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seating area with large tv screens overlooking basketball court at the University of Houston
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Turning Silos into Synergies and Making the Most of an Institution’s Inventory

Andrew West

With the upcoming fall semester looming, higher education leaders continue to grapple with decisions related to COVID-19. Institutions are inundated with more questions than answers, like: When will students and faculty be allowed to return to campus? How will local, state, and federal mandates impact daily life on campus? Which building modifications can be made to accommodate physical distancing protocols and to provide safe learning environments this fall and beyond? What is the future of higher education?

For good reason, the pandemic is known as a disruptor. But, as my colleagues have shared in the Evolution of Campus series, it has also uncovered myriad opportunities for growth and improvement within the higher education system.

Thinking long-term, and as pedagogies and student life experiences evolve on campus, expanding the options and utilization of all campus facilities can be advantageous to increase an institution’s marketability. However, new academic programs and student amenities should not necessarily equate to new construction or building additions. With fluctuating and possibly shrinking budgets, one consideration is to evaluate all campus inventory to achieve better utilization ratios, especially for facilities with limited programmatic needs that have specific, but low levels of use.

Reshuffling Campus Inventory
Based on their limited usage by athletic groups, large competition venues and other athletic department facilities often go unused for periods of time each day. These are spaces that already have infrastructure, technology, and amenities in place and could potentially be transformed to function as alternative academic and student life spaces on campus. In addition to the longstanding benefits, they could offer short-term relief to overburdened campus facilities in response to physical distancing directives.

Some synergies naturally exist between academic departments and athletic programs, such as broadcast media, kinesiology, sports marketing, and sports medicine. These programs are inherently part of the institution’s athletic culture, however, the level of interaction between athletics and academics could expand exponentially on many campuses across the country. While there are many opportunities for partnerships between academics and athletics, I’ve outlined a few examples below.

Oregon State University in Corvallis, OR. Photo by Lincoln Barbour.

Team Meeting Rooms
Within an athletic building are technology-rich spaces that are used exclusively by athletic teams and for only a few hours per day. These could offer additional instructional spaces for academic courses. However, one area of consideration for institutions that opt to transform team meeting rooms into instructional areas is student access. Because athletic facilities are typically accessible to student-athletes only, separate access for the larger student population would be necessary to eliminate the need to travel through dedicated student-athlete spaces.

Image © DLR Group.

The diagram above indicates 13,700 SF of space in a football training facility that could be available for alternative use. Because this was designed specifically for the efficient interaction of student-athletes, it would have complicated access issues to manage the mixing of student-athlete and academic populations.

The diagram with reorganized shared spaces illustrates a focus on shared learning environments; greater opportunity and access for other campus needs; and optimization of space use inventory, which can be achieved as institutions plan this type of facility in the future.

Image © DLR Group.

In addition to team spaces mentioned above, amenities that are customarily incorporated into competition venue concourses – such as open circulation areas, food service, toilet facilities, and shading elements in outdoor stadiums – could supplement student offerings on campus. For example, concourses could operate to offer alternative food and beverage options for students and faculty, including pre-packaged items for convenient and quick transactions. In addition, mobile furniture could be strategically located to serve as an extension of informal learning environments, and provide students with another space to gather in small groups or to socialize between classes.

University of Houston Football Stadium in Houston, TX. Photo by Slyworks Photography.

Other areas within competition venues could be used as alternative event space for faculty, staff, and students. The venue floor/ground space, club commons areas, and lobbies could play host to student exhibits, career fairs, displays, university club events, orientations, faculty and staff meetings, or other activities that contribute to the student life experience on campus. While student unions will continue to be the hub and heart of campus, these spaces provide large, open spaces with ample technology to accommodate student and professional groups.

West Texas A&M University Buffalo Stadium in Canyon, TX. Photo by Slyworks Photography.

Though not a new concept, the continuous engagement between sports venues and campuses can be maximized through year-round attractions around the perimeter of the facility, as shown in the illustration below. Opening spaces like team stores, bookstores, studios, and galleries beyond gameday creates deeper connections between students and the home team. While security is a concern for any campus building, maintaining a secure environment around the perimeter can be achieved through controlled access and limited indoor traffic.

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