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Ponderosa Commons is a cluster of three new buildings intentionally situated in the centre of UBC’s main campus, ‘almost like a Vancouver neighbourhood,’ says an architect involved in the project. The Commons’s residences are available for use year-round.handout

With total 2017-18 enrollment sitting at 35,880 full-time undergraduate students and 9,350 full-time graduate students, not to mention scores of part-timers, the University of British Columbia can be a busy place through much of the fall and winter.

But with exams coming to an end in the next couple of weeks, the university and its campuses, particularly the main one at Point Grey, situated a 20-minute drive from downtown Vancouver, can lose some of their vitality.

Injecting more life into the school throughout the summer months was just one of the main factors at play when the university decided to build its Ponderosa Commons residences.

While the extra 1,150 beds were sorely needed to help offset the university’s constantly growing waitlist, the ability to run the units — which include studios and two- and four-bedroom pods — on a 12-month basis was important. Students who rent there, along with select other residences, have the option to sub-let their units to other UBC students and visitors over the summer, with prices at Ponderosa listed for around $145 per room per night on

“Summer is the nicest months by far in Vancouver and the campus is under-used,” says Gerry McGeough, UBC’s director of planning and design. “So from a sustainability [standpoint] it allows us to get better use of buildings and our lands.”

The location of Ponderosa Commons, consisting of three buildings on three neighbouring sites which fully opened two years ago, was carefully thought out. When UBC conducted its latest campus plan in 2010, much had changed since the previous one drafted in 1992. While academics was still a guiding principle for the plan, concepts of well-being, community and compact development were also important.

As a result, the university decided to use the new construction project as a way to enliven the academic core of campus, building it in an area that was traditionally reserved for teaching facilities. This had the added effect of not only adding vibrancy to a sleepier part of campus, but also increasing safety with a greater density of students.

“It was really about invigorating the core of the campus 24-7, so it was a full-on community within the campus,” says Karen Marler, principal of Vancouver’s HCMA Architecture and Design, one of firms behind the project.

Guided by the principles of live, study, work and play, the project pulls together a number of different facets, combining areas for visual arts and art history, the department of psychology, a yoga studio, and a pizza parlour. In addition, the project also features Collegium, a space that Ms. Marler describes as akin to an Air Canada airport lounge, a members-only space providing kitchen facilities, study areas and hang-out spots for commuter students.

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Opening up the stylish Ponderosa Commons to summer students and visitors beyond the school year keeps UBC’s campus safer and livelier, UBC says. Adds Gerry McGeough, the university’s director of planning and design, ‘So from a sustainability [standpoint], it allows us to get better use of buildings and our lands.’handout

Shirley Blumberg, founding partner of Toronto’s KPMB Architects, the other firm responsible for the project, says the result is “almost like a Vancouver neighbourhood.”

UBC is not alone in this thinking. Most schools have long offered accommodation as a fringe operation in the summer, but an increasing number are taking it more seriously now — building and updating facilities to make them useful on a 12-month basis, not just for the school year, particularly as they update campus plans that are looking increasingly dated. The results can be not only much-needed extra revenue but also a more vibrant campus, better security and a sense of community.

At the University of Victoria, its master plan from the 1960s included a lot of buildings (such as the Craigdarroch and Landsdowne residences, as well as the food facility) constructed in the Brutalist style of architecture.

“So there’s not a lot of windows and there’s not a lot of transparency and a welcoming atmosphere,” says Mike Wilson, UVic’s director of campus planning and sustainability.

The university renewed its campus plan in 2016, with an intent to densify the campus and make it more walkable. New residences are being planned, and Mr. Wilson says the goal is to “inject positivity and positive life into the campus.”

The University of Victoria also holds conferences on campus year-round, and while he says it’s not a big operation, and it’s not really meant to compete with the Victoria Conference Centre, he adds that “it definitely serves its purpose” in helping offset academic costs.

It’s a similar story at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, where Glenn Read, the executive director of athletics, recreation and ancillary services, says the school runs a fairly significant conference business year-round.

However, while the school’s focus on residences has been and always will be for students, historically the school has filled them over the summer to help keep rates down for students during the academic year.

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The David C. Smith House at Queen’s University offers a mini-fridge, flat-screen TV, wood floors and other stylish amenities in its premium units, not to mention a convenient downtown Kingston location.242120000126

“It’s not the equivalent of a four-, five-star hotel,” he says of the school’s newest residence, a 585-suite building built 11 years ago.

“You get what you pay for. We don’t promote it as a high-end hotel, but we do promote it as convenient, discounted accommodation.”

At Queen’s University in Kingston, the ability to rent out accommodation to tourists, conference-goers and others over the summer months had a direct effect on how its newest residences were constructed.

Built in 2015, Brant House and David C. Smith House have two-bedroom units that go on the market from early May to late August each year. Each residence is even listed on lodging websites such as and, with prices at David C. Smith House sitting around $109 for a two-bedroom suite.

Instead of carpet, the units were outfitted with wood floors, which are “easier to maintain and visually more appealing,” says Nicole Braatz, manager of sales and marketing at Queen’s Housing and Ancillary Services.

In addition, flat-screen TVs and mini-fridges come as standard in each room, and even the sheets provided have morphed from regular bedspreads to a “hotel-like” white duvet system.

“We’re very competitive with the hotel market,” Ms. Braatz says, although stressing the school simply adds to the available room inventory in central Kingston rather than challenges traditional hotels.

“Kingston is becoming such a hot spot … that the downtown marketplace, especially with our proximity, we grow the market in the summer, we don’t take away business.”

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