Social hub or social flub? An analysis of social interaction in dormitories with differing architecture.


Social hub or social flub? An analysis of social interaction in dormitories with differing architecture.

Adam Bock
Published by the PIT Journal: 


Many different factors affect the experiences college students have in their residence halls, and one of these factors is the distance between students.  The goal of this study was to determine if functional distance had a different impact than physical distance on residents, and if so, a secondary goal was to determine what how that impact differed between styles of residence halls. By polling students, it was determined that it is not likely that functional distance has a substantially different impact from physical distance on residence hall residence.  



Almost all college students will live in campus housing at some point during their college careers, either because of policy or personal choice. Ask your peers to tell you about their dorm experiences and you will hear all kinds of responses.  From hall mates who refer to themselves as a fraternity, to suitemates from hell, there are all kinds of stories to hear about life in residence halls.  I believe that the social experiences experienced in a residence hall are directly related to the functional distance created by the architecture of the building.  

The structure of a residence hall can affect the social interactions of students by controlling both physical distance and functional distance.  Physical distance is simply the measurable distance between students in a dorm (Case 24).  Merely building a residence hall with room doors close together or far apart can alter physical distance.  Functional distance, on the other hand, is much less quantifiable.  It is best described by the likelihood that people will encounter each other, in this case, in a dormitory.  Factors affecting functional distance in a residence hall include the angle at which room doors face each other and the location of shared spaces (Case 24).  Currently, emphasis is being put on short physical distances as the key to students meeting people in their residence hall and becoming friends with them.  I however, propose that, while physical distance may be the catalyst to meeting people in a residence hall, functional distance between students has a greater effect on the number of social relationships, or friendships, a student builds than physical distance does.

Literature Review

A substantial amount of research has been done on residence hall social life.  However, in all the research that has been done, a distinct hole in the research exists when it comes to answering why some residence halls have different levels of social interaction, especially when viewed from a functional distance standpoint. 

In 1970, Roizen and Davis looked into which type of student housing building got the highest rating.  This article examined five different types of student housing, two of which were unique to two different universities in North America.  The study found that a special housing, exclusive to Guelpf, Ontario, Canada, had the highest overall satisfaction rates, and “traditional” (which I will refer to as corridor) style dorms received the lowest reviews.  As the study continued to investigate the reason for these ratings, one confounding piece of data found was that traditional style dorms scored abnormally high in their ability to allow residents to build many new friendships (Davis 32-33).

Later, an article was written specifically asking if suite style dorms were the best architectural style available. This article, “Are the Suites the Answer?” came to the conclusion that suites can, in many situations, be better than traditional, corridor style housing.  However, the study suggests that suites can also be problematic because in such small quarters, it seems like someone is always around (Corbett 417-418). 

One bit of research that does approach the subject of residence halls from a functional distance standpoint came about in 1981.  This study was a close up study done on two different dorms, examining how functional distance affected social life. Certain architectural features that affect functional distance, such as the location of stairwells, did affect how friendships were made in the dorms (Duncan 30).  However, in this study, no comparison was conducted between significantly different residence hall styles like I am investigating.

Lastly, in 2008, Devlin et al. published an article on how a variety of factors affect the sense of community that exists in particular residence halls.  This study’s data suggests that traditional (corridor) style housing is more flexible, a term that, in this study, takes into consideration the opportunity that students have to make friendships (Devlin 517).  This finding about traditional style dorms is contrasted with cluster style dorms, which “students do not see [cluster style dorms] as promoting sociability and friendship formation” (Devlin 517). 

As thorough as these studies are, there is still a gap in research that studies how much of a role functional distance plays in friendship-making in residence halls. I keep this gap in mind as I am conducting my own research.  To do this, I am gathering information about the layout of different dorm buildings and comparing the students’ different social experiences in those buildings by polling them about their social experiences in the dorm.  In my results, I will first examine the data from a physical distance standpoint and then will proceed to offer an alternate explanation by examining the data from a functional distance standpoint. I suspect that while physical distance between neighboring students is furthest in hall style dorms, functional distance is closest in hall style dorms; thus, hall style dorms are the most conducive to helping residents build social connections.


There are three main types of dorms that I will be evaluating in my research, cluster, hall, and two-room suites.  The first type of residence hall that I am evaluating is the Cluster style residence hall.  For the purpose of this research, cluster style residence hall will refer to residence halls in which rooms are organized in groups of three or more with one shared bathroom but no kitchen. On the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus, cluster style dorms are represented by dorms such as Carmichael, Hinton James, Parker, and Ehringhaus.  Cluster style dorms are characterized by a small group of people, all of the same gender, being placed in close proximity to each other so that there is very little physical or functional distance between residents.  Furthermore, each floor of a cluster style residence hall has multiple room clusters.  Building architecture necessitates that the entryways to neighboring clusters are spaced somewhat far apart. Moreover, entryways to different room clusters rarely face each other, which causes a lot of functional distance between different clusters, making socialization more difficult between clusters.  As a result, I believe cluster style residents will most often meet and become friends with a small group of people, namely those people in their cluster, and meet many people on their floor, but will not become friends with many people on their floor.

Hall style residence halls differ tremendously from cluster style halls.  Hall style residence halls consist of a large number of rooms that all open to the same hall.  Stacy, Winston, Manly, Old East, and Kenan are all examples of Hall style dormitories on UNC’s campus.  Residents of hall style residence halls typically either all share one large bathroom, or all have access to a number of smaller bathrooms.  The doors to neighboring rooms in hall style residence halls are all placed relatively far apart, placing more physical distance between neighbors than there is in room Clusters.  However, because all of the rooms are spaced approximately the same distance apart, the physical distance between rooms on the whole floor is the same, if not less than the average physical distance between rooms in cluster style residence halls.  Furthermore, since the doors to rooms in hall style dorms often face neighboring rooms, functional distance between residents is much closer in hall style dorms than in other style dorms.  As a result, I expect to find that residents of hall style residence halls have met an above average number of floor-mates and are also friends with a larger number of floor mates than in other styles of residence halls.

Residence halls that place rooms in two-room suite styles combine architectural elements from both hall and cluster style dorms.  In two-room suites, both rooms access their room from a singular hallway that services the whole floor, similar to floor style.  However, the two rooms in the suite share a private bathroom, similar to the cluster style.  At UNC, two-room suite style dormitories include Horton, Granville Towers, and Craige North.  This two-room structure places residents in close proximity to each other, shortening physical distance, and makes functional distance between hall-mates shorter because of the shared hallways.  This will lead residents of two-room suite style residence hall to meet an average number of people on their floor, but become friends with less people on their floor than hall style.


To gauge how the effects of functional distance compare to physical distance, I developed a poll and distributed it to students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.   Students were notified of the existence of the online poll that was powered by Google Drive through online mediums such as Facebook and E-mail, where they were given a link to the poll.  In the survey, students were prompted to select their class year and residence hall type and asked to provide the name of their residence hall. From there, students were asked how many people they knew in their suite, on their hall, or in their building, prior to this year.  They were then prompted to answer how many people in their suite, on their hall, or in their building, they had met this school year. They were then asked the same question but about how many new friends they believed they had made in their suite, hall, or building, this year.  Lastly, students were asked to rate their overall experience in their dorms and to give a brief description of their residence hall experiences if they wanted to.  I focused on students’ responses to how many people they had met on their hall and how many people they had become friends with on their hall.  The remaining questions provided a means to determine which surveys were filled out incorrectly or were designed with future research in mind, in case either I or other researchers decide to investigate similar topics involving the topics addressed in the other questions. 


In total, 118 students responded to the survey.  Of the 118 responses, 82 were first years, 26 were sophomores, 8 were juniors and 2 were seniors.  As uneven as this distribution of results may seem, it is fairly comparable to the class year distribution that lives in dorms, for at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, first-year students are required to live on campus while other class years are allowed to live off campus, and it is common for these other class years to move off campus. 

Additionally, 64 responders to the poll lived in cluster style housing, 29 lived in hall style residence halls, 22 lived in two-room suite style residence halls, and three lived in on-campus apartments.  This distribution may seem skewed as well, yet it also lines up well with the actual distribution of students in campus residence halls.  I chose not to analyze the on-campus apartments because I would then need to analyze off-campus apartments as well and because significant conclusions cannot be derived from only three responses.  I also disregarded two other survey responses, one response from a cluster style resident and one response from a hall style resident, because they filled out the survey incorrectly.  These deductions left me with a total of 113 usable responses.  From these remaining responses, I compiled two line graphs so that the different types of residence halls could be compared side by side. 

Figure 1 shows the results I gathered from the question “How many people on your floor/ hall, excluding yourself, have you met THIS year?” To account for the differing volumes of responses for the different residence hall styles, the responses are ranked by the frequency with which a response appeared rather than the total number of responses for each category.  A line that peaks near zero indicates that residents tend to have met very few people on their hall. Likewise, a line that peaks near middle values indicates that residents tend to have met an average number of people on their hall, and a line that peaks near the higher numbers indicates that residents have met a large number of people on their hall.  Lines with multiple peaks spread far apart yield inconclusive results.  Figure 1 shows that residents of two-room suite style residences halls met a low-to-moderate number of people on their hall.  The other two residence hall styles, cluster, and corridor/hall did not provide any clear results. 

Figure 2 is set up in the same way as Figure 1, with the exception that Figure 2 shows the results to the question, “how many people on your floor/ hall have you become friends with this year?”  Similarly to Figure 1, a line that peaks near zero indicates that residents befriended very few people on their hall, while a line that peaks near the middle indicates that residents befriended a moderate number of people on their hall and a line that peaks around the higher numbers indicates that residents befriended a large amount of people on their hall.  Unlike in Figure 1, all of the lines in Figure 2 have definitive peaks.  While the slope of the lines and the exact peaks differ slightly between each type of residence hall, they all seem to peak in the moderate or low-to-moderate range, so residents of each type of residence hall have befriended on average a moderate amount of people, and there is not a significant difference between residence hall types and how many people residents befriended. 


In the end, the data shows different results than I predicted.  Because the results from the question about how many people residents had met on their hall yielded no definitive results, it is impossible to compare them to the results of the “friends” question. Thus, it cannot be concluded that functional distance and physical distance have different effects on those two styles of residence halls.  Furthermore, while the survey did yield conclusive results for two-room suite style residence halls, both in terms of the number of people met and the number of friends made on a residence hall, when one compares the results in these two categories, it is clear that they are strikingly similar. Residents in two-room suites tended to both meet a low-to-moderate number of people on their hall and to befriend a low-to-moderate number of people as well.  This suggests that functional distance does not have a substantially different effect on the social life of residents than physical distance does.  Additionally, because conclusions drawn from the results on the other styles of residence halls were similar, it can be concluded that, unlike I predicted, functional distance does not cause differing levels of social interaction in different types of residence halls. 

In all, my predictions are wrong.  Based on the surveys I distributed, it does not seem that different functional distances cause dissimilar levels of social interaction in different types of residence halls.  Furthermore, functional distance as a general architectural characteristic does not appear to have a different effect from physical distance on the levels of social interaction in residence halls. 


Though I attempted to address and compensate for many different factors that affect residence hall life, there are still areas where my research was limited.  Due to time and resource constraints, my studies were confined to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Ideally, if further research on this matter is done, other campuses across the nation should be researched as well.  Furthermore, I was not able to consult a statistician, so my analysis of the data collected made use of only simple statistics.  If more research is done, a statistician should analyze both the survey itself and the results of the survey before they are used.  Additionally, a method of survey dispersion should be devised so that a larger number and greater variety of students can be reached.


Works Cited

Case, F. Duncan. "Dormitory Architecture Influences Patterns of Student Social-Relations Over Time." Environment and Behavior. 13.1 (1981): 23-41.

Corbett, Judith. "Are the Suites the Answer?." Environment and Behavior. 5.4 (1973): 413-19. Print.

Davis, Gerald, and Ron Roizen. "Architectural determinants of student satisfaction in college residence halls." EDRA. Vol. 2. 1970. 28-44.

Delvin, Ann, Sarah Donovan, et al. "Residence Hall Architecture and Sense of Community Everything Old Is New Again." Environment and Behavior. 40.4 (2008): 487-521. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

Works Consulted

Heilweil, Martin. "The influence of dormitory architecture on resident behavior." Environment and Behavior (1973).

Li, Yan, Mack C. Sheely, and Donald F. Whalen. "Contributors to residence hall student retention: Why do students choose to leave or stay." Journal of College and University Student Housing 33.2 (2005): 28-36. 

Valins, Stuart, and Andrew Baum. "Residential group size, social interaction, and crowding." Environment and Behavior (1973).

About the Author(s)
Adam Bock