There is so much to say about residential life at MIT. On campus, students live in dorms, fraternities/sororities, and independent living groups, each with their own unique characteristics and vibes. Many dorms also have subcommunities on each floor or hall with rich histories and traditions that motivate a significant population of students to stay in their dorm for all four years of undergrad.
At this school, students can have vastly different experiences from their peers who live just fifty feet away. That’s because within dorms, there are many idiosyncrasies that make the undergraduate residential experience so varied. Some dorms are “cook for yourself,” while others mandate that students have a meal plan. Some allow students to paint murals freely, while others limit art or forbid painting altogether. Some permit residents to customize their rooms by building lofts, changing their flooring, and making their own furniture. East Campus and Random Hall also allow cats to wander the halls of floors designated as cat-friendly. With dorms that are so distinct in character, it’s no wonder that students in different spaces have such unique experiences.
Intuitively, the social dynamics within a living space shape how students interact with campus differently; will they build strong connections with upperclassmen through their living group, or will they seek this elsewhere, be it through classes or clubs? Will they spend their time after class working with their suite/floor/hall, or will they return to their rooms only at the end of the day, after psetting on campus? Will they party with their living group, at a frat, or not at all? Will they cook or go to dining halls? Will they hang out in lounges, hallways, or rooms?
It’s harder to understand how the physical space of a dorm impacts one’s social life. This is something that’s been on my mind quite a bit ever since I moved back into my dorm, Burton Conner (BC), which was under renovations for the past two years. Although much the renovation was sub-optimal, I’m really happy to have my freshman year home back, and it’s more satisfying than my previous undergrad housing situations (even after ignoring the pandemic’s influence). However, the character of the building has changed, and it’s interesting to think about how student community will change with it.
In this post, I want to take a closer look at dorm structure, how it impacts residents, and why it matters so much. Take everything with a grain of salt—these are just my opinions, and even though I’m a senior, I’ve lived in East Campus for a year and BC for even less than that. Everything I’ve heard about other dorms is anecdotal, and people can have vastly different experiences even if they live in the same place!
A Brief History of Residential Housing
Housing at MIT is continually evolving. When MIT opened in 1865, housing was not provided on campus; students lived at home, in rooming houses, or in sig chi is the oldest and was founded in 1882 When the ‘tute moved from Boston to Cambridge in 1916, the first dorm—Senior House—opened, followed by EC in 1924 and 1931. In 1939, MIT purchased an apartment building and converted it into demolished in 2015, RIP In spite of these acquisitions, most undergraduates continued to live off campus.
It was post WWII that the Institute committed to becoming a residential campus and began to consolidate residential life within West Campus. The president at the time envisioned a “House Plan” for the residential system, where each unit would be self-sufficient, containing its own dining and recreational facilities. This initiated with the construction of Baker House in 1949, and the renovation of the Riverside Apartment Hotel into Burton Conner in 1950. McCormick and Random Hall opened in the 60s, followed by MacGregor in 1970, New House in 1976, and Next House in 1980. Simmons came in 2002, Maseeh in 2011, and finally, New Vassar in 2021. With all these developments, the number of students living off-campus declined. The percent of students living in apartments has dropped from 25% in the 1970s to around 9% today.
As the housing system began to develop, MIT would control which students were assigned to which dorm, but student governments started to form their own mechanisms for deciding room assignments within their building. By the late 1960s, every dorm had a room assignment plan—some based on seniority, others based on how long an individual had lived in the residence hall. This priority system made it difficult for large groups of students to move together from dorm to dorm, which motivated students to stay in their assigned hall for their entire time at MIT. It also was one of the factors that enabled the formation of distinct cultures within dorms.
big shoutout to Taji Manning ’25 for creating these!
There are a lot of elements to a residential experience that we don’t think about, but were carefully curated by architects to provide a comfortable living environment. A document called Architectural Principles for MIT Undergraduate Residences describes these facets in detail, which include:
- The Cluster Concept — are groups of 30 or so students organized around a Graduate Residence Tutor (GRT) and provided a common space?
- The Critical Path — how do students travel from the entrance of the dorm to their rooms? Are they able to interact with others and their environment, walking past community-building spaces and through hallways bustling with activity: students engaged in cooking, music and dance rehearsals, meetings, workouts, and games? Does their path encourage peer-to-peer interaction?
- Eating and Food — can students use kitchens as social spaces, cooking and eating meals together? are students able to congregate comfortably in dining halls? is furniture fixed, or can students comfortably reconfigure their space to enable social interaction?
- Flow Organization — are floors organized horizontally? do residents have access to all floors via stairways and elevators? does the act of getting from one place to another utilize all aspects of the building structure and environment, increasing usage of central common spaces and fostering a greater sense of community?
These aspects aren’t at the top of my head when I walk into my dorm, walk past the laundry room/TV lounge/gym, get to my floor, and walk all the way down the corridor to reach my suite. It’s apparent that the path I take helps me interact with more people; I pass four suites on the way to mine, so I’m able to pop into kitchens and say hi. I walk through my suite kitchen to get to my room, so I almost always bump into a few suite mates whenever I enter and exit.
In the renovation, the Burton and Conner sides were connected on each floor. This makes visiting floors on the opposite side of the dorm much easier, and also makes it marginally easier to access certain common spaces. It’s just a few seconds less of walking, but the activation energy is lower, and I’ve been hanging out with people on the Conner side much more than I did in my freshman year.
It’s funny to think about how much people bitched about the Burton/Conner connection. Students and alum were livid that the floors were losing their separation, but it actually promotes easier flow through the dorm, which is by no means a negative aspect.
What physical structures best cultivate social life? Not high-rises or hallway-style dorms, apparently. According to the architectural principles document, high-rise configurations (like MacGregor) result in a perception of social density. They negatively influence patterns of interaction and sense of community, and increase feelings of isolation. Similarly, residents reported dissatisfaction with long corridors, which feel more crowded and lead to the development of fewer relationships.
When I lived in East Campus, which is hallway-style, I felt that it was harder to have casual social interactions. There’s more of a barrier to randomly walking into someone’s open room to say hi than with walking into a suite, so unless you’re good friends with everyone on your hall, it’s harder to initiate new conversations. On the flip side, the two hall lounges are great at facilitating interaction since they’re so open. You have to pass at least one lounge to get to the kitchen, and there’s a decent chance you walk near a lounge every time you have to the leave the building. Being able to see who’s hanging out and when is great.
With the dorm Simmons, there’s a common saying: “Simmons residents have more windows than friends.” This is because the dorm is massive, with long hallways that take around two minutes to walk through in their entirety. There are roughly 50 people per floor, but since there are so many singles and bathrooms, the corridor extends the ~400 feet length of the dorm. The structure makes it almost impossible to be friends with every person on your floor, so social culture is instead constructed around lounges.
Unlike dorms where incoming residents undergo a floor/hall selection process to choose where they vibe with the most, Simmons residents have “lounge rush,” where they find a friend group and develop their own culture based on their mutual interests. Because of this, the culture is more malleable and based on the vibe of the smaller social units. This appeals to some, but isn’t ideal for those looking to join a larger friend group or a more established community with built-in upperclassman mentorship structures .
If high-rises and hallway-style dorms are lacking, then what’s the optimal structure? The document asserts it to be “a mix of long and short corridors in a “U-shape” or “double-tower” configuration, with an ideal size of about 350 students, configured in smaller clusters of approximately 30. They would be supported by a faculty head of house, approximately 12 GRTs, one area director (AD), and a house manager in addition to mechanics and custodians.” This is pretty close to Burton Conner, except that Burton-side floors have 44-58 beds and Conner floors have 28-31.
I view my social experience as pretty optimal. On the Burton side of BC, there are eight suites, each with its own lounge, as well as a bigger floor lounge. The center suite is more spacious and right next to the floor lounge, so larger social events are split between the two, with people moving from one to the other easily. For giant parties, dorm-wide events, and dance practices, there’s the Porter Room. There also is music practice space, a TV lounge, study rooms, a library, a makerspace, a dance studio, and a gym.
Within a floor of a dorm, how does the concentration of singles, doubles, triples, and quads affect a student’s experience? Research from the architectural principles document indicates that doubles foster increased relationship building, and that double rooms off a corridor are ideal housing design for first-years. Triples, on the other hand, “have a tendency to develop into a two versus one scenario” (I disagree).
Due to this, MIT’s from arch principles--MIT has a goal of adding 700 new beds to the undergraduate housing system; however,<br /> building one large residence hall for all 700 students is neither desirable nor in keeping with the importance of fostering personal ties and building community. to the housing system has mainly been in the form of doubles. In New Vassar, which finished construction last year, there are only singles (25%) and doubles (75%). In BC, the distribution of room types used to be 77% singles, 16% doubles, and 7% triples, but it’s now 40% singles, 44% doubles, and 16% triples. As a result, there are some juniors in doubles, while that would be almost unheard of on my floor in the past. Triples were thankfully preserved in the renovated BC; having a triple was a core part of my freshman experience and a key means of integrating into my floor culture, so I’m happy they still exist.
From my perspective, if you have too many singles on a floor, then a larger number of underclassmen are more isolated and are less encouraged to build relationships with others. This makes it harder for them to integrate into the community. Conversely, if you don’t have enough singles, then seniors and juniors will feel less inclined to live there, which erodes upperclassmen-underclassmen relationships.
Having roommates is an important part of the freshman experience, but it’s critical that things don’t get too isolated. As a freshman, one of my friends lived in a Maseeh quad across from another quad, and the eight of them became a friend group by proximity. Things got a bit dicey since there was no sense of privacy, and the group didn’t feel inclined to befriend other social circles on the floor, which all felt closed off. One such circle would use the lounge, so my friend would instead hang out in one of the two quads, which further separated him from others on the floor.
While there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s much more atomized than what I’m used to, and lacks a certain level of upperclassmen mentorship and a greater sense of attachment to and ownership of your space. I can’t imagine my main social group being seven other freshmen who live in two adjacent quads…it sounds hellish.
It’s interesting to think about how dynamics shift alongside room compositions. BC has three large suites and five small ones, with the larger ones being more attractive since they’re more spacious and social. Seniors, who are first in the room picking order, usually go for singles in the large suites. However, there are a lot more doubles in the new BC, so there aren’t enough singles in the large suites to fit all the seniors, and we were dispersed throughout the floor as a result.
In the pre-renovations BC, the three larger suites were mainly composed of singles. The center suite had six singles and one double, and the other large suites had mostly singles with one double or triple. Now, the center suite has four doubles and three singles, so there’s eight freshmen/sophomores and just three seniors, as opposed to the six upperclassmen and two underclassmen it had in my freshman year. This is both good and bad; when I was a freshman, one of the large suites was notorious for being cliquey since it was home to only seniors and juniors who would isolate themselves. Now that there’s no one suite with mostly seniors, we interact with underclassmen more, which is nice for fostering community and upperclassmen-underclassmen bonds.
If you’re the only person in a room and you have psychological and structural ownership of it, then you don’t have to worry about asking anyone else before hosting people. You can cultivate whatever vibe you want without thinking about whether others approve of it. There’s more barriers to doing this when you have roommates. This is why I prefer suite-style living much more than hallway-style.
In BC, I have a room, a suite, and a floor lounge. My room is purely my space, and I also have a great deal of creative control and jurisdiction over my suite. The floor lounge is everyone’s to use, but is big enough that I could have a lot of people over in it if I wanted. Like my Maseeh friend, when I lived in EC, I didn’t feel like the main hall lounges were mine to use and would only hang out with people in my room. This made me less social with other people on my hall as a result. Note that I already had an established social group when I lived in EC, and my experience likely would have been different had I been a core member of my floor.
How open or closed lounges are also has an effect on what kind of socializing can occur in them. In BC, the floor lounges have doors, so it’s easy to throw loud floor events without being worried about bothering everyone in the vicinity. On the flip side, I’ve heard stories about kids in New Vassar throwing parties in bathrooms since the lounges were too open and exposed to everyone on the floor. I’m not sure how much of that arose from post-pandemic desperation and how much came from a genuine need for a private hosting space.
Creative Experimentation and Self-Expression
The administration cares less about what you do to shitty, decaying dorms than what you do to freshly-renovated ones…even if the renovations are shoddy and the walls are laden with asbestos and covered with primer, not paint!
BC was just renovated, and EC and Random are next on the terrifying, albeit necessary, renovations chopping block. You might think students would celebrate, for example, the addition of an elevator to a five-story building with no air conditioning, but most residents view it as foreboding. In the renovated BC, many amenities were added or i'm not going to bother to explain how bad some of the renovations were...the paint is peeling already and the walls break from leaning on them.... and I theoretically should now have a residential experience that checks every box of the architectural principles document. But as many students know all too well, the number of amenities you have access to doesn’t go hand in hand with your quality of life. My living situation is in fact less satisfying than it was during my freshman year. Walls that used to be covered with murals are now white, and my floor’s signature orange and black tiles have since been replaced with carpet. With a limited ability to modify my space, an environment that once felt homey and lived-in now feels sterile and unfamiliar.
Having the ability to interact with my space was an intrinsic part of my living experience. When I painted murals, I felt like I was deepening my connection to my floor and its past generations of students. I cherished being able to express myself artistically in a semi-permanent way within an environment that I love. I also valued living in a space with so many murals since I felt like the community I joined was more tangible, and that I was living in a home and not something more transient.
In the new BC, we’re allowed to mount things on specified walls, but we aren’t allowed to paint directly on the walls at all. There are sparse canvas rails where we can hang canvases (once they arrive, god knows when), but the muraling practices of the past are long gone.
Having the freedom to experiment and make your space your own has a tremendous impact on your housing experience. We see this at MIT—generally, the dorms that permit murals and customization have a greater emphasis on communal living. It makes sense that individuals feel more inclined to participate in communities where they have the power to experiment, shape traditions, and engage creatively with their living spaces.
In dorms where this is not the case (which is most of them), there is a greater barrier to feeling this sense of belonging. This isn’t an issue for the majority of students for a variety of reasons; they may view their living space as more functional than social since they have established social structures elsewhere, or they may experience community without any physical manifestation of it. However, students who view their dorms as an impermanent residence want to invest less time and energy in their living groups. They seek friendships elsewhere, and eventually move away, making it difficult to retain traditions and culture within the dorm. When you already have the capacity to make your space your own, you don’t need to seek a place that meets your needs better.
It’s hard to understand the extent of the relationship between self-expression and a sense of community, and there certainly are a myriad of factors at play. As a case study, we look at the last BC renovation:
BC’s 1970 renovation
In the 1970’s, in an attempt to increase social interaction within residential houses, MIT shifted from corridor-style dorms like East Campus to suite-style ones like MacGregor. This contributed to the need for the large-scale renovation of Old Burton House, which was hallway-style at the time.
The Old BC was in dire need of renewal. According to a 1977 Tech article, it was nearly unlivable:
…”the plaster flaked, the pipes jutted inconveniently, the carpeting (where it existed) aged ungracefully and when wet smelled dankly of old beer…No one disputed the fact that Burton was ugly, decrepit, institutional and often depressing in its own right.”
Thanks to 20 years of water fights and beer blasts, the carpet stank, and the facilities were so awful it was incredible that any student would willingly choose to live there, let alone have any pride in it. From an architect’s point of view, the dorm was not only uncomfortable to live in, but the long hallways limited social interaction and undermined students’ ability to form community.
What they didn’t understand is that what the dorm lacked in comfort, it made up in adaptability: students could paint their rooms freely, break walls with hockey pucks, and throw frisbees at the lights. No one cared what they did since the dorm was so run-down, any further damage was inconsequential. Traditions formed around these events, and eventually, each of the nine floors had its own distinctive characteristics that made Old Burton so appealing to new students. Even though Baker and East Campus had far better facilities at the time, Old Burton remained popular.
The addition of better carpeting and lighting—which to us seem like basic necessities—helped convert the rank and moldy hallways to a nicer space where students could gather to talk rather than play hockey or conduct water fights. This made the dorm more “civilized and quiet,” which was welcomed by some and rejected by others:
Not all people want a dormitory they can show off to their parents. Not everyone considers peace and quiet to be of paramount importance. Most importantly, many would dispute the fact that eliminating hall hockey and water fights is ‘increasing the quantity and quality of socializing.’
I have no idea what it was like to live in the dilapidated Old BC, but it’s true that some of my most fun nights as a college student have involved a crazy, spontaneous activity that everyone on my floor participates in. When your space is already damaged and you don’t have to worry about your surroundings, you have more opportunities to do these things. Obviously, it’s not optimal to have such a shitty living environment that no one cares if you punch especially if the walls have asbestos and it doesn’t teach college students how to be responsible adults, but it makes sense that so many people flocked to Old Burton because of the traditions it housed. For example, the decrepit state of the dorm made water fights an important and much-valued tradition. Using fire extinguishers, slingshots, and trash cans full of water eggs, BC residents would wage war against other floors until saturation levels were reached and the smell of old beer would begin to rise out of the carpeting.
When the renovation began, residents had to find other places to live and opted to relocate to houses in Allston rather than being split up across other dorms on campus. The newfound “Burton in Exile” stuck together throughout the renovation and returned to the dorm in close-knit and rowdy glory, providing the basis for the new BC government and floor cultures. They were among the only students who moved in for the atmosphere of the dorm rather than its rooms, which had become the nicest on campus. Since so many students joined floors that they didn’t feel connected to, what had previously characterized communities began to fade. In the following years, the floors became quieter with only Burton 1, 3rd, 5, and Conner 3 and 5 representing the Old Burton culture, whereas this is interesting to me... things change all the time, but right now the most rowdy floors are Burton 3rd, Conner 2, and Burton 1. (this is interesting to me since the close-knit floors have shifted quite a bit since then).
When conditions are bad as in the Old Burton, students see a need to pull together to make the place work at all: with luxurious accommodations, they are content to go about their own business…there is no great enthusiasm.
A survey released after the renovation illustrated this. 54% of residents viewed the suite as their basic social unit, while only 18% considered it to be their floor. In BC today, there is no “suite culture”—while you might be closer friends with your suite, the smallest social unit is the floor you live on. The fact that only a fifth of residents considered their floor to be their main social group indicates that there were more interactions within suites rather than with an entire floor, unlike what was common in Old Burton. “The physical layout, constrained by the shell of the old building, [worked] against greater unification.”
Given that my class of BC residents made it through the renovation and pandemic, I foresee more dorm-wide unification than what existed in the past. But I also see the culture becoming less chaotic and spontaneous since students have less freedom of self expression and more pressure to live within their bounds. BC was a shithole before the renovation, and while the state of the building didn’t create culture, it enabled it in many ways. I’m interested to see how things change now that the building is “new.”
The only reason the Old Burton House was tolerated at all was synecdoche—the fact that the experience was an allegory of MIT…the tie that bound [students] was survival, and perhaps a subdued pride therein. For some, life in Burton appealed to a certain latent hippie instinct, for others, it might have been that the comfort was as low as they would ever get. Now, perhaps a new dimension of all that allegory has been added, that follows a pattern of institutional evolution: along with wealth and independence comes departmentalization and isolation.
Erosion of the MIT Housing Model
Recent trends in student life seem to indicate an administrative preference for an atomized student model, as opposed to the rollercoaster-building, student culture-heavy one that you hear about on tours. Under this model, students go to classes, acquire friends in dining halls and clubs, and hang out with them in various spaces that may or may not include their dorms. They don’t have a group of 30-60 people they’re close to, and friends within their living space are made through common interests rather than a shared sense of community. We see the atomized structure in our ideas of a normal college dorm experience, and also in the real world, where you make new friends through hobbies.
Structural interaction within a floor/hall unit, on the other hand, is less commonplace than what we observe elsewhere; this is perhaps why some administrative players are systematically blind to these types of connections within MIT’s social fabric. Although less acknowledged than in Greek life, dorm subcommunities can offer strong support structures. When you hang out with people through the context of a living group, you enable the formation of advice and career networks, and when you neglect this form of collective socialization, you undermine the formation of aka more informal ties that are important for future success. Having physical environments that are conducive to forming these networks is vital.
Housing preferences go beyond your comfort with top-optionality or smoking; they involve how, when, and with whom you want to socialize. Do you want to cultivate more one-on-one friendships or join a collective group? Do you want to retreat to your single at the end of the day to get away from socializing, or come back to 10 people psetting and talking in your suite?
With the breadth of residential options MIT has, it’s easy to find a place that meets your needs, but it’s crucial that this range remains in spite of upcoming changes. BC lost a vibrant part of its identity with the whitewashing of our murals, and that’s a blow we’re still reeling from. As renovations of other dorms begin and students have less capacity for customization and experimentation, their relationships with their environments will change—to what extent, I have no idea.
- sig chi is the oldest and was founded in 1882 back to text ↑
- demolished in 2015, RIP back to text ↑
- from arch principles--MIT has a goal of adding 700 new beds to the undergraduate housing system; however, b back to text ↑
- i'm not going to bother to explain how bad some of the renovations were...the paint is peeling already and the walls break from leaning on them.... back to text ↑
- especially if the walls have asbestos back to text ↑
- this is interesting to me... things change all the time, but right now the most rowdy floors are Burton 3rd, Conner 2, and Burton 1. back to text ↑
- aka more informal back to text ↑