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Rooftop garden with wildflowers and angular path at the University of Northern Iowa for students to go out and study on
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A Laser Focus on Design in Higher Education

Benjamin Strain

When and how higher education campuses reopen remains a fluid situation and designing for the unknowns of COVID-19 continues to push our design teams to research and explore the best pathways forward. To better understand the new reality our clients’ face this fall and beyond, we implemented its 360-degree engagement process and conducted personal conversations across 85 institutions. We heard directly from students a desire to return to campus and return to their academic, extracurricular, and social activities associated with campus life. We also heard overwhelmingly from participants that the physical campus must change and evolve. It is essential that the campus itself become a scalable, adaptable, and safe environment to remain relevant in a post-pandemic world.

Designing Flexibility at a Campus of Scale
To position institutions for resiliency moving forward, we must design campuses with the ability to scale up and down. This involves analyzing the campus as a whole and may result in a transformation of existing building inventory; renovations to support various pedagogies within one facility; demolition of outdated buildings; or a change in programs and curriculum offered. Whatever the solution, strategy and scenario planning will be crucial to any successful endeavor.

Over the past few months colleges and universities across the country proved they could deliver instruction online. As we look to the future, programs and departments will turn their focus to delivering quality content without relying completely on physical space. In the short-term, campuses will likely need to find ways to limit the number of students and faculty onsiteInstitutions can add technology and modify existing classrooms and buildings as remote instruction environments that can also be used for in-person instruction. This hybrid method allows institutions to quickly adjust to either scenario and accommodate a large volume of students.

Institutions have found great value in their relationships with town gown partners, especially in STEM and healthcare fields related to the crisis response. In addition to directing students into the workplace, this option offers students the opportunity to gain authentic experience. It also provides those operations deemed “essential” with an immediate and trainable workforce.

Circular map with Campus Core at center and arrows extending out to Campus Edge, ending at STEM and Town Partners
A building utilization model for higher education campuses. Image © DLR Group.

In the coming months and years as campuses begin to reopen programs, courses, and activities, the number of students and faculty onsite will fluctuate, requiring campuses to analyze the entire inventory of physical buildings. Satellite and perimeter buildings may temporarily go offline to reduce the amount of energy consumed by building systems, allowing facility and maintenance crews to focus operations in a centralized location. While these changes may alter the state of the physical campus, students will be searching for opportunities to connect with their peers, especially those they haven’t seen in months. Therefore, as it was intended, the central core will remain the heart of campus, the natural place where students congregate to learn, study, and socialize.

Thinking between and beyond buildings, greenspace on campus can be re-examined and repurposed to serve a variety of functions, including outdoor academic, recreation, or social activities. The spacious size of an amphitheater for performances or a designated outdoor space for social events could easily support social distancing.

Reactivating the space between buildings on higher education campuses – a concept sketch from Daytona State College Palm Coast. Image © DLR Group.

Designing an Adaptable Campus
To be completely adaptable, a classroom or a building must be designed to change overnight. Amenities like mobile furniture and technology allow for quick and simple modifications to a space. However. we must think more transformational.

For instance, prefabricated moveable wall systems can be used to expand or contract spaces, creating opportunities for small group learning or larger group gatherings. Raised access flooring that houses technology and electrical systems gives building users greater access to outlets and plugs wherever needed, while plug-and-play MEP connections allow for multiple configurations within a space. In addition, building controls can be programmed to accommodate a variety of configurations and can change hourly, daily, or weekly.

Diagram using modular pieces to show space scaled down into subsections to accommodate different uses
A model to scale down higher education campus buildings. Image © DLR Group.
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