What living in a small space can give students

With more and more people attending college, students and architects have had to learn how to make the best of small spaces.


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Dorms. At MU, and most American colleges, dorms are typically comprised of concrete or brick tower blocks speckled in various individual complexes. Generally, college residence halls have a reputation design-wise as being gray and intimidating with unforgiving structures. It is only in recent years that dorms have been made more comfortable, as opposed to the overarching strategy of making them more about function over fashion. The goal, in retrospect, is to pack in as many students as humanly possible.

For the thousands of students at MU living in these blocks, space has been a challenge. The architects of the dorms have had a history of creating painted cinder block walls, low ceilings and narrow spaces. What is changing, however, is not just dependent upon the architects, but also the students themselves.

At MU, out-of-state students have had to make do in taking with them only what they need and using the space they have. Even for students who are used to sharing a room, like freshman Brenna Donnelly, figuring out how, where and what to store was a challenge. Especially since she is now living with someone new in a smaller space.

Donnelly, a journalism and music major from Wichita, Kansas, shared a room with her sister growing up, until she moved to MU in August. Donnelly, who now lives in Schurz Hall, has had to figure out new ways to use the space she shares with her roommate Kristina Essig.

“This space is very small, but it works for the way in which we set up our room,” Donnelly said. “This was my first time getting to see the room … I didn’t know what my setup was besides the fact that I had three drawers, so I knew I had to put all my clothes there … I made my bed the tallest it can go so I can put storage underneath that. I have these two big buckets above my closet which I can put random stuff in.”

In an effort to make dorms more spacious, students can look toward minimalism in small spaces as inspiration. Kirsten Dirksen, a writer at faircompanies.com, has captured various people living in small spaces, including apartments with less than 90 square feet. Residents from around the world have been able to construct incredibly versatile spaces despite their lack of that aforementioned space.

Inhabitants of these tiny spaces, like Manhattan-based author Felice Cohen, have had to think outside the box, literally, when it comes to using the space they have. Cohen, for example, has created a space that is punctuated by various shelves and storage spaces and has found unconventional ways to keep things organized in her 90 square foot studio.

“Organizing this space was a challenge, but one I was happy to take on,” Cohen told Dirksen in a 2010 Fair Companies interview. “I just got rid of everything, and I knew you had to go up when organizing in New York City, so that’s what I did … in New York City, most people store their laundry in their stoves anyways.”

In looking back at college residence halls, the barebones, no-frills mentality that perpetuated their design for so long is now being put to the test at MU and around the country. Dorms like Gateway have upped the standards of dorm design with large windows, solar power and a rain garden.

At Emerson College in Boston, dorms have become somewhat of an interior design experiment to figure out how to make the best dorm in the smallest amount of allocated space. The way in which halls are constructed can vastly depend on their surroundings, and with Emerson for example, the university is located in downtown Boston, meaning that there is less space to work with. Therefore, architects, like students, have had to use small spaces to their advantage.

Boston-based architectural firm Elkus Manfredi was tasked with the project and was able to create a 375 bedroom residence at Two Boylston Place. The goal is not only to make dorms at Emerson into spaces for living, but also to make them enjoyable spaces for students

“We’re bringing lessons learned from mixed-use retail to the college campus, so it’s not just a dorm standing there, lonely, with a bunch of Chiclet-size bedrooms,” Elkus Manfredi principal architect Elizabeth Lowrey told Architectural Digest in 2018. “It’s really about creating community and connections and drawing students out of their rooms to be with others.” For Donnelly, living in a small space has taught her how to use what she has and that sacrifices can be necessary for living happily in a space that is not as large as her room at home. But at the same time, having a cooperative roommate is essential.

“I can’t have as many books as I meant to bring, you can only fit as many as your little shelf can have,” Donnelly said. “We talked a little bit before we moved in and I’m very particular about having other people touch my stuff, it’s just don’t touch unless you have permission first … my roommate is very respectful. She’s very nice.”

In essence, small spaces can change vastly depending on not only the actions of the architect, but also the interior designer and resident living in a small space. It means more freedom when it comes to not only maintaining the space, but also incentivizing one to explore the world outside.

Edited by Janae McKenzie | jmckenzie@themaneater.com

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