Building student apts. creates design challenges

Architects, developers say student housing has become more luxurious in recent years.


Dinkytown was preparing to change forever in 2008 when Sydney Hall, a 14-story concrete tower, was set to redefine the area.

Economic downturn and rising construction costs caused the project to revert to its current six-story form, said David Graham, whose architecture firm designed the building.

Although it didn’t fulfill its original vision, Sydney Hall was still a game-changer, spurring student housing that functions like multi-family housing elsewhere in the city, Graham said.

Experts said new student housing resembles other luxury housing projects more and more, but the economics of building for students create subtle differences and prevent projects from reaching their full potential.

“We’re in a bit of a paradox here in Minneapolis,” Graham said. “We want taller buildings, and we want higher density, but economics simply don’t work as well here.

“The cost of construction is rising faster than the cost of health care.”


When designing student housing, a big concern for developers is achieving enough height to be profitable with limited expense.

“One of the things that’s probably created more opportunity for the design and construction of housing … was the advent of being able to structurally build a five-story wood building,” said Kelly Doran, president of Doran Companies. Doran owns four upscale student housing complexes near campus, including Sydney Hall.

When wooden-framed, or “stick-built” projects reach five stories, Doran said, they become more economically viable.

“That really makes a difference because obviously the economics of a development are based on how many units and how many bedrooms you can get on a piece of property,” he said.

Building any higher than five stories requires a concrete frame, which Doran said can increase building costs by 60 percent.

Most new student housing projects, including Doran’s Edge on Oak, Stadium Village Flats and others, are built to six stories with the ground floor made out of concrete.

Progressive Design

Graham said planning housing near the University allows for more progressive design, since many of the surrounding businesses rely on foot traffic and not many students drive.

With lower parking requirements, Graham said campus housing can be built more densely and sustainably.

“[The new developments] are primarily pedestrian-oriented, it’s wonderful,” Graham said. “You don’t need parking lots. You don’t have all of this conflict of drive-thrus, of large amounts of parking for customers.”

However, parking concerns still play a large part in the design of new complexes, said Minneapolis City Planner Haila Maze.

“These sites aren’t very big, and that means they need to be efficient in how they’re designed,” she said. “Since pretty much all the new ones have structured parking, they’re shaped like structured parking.”

The city requires one parking space for each bedroom for apartment buildings, but that is reduced to one space for every two bedrooms for housing near the University.

Doran said most campus apartments don’t even need that much parking. Original plans for the Knoll, Doran’s latest development, were denied by the city because they lacked enough parking.

“I do think there’s some need on the part of the city to reconsider some of the zoning over at the campus,” Doran said. “They all know it; they just gotta go do it.”

The cost of high density

Maze said developers make as much money with upscale student housing as they would with luxury apartments elsewhere in the city. This is achieved by packing in apartments more densely, she said.

“The land here is not cheap. It’s very expensive,” she said. “So they have an incentive to fit as many units as they can on a site.”

In order to offset the cost of land, student housing often allots fewer square feet per resident. An apartment shared by three people near campus may be the size of a single-occupancy apartment downtown, Maze said.

Apartments are also designed with an emphasis on private spaces instead of shared ones, Maze said. Many developments give each person a private bathroom while downsizing the kitchen or dining areas.