The University of Wyoming may embark on a decade-long project to demolish its dormitories and build a new residence hall complex, if trustees and the Legislature move forward with a new housing plan drafted by consultants.
Mahlum Architects recently presented a plan to the Board of Trustees showing suggested designs for new dormitories.
The plan proposes developing two new residence hall neighborhoods around central quads, building a parking garage, replacing the Washakie Dining Center, and creating a pedestrian walkway on the north side of the dorms called the “Cowboy corridor.”
That vision appeals to some students, provided it doesn’t raise room and board rates.
“A new complex would have been awesome,” said Katie Schulz, a music education major from Cheyenne who just finished her freshman year in the University of Wyoming dorms.
She lived in McIntyre Hall, which she described as having old carpet, cramped living conditions, rooms that aren’t soundproof, and broken plumbing that left one communal shower for the 15 girls on her floor for much of the semester. New UW students, with a few exceptions, are required to live in dorms.
“We only live there for nine months out of our college career, but I think [new residence halls] could make for a more positive experience than to live somewhere that is not as nice, and not working well for anyone,” Schulz said.
The Wyoming Legislature requested the campus housing study in a 2014 budget footnote. The study follows on lawmaker-initiated university building projects like the High-Bay research facility and a new hall for science.
UW paid $244,700 to Mahlum Architects of Portland, Oregon for the report. The firm previously designed a major dormitory complex at the University of Washington west campus in Seattle.
The new housing plan would require approval of trustees, and a large state appropriation. Though UW is far from settling on a final design, consultants with Mahlum said that the project could cost $200 million or more. Lawmakers will consider whether to proceed with the second stage of design in the 2016 session.
Should the plan gain legislative approval, the work wouldn’t begin for several years. Construction would happen in stages, leaving the residence halls with enough rooms to accommodate 2,000 students during all phases of construction.
The current dormitory complex has seven main buildings. These include Washakie Dining Center, plus Crane, Hill, Orr, McIntyre, Downey, and White Hall dormitories. At 12 stories and 200 feet, White Hall is the highest conventional building in Wyoming.
The university last renovated the dorms and the dining center from 2002-2013. The Washakie Dining Center renovations completed in 2002 cost $12 million.
The dorm renovations were mostly cosmetic and safety-related, installing new carpet, windows, and light fixtures, updating electric outlets, and adding fire sprinklers. McIntyre and Orr Hall updates were completed in 2006 for $8 million. Downey and White Hall completed in 2013 and cost $14 million.
UW self-funded much of the $34 million in renovations with bonds, rather than with state money.
Crane and Hill Halls, which house upperclassmen, have seen little renovation. These two dorms surround the large but little-used Crane dining hall, though the kitchen is used by UW catering services.
The key point in the Mahlum report is that UW faces a competitive disadvantage by offering only traditional dorm rooms for first-year students in buildings that date to the early 1960s. The report makes the case that the University of Wyoming dorms fall short of what is offered by regional peer institutions.
Out of 11 universities in neighboring states studied by Mahlum, UW is the only school that has no “suite-style” housing, where bedrooms adjoin around a common room or a shared bathroom.
“The ‘old school’ or the traditional dorm with gang toilets down the hall is definitely a thing of the past,” said Kurt Haapala, principal with Mahlum Architects. “Modernization is clearly required, because their peer institutions, Colorado State, UC Boulder, everyone is moving forward with renovations and new facilities.”
Even so, he said Wyoming’s dorms resemble many campuses around the country that are still using mid-century post-World War II dorms. “They are not completely behind the curve,” Haapala said.
UW Residence Life executive director Eric Webb says prospective students believe Wyoming’s dorms compare poorly to what is offered in other community colleges or institutions in Colorado.
“When you look at the individual rooms [at UW] in the halls they are very minimal,” Webb said. “They were built for function and that’s it, with the smallest possible rooms, small windows, limited light, narrow hallways, community bathrooms … so we’ve seen a fair amount of pushback associated with that.”
While Webb says UW’s brick and concrete dorms are structurally sound and functional, he says not addressing them will eventually impact recruitment. Several athletes have decided not to come to Wyoming because the dorms don’t match the quality of the academic and athletic facilities. Webb said he believes UW may be having trouble growing the student body because of the existing dorms.
“We hear that from admission and athletics, and we believe that is our weak link in our facilities and our ability to recruit,” Webb said. “We really need this for a recruiting and satisfaction tool for those freshmen.”
He emphasized the new residence halls would focus on freshman, and not on upperclassmen, many of whom live in UW’s 700 apartments or off campus.
The Mahlum report also found that room and board costs for UW students were slightly above the median.
“The price of the dorms isn’t awful, but it is still terribly high,” Schulz said. She plans to live off-campus as a sophomore, where she will pay off the cost of living in the dorms, board not included.
“It’s an expensive place to live your freshman year,” she said. “[There is a sense] that we are not getting what we are paying for.”
Amenities arms race?
Nationally, many media outlets report that universities are engaged in an “amenities arms race” to build new residence halls and recreation centers in order to recruit students. Some universities have built luxury-style student housing, recreation centers with climbing walls, hot tubs, and lazy rivers.
But one recent study found that students — especially high-performing students — care more about price and academic reputation than such housing and recreation amenities since the 2008 recession. Top-ranked schools can get by with cramped and even historic dorms.
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The oldest dormitory in the United States, Massachusetts Hall on the Harvard Campus, dates to 1721. It currently houses Harvard’s president, with freshman dormitory rooms on the top floor.
Wyoming state Rep. Kermit Brown (R-Laramie) said UW’s housing plan reflects the changing needs of today’s students, many of whom grew up with their own bedroom and a private bathroom. That’s a change since the time when many of today’s parents were in college.
“Kids today are different, and the reason they can’t use a shared bathroom anymore is because that’s how their parents raised them,” Brown reflected.
Webb said UW’s current dorms don’t lend themselves to being remodeled into “suite-style” configurations. Though many rooms outside of Crane and Hill have sinks, installing private bathrooms and suites would require so much demolition of interior brick walls that it approaches the cost of new construction.
Dorms as community space
Today’s dormitories are expected to offer more than a place to sleep and a basic lounge with couches. Architectural firms like Mahlum design residence halls to provide privacy in bedrooms and bathrooms, while also encouraging social interaction with comfortable lounges and public space.
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“You do that to build community and get them out of their rooms for all the right reasons,” Haapala said. He said that doesn’t mean building “hot tubs and a pool in the shape of a cowboy.” Instead he points to dorms with lounges with shared kitchenettes, study nooks, art rooms, classrooms, lecture spaces, markets, and even restaurants.
Schulz says UW’s current dorms do have “fishbowl” style lounges with glass walls and freshmen interest groups that concentrate students with common academic interests. This helps break this ice for new students, especially in the first months on campus.
“It is definitely helpful,” she said. “When you are forced around people who are just as freaked out as you it is a little bit easier to make friends.”
All that social interaction can help boost academic performance, which is why UW requires freshmen to live on campus. Studies show that on-campus students have higher grade point averages, Webb said.
Higher costs for students?
Critics of the “amenities arms race” argue that upgraded residence halls result in a higher room and board fees for students. Many universities fund construction with bonds, then turn to students to pay down the debt.
Webb says student fees shouldn’t increase at UW if new dorms are built, because the school won’t try to pay for the project entirely with bonds.
“We want this to be an extremely good value to the students and we couldn’t do that if we have to bond for this whole project,” Webb said. “For us to provide competitively-priced housing, that is why we are turning to the state for some support.”
State-funded construction would have the benefit of keeping housing costs low for students, which is already one of UW’s major recruiting advantages.
State funds could make the project less risky for the university. Most of UW’s current dorms were built in the early 1960s in anticipation of enrollment growth, according to historian Deborah Hardy’s book Wyoming University. A decade later, enrollment leveled off, leaving the university with insufficient housing revenue to pay off the bonds that funded construction. The university closed older dorms like Wyoming Hall in the face of 800 student vacancies, leaving the current complex of dorms.
As for the plan for new dorms and the $200 million rough estimate of cost, Sen. Brown says it is very preliminary, and may not go any further until mineral prices improve and provide the state more revenue. Even then, it could take years to begin construction, and up to a decade after that to complete the work.
“The footnote says do some preliminary looking at this, and unless our fiscal engine gets on track that’s probably as far as we would go,” Brown said. “We just don’t have that kind of money out there.”
Text of the 2014 budget bill footnote:
“Not later than October 1, 2015, the trustees of the University of Wyoming shall report to the joint education interim committee and the joint appropriations interim committee on potential complete reconstruction of Crane Hall, Downey Hall, Hill Hall, McIntyre Hall, Orr Hall and White Hall collectively or separately. The report shall include cost estimates for construction and operations, student affordability, potential timing and options for financing the reconstruction, and a review of housing options and costs at comparable universities.”