Bedding up: On Alderman Road, bigger and better student digs

Photo: Stephen Barling Photo: Stephen Barling

One thing about first-year college students: Year after year, they just keep showing up. In pursuit of better places for those folks to bed down, UVA has spent the last nine years building eight new structures on Alderman Road, a massive project that replaces older dorms built in the 1960s. With the first new building, Kellogg House, finished in 2008, the campaign has been a lengthy process leading to the completion of the final structure: Gibbons House, which was completed before this fall’s crop of students arrived.

It’s not just about more beds. Although—with UVA adding 50-100 students per year to its rolls—that was certainly one of the goals. Kate Meyer, a project manager with University Facilities Management, says that the building’s designs reflect changing ideas about what a dorm should be. “The residence halls are not really just for sleeping,” she says. “They more and more are being used for student activity and study.”

To that end, the first floor of each new dorm is devoted entirely to common space, like multipurpose rooms, study rooms and lounges: lots of places to get together. Plus, the project’s second phase included an entire building, one-story Ern Commons, that’s just for student gatherings.

Another big change: Whereas the trend for some years has been toward suite-style living, Meyer says, the new dorms go back to the classic me-and-my-roommate model. “The suites were often five or six single occupancy rooms with a living room,” she explains. “Some students felt isolated by that. They would be in their room with the door closed. With double rooms off corridors, people are more likely to meet other students and have a more positive experience.”

At five stories and roughly 50 students per floor, the new dorms as a group house 1,400 students. They enjoy a little more luxury than some of their predecessors. In the past, says Meyer, the thinking went, “‘They’re 18, they’re just going to make a mess’”—leading to a utilitarian aesthetic (think painted concrete-block walls). “That’s not really the way our students are. The new buildings feel like a nice hotel.”

Better finishes help UVA compete for discerning students. And the university’s trying to get out in front on sustainability, too—all the new buildings earned at least LEED silver status, and one has earned LEED gold. More than 95 percent of demolition debris from the old buildings, according to the project website, was slated to be recycled.

Aesthetically, the new dorms are traditional, in line with the university’s prevailing neo-Jeffersonian look. Meyer says that the Alderman Road project is part and parcel of an overriding recommitment to UVA being a residential college. Though most second-, third- and fourth-year students live off grounds, she says, “For the first year, we do want to provide a good residential experience.”

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