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Back To School In The Digital Dorm

Sixty-inch LED-lit LCD screens abound throughout the property.

Colleges Bolster Enrollment with Posh Student Housing and Advanced AV

Sixthriver Architects, an Austin, TX-based architecture and interior design firm, has been involved in over a dozen of these deluxe student digs, including this one for the University of New Mexico.
All images courtesy Sixthriver Architects Sixty-inch LED-lit LCD screens abound throughout the property. They flank the projection video that’s found in the sumptuous common spaces of these luxury residences, sometimes in the form of casual home theaters or multi-screen sports bars. You can always pick up the thread from Netflix or other streaming services back in your private room– Wi-Fi is ubiquitous and powerful throughout the property, whether it’s a high-rise multi-dwelling unit (MDU) or a multistory townhome design. In any configuration, this is lavish living at its best.

One of the new lux high-rises going up in Las Vegas? A tech-savvy Ritz-Carlton? A gated community in a tony zip code? No, it’s a college dorm, and it’s coming to a campus near you.

Colleges, which saw their enrollments swell during the recession and its aftermath as young people sought enhanced job skills or were simply waiting out the downturn in a cosseted academic environment, are now experiencing the opposite effect. As employment growth turns more positive, many of those students are taking their chances in the job market. According to the New York Times, college enrollment declined two percent in 2012- 2013, a trend that appears to be holding for the 2013-2014 college term, with more emphasis on traditional four-year, academic colleges, which traditionally have the highest percentage of students living away from home. It’s a contraction that will last for several years, the Times’ analysis suggested.

This is translating into declining admissions, and colleges are fighting back with an array of strategies and tactics. One of those is the increasing construction of high-end housing for students, and that includes plenty of cool audio and video.

Hybrid Installations

Villas on Sycamore student housing facility in Huntsville, TX is a luxury residence for Sam Houston State University. “There will be quite a variety of flat-screen televisions in these properties,” said Katie Farkash, a shareholder in Sixthriver Architects, an Austin, TX-based architecture and interior design firm that’s been involved in over a dozen of these deluxe student digs, including ones built at or near Arizona State in Tempe and Flagstaff, Texas A&M in Austin, and Oregon State in Portland. The private rooms and communal spaces have ample USB ports– “The more, the better,” Farkash said, who oversees Sixthriver’s Student Housing Studio, the interior design division that works with campus-housing developers like American Campus Communities. Docking stations for Apple and Android devices are also ubiquitous, game rooms are often regular design components, and video walls are becoming increasingly popular. Each of these amenities is used as a draw as colleges look to these residential palaces as high-tech and fashionable lures for a dwindling pool of paying students.

These types of facilities have some unique challenges, and at the same time, they face issues that all installed AV propositions have to address. High-tech dorm residences are hybrids, requiring the skill-sets and, often, the technology platforms of both residential and commercial installations. “On one hand, you’re putting video into private rooms; on the other, you’re wiring for a sports bar, all in the same building,” observed Wayne Chance, AV and security systems designer at JanCom Technologies, an Austin firm that has designed AV systems for schools, including UT at Austin. While features they are designing into these facilities include home theaters and game rooms, Chance said it’s the sheer amount of AV, particularly video, that inclines these types of projects closer to commercial ones. A recent project at the Callaway House near the UT Austin campus called for 36 65-inch flat-screen TVs throughout the dorm, mostly in common areas. A Barco projection system is used for a 25- seat home theater.

The reasons behind the rush to build and outfit these high-tech dorms can run up against that same hybrid issue. Colleges and the companies that build and manage these residential facilities are looking for wow factors, and lots of video offers exactly that. However, the budgets often call for consumer-grade screens even as their AV specialists are recommending commercial-grade displays, especially in common areas where they will mostly be used. “You need commercial flat-screens that can handle RS-232 ports and two-way communication with building control systems,” Chance said, noting that a Crestron automation system is used in Callaway House to turn off screens and lights, a task that might not be high on harried, term paper-deadlined students’ to-do lists.

More AV-intensive dorms will likely begin to encounter some of the issues that typically occur in residential environments when media starts to border on mayhem. Sixthriver Architects’ Katie Farkash said noise hasn’t become a problem yet, but isolating common areas from private rooms are part of the discussion in some projects. These homes away from home are also going to have to accommodate faster product cycles. Anything built before this year will likely need to upgrade to 4K televisions in the near future.

Mostly Ground-Up Construction

Pandora and other streaming audio and video propositions are among the systems that NCI Cabling Infrastructure, a Buford, GA infrastructure and AV integration company has been putting into new lux dorms affiliated with schools like Kennesaw State University and Florida State University at Tallahassee. James Conerton, NCI’s vice president of technology services, said these dormitories straddle the lines between residential, corporate, and hospitality. “There’s centralized control and access, including a reception area, just like in an office or medical facility, but there are also tanning beds with iPod docks and 24/7 access to everything,” he said.

Casas Del Rio, near the University of New Mexico, lures students with its advanced AV amenities.Mobile device docking stations are a ubiquitous feature at Hilltop Townhomes at Northern Arizona.

Conerton said NCI has installed both Crestron and Extron control system elements in these facilities, as well as distributed audio and video systems. All of the dorms have been new construction, which he said facilitates cabling for the extensive AV inside them. He also noted that many of them are being booked more than a year in advance, before construction is even completed, underscoring how successful the idea has become in attracting students. It also suggested that existing dormitory facilities might soon begin to look to update their AV infrastructure to remain competitive. “That’s going to be a more expensive approach,” because of the cost of retrofitting cabling infrastructure, he said, noting that NCI hasn’t received any calls for that type of dorm project yet. “But it certainly would be a good business proposition for them to consider.” And for AV integrators interested in the phenomenon to look into, Alex Olivares, NCI Cabling’s director of business development, said those dorms will face challenges including how to house and cool back-of- house systems, like projectors, media servers, and more amplifiers. “Most existing dorms don’t have the extra real estate that you need for a lot of AV electronics,” he explained. “That’s why these new dorms are factoring a lot more AV in from the start of their design.”

What these facilities are also going to need are massive, massive amounts of Wi-Fi. “Every student has six IP addresses,” said Wayne Chance of JanCom, referring to the growing number of personal mobile devices for individuals. “Every facility is going to need tons of secure [wireless access points]. But you also want to keep the wireless control and automation systems off those same Wi-Fi systems–the potential for hundreds of mobile devices causing Wi-Fi-enabled televisions and projectors to turn on and off and change channels is very real.” And the remote controls for those devices very much need to be integrated into dedicated automation systems, preferably using wall-mounted touchpanels. The lifespan of a single television’s conventional remote control device in a dorm is about that of a house fly’s. “It could be chaos,” Chance said.

A Template For Residential AV In The Future?

While they are part of increasing efforts to keep tuition revenues flowing in for colleges and universities, what these pupil palaces are also becoming are potential templates for the future of Millennial residential patterns. Their condo-like and townhome models fit nicely with population trends that are pointing to an influx back toward more densely populated urban cores where MDU-construction is becoming the norm. And today’s college-age cohort is the most connected and tech-savvy in history, meaning that these kinds of post-education living spaces will also be heavily techno-centric.

“We’re definitely seeing more access to more technology at younger ages, and this is going to become the norm for them when they get out of college,” Sixthriver Architects’ Farash observed. JanCom’s Chance said manufacturers are only just becoming aware of the opportunities to get their brands embedded into dorm life, an environment populated with one of the more desirable demographics in the entire consumer electronics universe.

That also bodes well for AV systems integrators that can follow this demographic out of school and into their adult lives. In any event, the decline in college admissions is itself an opportunity to present more AV options to an already engaged audience.

Dan Daley is a freelance writer based in Nashville, TN.