No More Red Brick

Reed has a lower percentage of its student body living on campus than most small liberal arts colleges, many of which house 90% of their student body or more. As housing in Portland has become increasingly difficult to find and afford, student demand for on-campus rooms has escalated sharply in the last few years. “We’re at a point of scarcity where every bed we give is taken away from someone else,” said Mike Brody, Dean of Students. “Reed has a relatively low graduation rate, and most of the attrition is happening in students’ first two years.” In response, Reed will be building a brand-new dorm with the intention of increasing on-campus housing capacity and seeing more students graduate.

Anecdotally and statistically, it has become clear that living on campus matters and that dorms can be much more than a place to sleep. Students living in intentional communities, such as the Co-ops, language houses, and other theme dorms, seem to perform better overall. “When I think of residence life community, I think of Tir Na Nog,” said Mike Brody. “People organize around a shared interest, and that becomes a really important part of their experience. When students leave here before graduating, it’s often because they didn’t have a sense of connection or community that sustained them through the really stressful parts of Reed.” Recent investigations into Reed’s attrition rates revealed that sophomores living in doubles were more likely to graduate than sophomores living off campus, in single dorm rooms, or in on-campus apartments. In order to create more supportive living environments that actively foster connections between students, the school is investing in a new dorm that aims to bring 180 more beds onto campus.

Construction is slated to begin this coming March, with the goal of opening the building to residents in the fall of 2019. The new dorm will be the biggest residence hall ever built at Reed, and will stand beside the Grove in place of the tennis courts. In order to keep the dorm from looking monstrously large, it will be composed of three wings arranged in a pinwheel configuration so that only two thirds of the building will be visible from any angle. Each floor of the three wings will house 20 people and will include a kitchen and individual ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible, gender-neutral restrooms. In addition to residential space, the dorm will feature a mini amphitheater, a classroom, several large shared common areas, and a deck looking westward toward Portland’s Tualatin hills. “I’ve been here 20 years, and I’m surprised the college has never built on that hill, because the view is killer,” said Reed’s Director of Facilities Operations Towny Angell.

Throughout the design and budgeting process, Facilities Services staff have applied their knowledge of feasibility, maintenance, and compatibility to the project. “It’s important to be familiar with this stuff, because every building has new and crazy things in it and we have to make sure we can keep it going,” said Towny. The new dorm was designed by the same architectural firm that worked on the Grove, ZGF Architects, and the process was advised by a committee organized and chaired by Mike Brody consisting of students, staff, and faculty members in order to ensure the new building aligns with students’ experiences, administrative goals, and Reed’s academic program. According to Mike, the committee’s major goals included creating a living space that is maximally accessible and encourages interaction, while also providing privacy when people need it. The committee took into account input from House Advisors, observations on field trips to dorms at other institutions, comments from students at meetings held by the architects in 2016, and considerations of which features and materials the college can reasonably afford because, although residence halls are the only buildings on campus that generate income, the revenue does not come close to matching construction costs.

The committee has high expectations for the building, including built-in sustainability features to help minimize unnecessary water, electricity, and heating use, though further efforts to reduce environmental impact will ultimately depend on the students who live there. If things go well financially, a secondary goal is to install solar panels on roof. Towny emphasized that sustainability awards and designations, such as Net Zero, are received years after construction. “We have no practical way to guarantee [sustainability certifications],” Towny said. “A lot of people thought [our sustainability goals] meant this building would use zero energy, which is absurd. The goal is to offset [energy use] in as many ways as possible.”

Another major consideration of the design committee was how far the aesthetic of the new dorm would diverge from existing architecture on campus. Currently, most campus buildings feature red brick or some approximation of the Tudor style of ODB and Eliot, with the notable exceptions of Anna Mann and dorms that feature a lot of glass, such as FSM or the Cross Canyons. The new dorm will be very modern in style, featuring large windows, copper and black steel accents, and gray brick that emulates stone. “We didn’t want to build another red brick building,” said Mike. “We wanted to expand the aesthetic.” While this may seem like a drastic departure from existing buildings, it was the committee’s intention to break away from the red brick. “This building will have squares and glass, and it might be unwelcome,” Mike acknowledged. “Inevitably some people will wish we had stuck with the red brick.” Towny explained that the new aesthetic is meant to be a thoughtful evolution of existing architectural styles on campus, and believes that the new look will attract students and add to the architectural palette.

Beyond its physical appearance, the new dorm’s design takes into consideration how living spaces shape students’ experiences, with a specific focus on facilitating community building and access to resources for younger Reedies in particular. Reed currently has the capacity to house about 68% its students, and that will increase to about 80% once the new building opens. But will the increase be enough as prices in Portland continue to rise? “We might be building another one like this not too soon after, if there’s money to be found,” Towny remarked. While 180 more beds are unlikely to completely satisfy growing housing demand, the hope is that more Reedies will be able to benefit from having a home on campus, red brick or not.