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College dorms get high-tech treatment

Futuristic design has custom rooms and wall-size computer screens

In the college dorm of the future, giant computer screens would cover entire walls, beam video lectures into the room with one touch of the monitor, and fade to a clear floor-to-ceiling window with a second touch. Factory workers would fashion prefabricated rooms to students' liking, then ship the structures to campus. With modular furniture and movable walls, the room could shift shape and style at a student's whim.

College dorms have not gone quite this high-tech yet, but this futuristic vision, crafted by Boston architect Jonathan Levi for a national dormitory design competition, is closer than it seems.

Across the country, colleges are scrambling to replace an aging and outmoded generation of student housing with technologically advanced buildings that have a range of modern amenities astounding to anyone who graduated from college before the turn of the century. The cramped room with a dingy community bathroom at the end of a dimly lit cinder block hall has become outdated for today's college students, many of whom grew up with their own rooms, often equipped with a television and computer, and expect no less at college.

Facing stiff competition for top students, universities across the country are updating facilities or building ones to cater to prospective students and their parents and to keep upperclassmen from bolting to off-campus apartments.

Ball State University in Ohio just opened a $36 million residence hall that includes mobile furniture, a digital music lab, and a dining hall that takes online orders for take-out. Boston University is building a high-rise dorm featuring air-conditioned apartments with a kitchen, living room, and views of the Charles River and Boston skyline. John Hamel, director of admissions of Suffolk University, said the college "can't build new dorms fast enough" to give it a competitive edge with prospective students.

"Growing up, people have their own rooms, TV, stereo, and they expect the same in college," said Marc Robillard, director of housing for Boston University. "They'll tolerate a roommate as a freshman, but after that they want their privacy."

But the plush new accommodations aren't just about creature comforts. College officials say students who live on campus do better academically and are more involved in campus life. Universities want to give students privacy but also plenty of common space to socialize and hit the books: cafes, fitness centers, even classrooms that double as TV lounges.

The idea is to create a sense of community coveted by a generation weaned on social networking sites and instant messaging. If students want to retreat, they can shut their bedroom door. If they want to mingle, there's a living room or study lounge.

"People learn as much from informally interacting with students and their professors as they do from classes and the library," Levi, 53, told a group of area college students last week at his Back Bay architecture firm as he showed a model and PowerPoint presentation of his futuristic dorm design. "Students today really live and learn in a cooperative environment, and universities need to build dorms that recognize that."

With the interactive media centers, for example, groups of students could review video lectures, have online study sessions, and do research for an assignment while instant-messaging their professor for advice.

Levi said he had not estimated the cost for the design but said the off-site, modular construction would be less expensive than traditional dormitories.

Students said the design provided a mix of privacy and common space and the chance to be their own room architect.

"You can already customize your phone, your iPod, your computer. Why not your room, too?" said James Bologna, a Tufts University senior.

Most students described living in cramped, claustrophobic, sunless rooms they likened to prisons. Levi's idea of translucent media walls and floor-to-ceiling windows felt like an early spring to them.

"With so many dorms, it's dark even during the day," said Catyn Piver, a Suffolk University junior. "It's easier to concentrate if the sun's shining through."

If Levi's design heralds the future, Tufts University's Sophia Gordon Hall, a $22 million, ecofriendly building with spacious apartments, stands at the forefront of today's new dormitories. A typical suite includes two large singles off a sun-lit living room with retro-style chairs and couches, a dining room with a small glass table, and a kitchen with a dishwasher and a large refrigerator. Down the hall is a study nook with cushy chairs and a large open space for classes and recreation.

Such common areas are at the center of new-dorm design, architects said. "The less isolation the better," said Doug Coots, a Boston architect who envisions future college students ordering modular rooms online before arriving on campus.

But to Nikki Bruce, a Tufts senior who moved into Sophia Gordon last week after three years of cramped rooms in loud halls, a bit of isolation sounded blissful.

"This is the first time I've lived on campus and had my own room," she said. "Life is fabulous. This is like going from AmeriSuites to the Ritz-Carlton."

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"I really liked that there were so many options with the apartments. The most popular dorms at BU are the ones with the most floor space. You can be more creative in setting it up the way you want."