to build from the start with these concepts in mind. How will you design your accommodation to maximise the benefits of community living?

  • How many in each home – number of residents in a flat or house?
  • How many in each building, the residents who share a common staircase; and,
  • How many in the overall Site or College?

It would be naïve to think that designers can choose the perfect form of development to maximise community benefits. For most developments, the commercial and planning constraints and physical context will be the primary factors in shaping the design brief.

However, where the site gives you the freedom, mapping ‘natural’ community sizes onto the emerging development proposal will give the benefits of a tiered community structure. This will give residents the greatest opportunity to participate at every level, from the household upwards. Ultimately this supports the formation of friendships and a growing engagement with the wider university.

Dunbar’s Number.

The internet is awash with articles which reference Dunbar’s Number, particularly in reference to social network software and business management. Malcolm Gladwell brought the idea to prominence in his book Tipping Point. Alternative figures for the size of networks tend to be higher, such as the Bernard–Killworth median of 231.

Shaping Neighbourhoods.

Barton H, Grant M and Guise R. 2003. Shaping Neighbourhoods. A Guide for Health, Sustainability and Vitality. London. Spon Press.

About the author

Andrew Iles is co-founder and practice director at Willmore Iles Architects. His project experience has focussed on the planning and development of large student accommodation and residential projects, often with an aspect of estates planning.

Andrew’s interest in architecture is not only in designing great buildings and spaces but also to consider how design can enhance a sense of community and well-being.

Example Projects

College Lane Residences

University of Hertfordshire

College Lane Residences

Mount Oswald

University of Durham

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Written by Andrew Posted in Ideas papers
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