By Katy B. Olson
Today’s off-campus housing is a far cry from the poster-covered cinderblock walls and cobbled-together plywood furniture of yesteryear. The millennials’ expendable cash (one Accenture study discovered that the group, which numbers 80 million in the U.S. alone, spends about $600 billion yearly) and their rising interest in design are fast evolving into a driving force behind modern, affordable decor. At sites from Wayfair to student-specific Dormify, retailers are wising up.
And so are designers: One pioneer of thoughtfully designed, privatized off-campus housing is designer Jon Call, who operates a New York City interior design firm but is working on marketing and developing properties near a number of colleges in the Southeast. “Design is such a marketable component among millennials. Privatization of dorms has led to more choice in the marketplace and a design is a deciding factor in where they choose to live,” he explains. Plus: “Kids know design better than anyone I know, even in small towns, because they’re so connected with the world,” via Pinterest, Houzz, HGTV and other forums.
Privatizing student housing takes a number of forms. Some universities are creating public-private partnerships, which means private companies both develop and manage housing on campus. Another avenue: The school allows a management company to take on existing on-campus housing. A third option is privately owned off-campus student housing, the kind Call is developing. Serving as creative director, Call has partnered with a private development company, in-house management firm Campus Life & Style (CLS), which operates its own dorms. CLS, based in Austin, Texas, and New York City, renovates existing properties and also develops new ones, centered on membership-only clubhouses that offer student-centric services and amenities.
Each property has what Call terms a “360-degree lifestyle,” including spin rooms, on-demand fitness classes, outdoor movie theaters, music venues and private study areas and other features, with the goal of providing an all-inclusive lifestyle. CLS has 18 properties currently in the works, including housing near James Madison University, Florida State, Texas State, University of Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Iowa State, and its premier project will launch in the spring.
Call is heavily involved in the marketing, branding, interiors and social experience, using “some of the same skills [he applies] to residential design but from a challenging new perspective.”
Exclusive doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. The housing units are mid-range, with rents on average ranging from $300 to $500. “We’re not creating fancy places for fancy people, but what we’re finding is that high-end design creates a sense of community. I didn’t have a lot of experience with millennial design, and from afar I was nervous that I was creating environments that would come off as inaccessible, which is the opposite of what we’ve created,” Call says. “Over the last two years, I have come to understand that designing for millennials is important because great design can happen when designing for them, and it’s design that is inclusive of everyone.”
Design challenges for millennials are unique, and students are redefining the idea of luxury. “Luxury to them is honoring their spirit of expression and individuality. [This initiative] is a step in the direction. We’re trying to set the tempo where everyone can express themselves. If not in college, then when?”
CLS’s first project, near the University of South Florida, in Tampa, will open in March 2016.