Extreme Makeover, Dorm Edition: Incoming Students Welcome Visual Aids for Dorm Decoration

July 6, 2007 -- To the creative, an empty dorm room, with its white walls and bare floors, is a blank canvas full of possibilities.

For many, though, it is a bleak tableau, interrupted only by sturdy University-issue beds and desks. Hand them the list of flammable items prohibited under the fire code — “posters, flags, banners, pictures, curtains, tapestries, paper lanterns, calendars” and more — and an empty dorm room can seem like a cell to be endured until such time as the occupant is eligible for off-Grounds parole.

It is the latter group that the U.Va. Housing Division is targeting this summer with an innovative outreach effort. As incoming first-year students tour sample dorm rooms during summer orientation, held in 11 sessions through late August, they find brightly colored rooms filled with the kind of stuff that first-year students are likely to find appealing — all of which, of course, are permissible under the fire code.

The decor is courtesy of three local retailers — University Bookstore, WalMart and Bed, Bath and Beyond — each of whom set up one room in the McCormick Road (“old”) dormitories and another in the Alderman Road (“new”) dorms.

“They’re doing us a favor because they’re showing students how they can decorate well, and within the fire code,” said Cheryl Fontaine, assistant director for accommodations, who spearheaded the makeover project after learning of similar efforts at other schools. “We want [students] to consider living on Grounds after their first year.”

The rooms were clearly a hit with the students-to-be attending the first session of orientation on June 29.

“This is really cool,” raved Edward Barham of Norfolk  as he scanned the room in Lile House, decorated by WalMart. With the beds bunked, the store brought in a futon couch and a low shelf adorned with a gleaming entertainment system, including a flat-screen television, to fill the vacant space. An orange comforter draped the top bunk; the bottom, a blue one. Two powerful fans cooled the space. The wall held a couple of framed pictures, and brightly colored storage racks on shelves, desks and in closets helped keep things organized. There were also several handy student items, including notebooks, CD holders, cups and the like, with the color scheme heavy on oranges and blues.

“It’s really cool to see all of the set-ups you can do,” Barham said. “It’s definitely quelling some of the fears of having a roommate and stuff.”

In Page House, future roommates Matthew Aronson and Jason Rowe, both from Waynesboro, Va., were taking in the possibilities of dorm life there with the assistance of new friend Monica Clark of Arlington. The talkative trio gave most of the rooms high marks.

“This is definitely better than the ones at Virginia Tech,” Rowe said.

Aronson agreed. “We haven’t been shopping for our room yet. This gives me some ideas about how we can set it up.”

Clark also appreciated the early look, which allowed her to get a head start on her shopping. “It’s hard to do it all on move-in day,” she said.

At the University Bookstore, marketing manager Pat Perkins said he was already hearing comments from students (and their credit card-wielding parents) who had toured the rooms. He and his staff are familiar with the fire code rules, he said, and stand ready to assist students in getting in touch with their inner Martha Stewarts.

“We were happy to do it,” he said. “With all the regulations out there, we thought it would be a good way to show the students that they can have something cool and comfortable and still be within the safety rules.”