Architecture student Ben Bryant and his three roommates -- a painter, filmmaker and industrial designer -- needed less than a month to turn their apartment's blank canvas into a work of art.

Many apartments in the Rhode Island School of Design's new residence hall include flexible space that can be used as bedrooms or studios, depending on students' needs.

At first, the starkness of the white walls, gray carpet and spartan furniture freaked out the four sophomores. But they brought in rugs, textiles and guitars to cover the walls and rocks to dot the corners.

"I came home the other day, and all three were sprawled in here reading," said Bryant, 20, planting himself on one of two love seats in a cozy sitting area. "I was like, 'Yes, I love this.' "

That's what RISD housing officers were hoping for when they converted an old bank building in downtown Providence into 197 apartments for students. Artists have unique needs and sense of aesthetics, said Brian Janes, director of residence life. The building was designed with flexible space and a neutral decor so the college's painters, photographers and other artists could customize their environment.

RISD is one of many colleges and universities across the country spending millions of dollars to create housing that will lure students. While others are sweetening the deal with pools and plasma televisions, art schools are focusing on studio space and good lighting.

"A hot tub is not necessarily going to create opportunities for creative excitement, but a green space -- where it's open 24 hours and is safe -- that can be really important," said Michael Molla, vice president of operations at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

When MICA opened a new residence hall in 2000, it included studio and gallery space. A 60-foot square garden in the center of the complex proved so popular among the artists that the college is designing an even larger courtyard for a building it will break ground on in the spring, Molla said.

Architects shrunk the living rooms in apartments at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston to create bigger bedrooms, said Larry Borins, the project manager on the college's newest residence hall. Students wanted big bedrooms for two reasons.

"Their desk is really a work table . . . and their beds had a cabinet that is the size of the bed -- it's like a drawer -- so that you could store art under your bed," Borins said.

For the RISD building, architects at Office dA Inc. in Boston created apartments with two alcoves joined by a kitchen and bathroom. Each alcove contains two nooks and a common area. The nooks and common areas can be used for work or sleep, allowing students to create bedrooms, studios and sitting areas to fit their lifestyles.

"That -- flexible partitions -- is not typical," said Jane Cady Wright, whose Virginia architecture firm specializes in college housing. "That is definitely unique and to their credit."

Wright, who was not involved in the RISD project, said many universities have started building residence halls and apartments that complement students' academic programs.

Bathrooms in the RISD dorm also are split, with a shower and sink in one space and toilet and sink in another.

"That's not specific to artists," said Nader Tehrani, a partner in Office dA. "But it is in the sense that artists often use one sink for cleaning their brushes and one sink for brushing their teeth."

Most students use the nooks as bedrooms, said Chandelle Wilson, 20, a photographer and resident assistant the RISD building. "I haven't even thought about using nooks for different things," she said.

But the residents she supervises are adapting the apartments' other features in unexpected ways.

"It's like, 'Yeah, we got this kitchen, and my parents got me dishes, but I don't cook. But it's nice because I can use the stove to melt my paraffin wax,' " Wilson said.

It's also early in the school year, and many students are still deciding what they want to do with their space.

"In my living situations before, I moved things around monthly," Bryant said.

To foster that kind of creativity, RISD faculty created a furniture line for the residence hall. Beds can be set high so dressers slide under, or flipped upside down for a lower seat. The mattress sits on a hard board because research showed that many students stored their drawings and canvases under their beds, Janes said.

Izzi Galindo, 19, and his roommates arranged two dressers to make a coffee table. They brought in a brown, corner sectional sofa to create a comfortable lounging area in a room overlooking the Providence River.

Galindo, an industrial design student, spent several weeks sleeping there because he had piled belongings on his bed and neglected to put them away. He concealed the mess by drawing the curtain that gives each nook a measure of privacy.

"It's the considerate thing to do," he said.

Rhode Island School of Design sophomore Ben Bryant shares living space with three other students. Many apartments in the school's new residence hall include flexible space that can be used as bedrooms or studios, depending on students' needs.