Areas throughout Árbol de la Vida and Likins Hall have the feel of air – wide, open spaces, tall ceilings, sizable courtyards and expansive views of the University of Arizona and Tucson region.
Yet the architectural aesthetics and philosophy embedded in the halls – the newest on campus – are strongly grounded in promoting collaboration and strong bonds.
With the two community directors and their resident assistants preparing to welcome more than 1,000 students in less than three weeks, the emphasis now is on academic support, community building and sustainability.
"We know that students want to get involved and have pride for this building," said Rosanna Curti, the Residence Life community director for Likins Hall. Likins Hall, named in honor of UA President Emeritus Peter Likins, will house 369 students.
"It's about making this a place where you live; making it your home," Curti said, "not just a place where you just live."
That emphasis is embodied in the artful design elements, smart sustainability and orientation of each hall.
At both halls – which will be dedicated next month – community living and collaborative learning spaces include several rooms for meeting, studying, socializing, exercising and hosting events.
Each pair of student rooms is set back slightly to create a "porch-like" effect and the feeling of having a close neighbor.
At Árbol de la Vida, which means "Tree of Life" in Spanish, a spectacular two-story study bridge features etched glass panels while several large windows provide natural light throughout the buildings.
At the main entrance, etched glass panels depict several beautiful flowing trees comprised of poetry. On the southwest corner, a two-story perforated copper screen radiates with an image of a slot canyon.
"Our residents will enjoy a comfortable yet clearly 21st century environment," said Christopher Anderson, senior community director for Árbol de la Vida, which will house 719 UA Honors College students.
"It was really designed with the students in mind and with figuring out how we can take design and programming to help students to be more successful," Anderson added.
Glass-enclosed great rooms and other spaces contain grand pianos while study rooms interspersed on corridors with student rooms facilitate academic success. Other lounges and gathering locations encourage students to socialize.
Also, sustainable features are abound: south-facing awnings, large windows fit for ventilation, roof-mounted solar panels, "smart" thermostats and "green" outlets are among them. Also, nearly 80 percent of the building materials came from recycled materials.
"There is a major focus on sustainability at all our halls," Curti said, "but these two new halls were specifically designed with sustainability in mind."
And included in both halls are a range of collaborative learning tools meant to stimulate learning and teamwork.
What remains will come with time – intentional programming and practices around sustainability, academic and social issues of importance and interest to students living in the respective halls.
"Students want to have a say in what is happening, and they want to be part of something," Curti said, adding that students will be asked to help plan and coordinate events.
For example, instead of purchasing materials for cookouts, student residents will be asked to bring their own plates and utensils. Another idea is to host a clothing drive allowing students to swap or repurpose items they had planned to toss out.
"We want them to be validated. This is not like a hotel with all sorts of amenities," Curti said. "This is your college experience, and it is your home now. That is why this is so important."
Such an effort is in direct contrast to the misperception that residence halls served the mere purpose of housing students.
Incidentally, new Árbol de la Vida residence have initiated a Facebook page and have planned the hall's first student-driven event – a s'mores party to be held this month.
"It's the first Friday – at night – after classes start. It's entirely student-initiated and student-driven," Anderson said, adding that more than 150 students have already registered to attend. "To me, that's awesome and exciting."
He takes it as a strong sign of the community building to come.
Anderson also said he and his resident assistants intend to host two to three events each week.
The group also plans to launch "Wildcat Challenge." The program will encourage students to challenge themselves to participate in activities meant to enhance their academic performance – whether it be visiting a faculty member's office hours, putting all of their assignments in their calendar or meeting periodically with an adviser.
"That helps to develop a global perspective about what college means," Anderson said. "Instead of just thinking about what happens this week or over the weekend, you begin to think about what college means over years."
Pam Obando, associate director for communications and outreach for UA Residence Life, contributed to this article.