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The Space Challenge

Facilities and outdoor spaces that are designed for learning, social interaction and student well being.
University Business, Apr 2005

The Hilltop bakery at Mallinckrodt Center, Washington University in St. Louis' (Mo.) student union, was once the social hub on campus. Students would flock to the meager 30-seat hot spot, famous for its smoothies and coffee shop vibe, before, between, and after classes. But because of its popularity, limited seating and space posed a problem. Inundated with socially hungry students (eating was often secondary), this was really the only place outside of the dorms where students could casually interact with each other. But that all changed when the university renovated the interior of its five-story, 40-plus-year-old Olin library, nestled in the heart of campus.

While it always attracted myriad students during finals time, the library was otherwise greatly underused. Its poor layout, outdated 70s decor, inflexible furniture, institutional-like lighting, and mass shortage of computers were to blame. But last May, when the $38 million renovation was completed, a much more efficient library emerged.

Boasting an additional 20,000 square feet, composed of a 150-seat, 24-hour cyber cafe on the first floor, wrap-around glass windows on all floors, softer furniture, a relaxing blue and green color scheme, new, energy efficient lighting, double the amount of computers, and group study rooms, the library has become a vibrant social and learning environment.

At least students and faculty seem to think so--library usage is up by 50 percent, says Shirley Baker, dean of libraries and vice chancellor of information technology at the university. She suspects the new wireless environment was a big draw. "We didn't really know how many students had laptops until we provided them with outlets, network access, and a 100 percent wireless environment." About one third of students come to the library with laptops now, she says.

"We had to know: Were the width of the aisles right?
Were the risers in the tiered classroom the right
height? Were the chairs and desks flexible enough?"
-Allan Friedman, University of Chicago

While the library's top floors are more study-focused, the first and second floors are bustling with activity. "I never would have thought the library would be a social place. But now if I ever want to run into someone, I know to go to the second floor of the library," says Shana Klein, a senior at Wash U. Between the cafe, which often serves as a 24/7 meeting ground for study groups, and the wrap-around windows, which allow students to "see and be seen," there's plenty of opportunity for social interaction. "Students love that they can do work but also see friends go by. It makes them feel less isolated," Baker says.

Of course, the library also caters to students who want to be more serious. It is, after all, a library. The top floors are intentionally designed to offer a much quieter and private atmosphere. In addition to offering private rooms, there are built-in nooks and crannies where thru-traffic and distraction are non-existent. Klein, who rarely visited the library prior to the renovation, now stops in at least once a day. "It's an all-in-one building. I can hang out, study, eat, and check my e-mail. It's my home away from home."

The positive response to this renovation comes as no surprise as Wash U. spent several months interviewing students and faculty to find out what exactly they wanted from a library. "We've built a lot of beautiful buildings on campus. None of them have had quite the same impact as the library," Baker says. "This facility was really designed around the needs of our students and faculty."

More and more IHEs are realizing the power of their design decisions. "With the growing focus on student life outside the classroom, facilities are starting to play a critical role in the transitional life between the social and intellectual environment," says Tom Kearns, principal for design at Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott architecture firm, based in Boston. The ultimate transitional facility is the student union. The 33,000-square-foot Hansen Student Center at Illinois Wesleyan University, demonstrates how a facility can effectively integrate the two environments. The Hansen Center, which was completed in 2002, replaced a neo-classical gymnasium, which hadn't been seriously used for at least 10 years. The project arose out of "a desire to give students a sense of ownership of their campus," says Jim Matthews, dean of students at the university. After experiencing great turmoil in the Greek community--one fraternity was suspended for alcohol and other violations--"there was a cry for the university to become more invested in the student life philosophy," he says.

Furthermore, the building that was previously known as the student union, did not cater to students' needs. "Students felt no ownership of the building. From changing the decor to picking out carpeting, they were never consulted," Matthews said. To remedy this, the university spent time understanding the student culture. It found that many students felt the previous student union had a cold, institutional feel. To create a warmer, more inviting environment, the university built a curved "streetscape" on the main floor, which includes a lobby, information desk, newsstand, a two-level bookstore, a cafe, and a large space known as the "living room" that boasts lounge-style seating and moveable furniture. This space can be easily reconfigured to hold concerts or large meetings. The building's top level features a semi-circular mezzanine that houses student-government offices, meeting rooms, and workspaces for student organizations. "This has given our student leaders much visibility," says Matthews. "We're convinced that by creating a space for them to meet has motivated more groups to become registered student organizations." The number of student interest groups is up from about 75 to 136, he adds.

The building also appeals to students' social life needs, attracting 600 to 800 students on any given weekend night. People come to see everything from live music and poetry readings to student performers and nationally recognized comedians. "It provides a safe, non-alcoholic place for students who don't want to go to off-campus parties," Matthews says. Also important is the socially informal atmosphere within the building. "Students are able to check out the activity that's going on--whether it's the band that's playing or the speaker who's lecturing--without having to commit to joining the activity," says Kearns of Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson, and Abbott, the architecture firm that designed the Hansen center. "The architecture supports this flexible environment."

When students aren't socializing, they're often in the classroom. The notion of a classroom conjures images of boxy rooms, fluorescent lighting, white walls, and hard chairs. But IHE's like Notre Dame University (Ind.) and University of Chicago, with their forward-thinking, highly innovative business school facilities, are changing this perception. Giovanini Commons, the 8,500-square-foot, $3 million facility that houses UND's Mendoza College of Business, was not designed with the traditional classroom in mind. First, the university spent 18 months researching the field of creative learning. "We wanted the classroom to be more than just a place to lecture," says Doug Kroll, business manager of the Mendoza College of Business. "The intent was to create an environment that is more innovative and collaborative--a space where you can have impromptu breakout sessions."

Another challenge was how to smoothly integrate advanced technology into the classroom. At Stanford University's (Calif.) Wallenberg Hall, technology-assisted learning was accomplished through a mix of technology solutions, including interactive whiteboards from PolyVision (a Steelcase company that supplies products for communicating visually) as well as no-tech boards. The university did not want a one-size-fits all technology solution. UND took a different approach. "Technology is behind the scenes here," Kroll says. "We're wired for whatever you could imagine but we didn't want the facility to appear technologically heavy. We've focused more on creating an infrastructure that supports technology because as new technology comes out we want to be able to accommodate it."

Furniture design also played an important role in the classroom. Since the typical horseshoe-shaped desks don't lend themselves to much collaboration, UND, with the help of architecture firm, VOA Associates Incorporated, implemented curved shaped desks and egg-shaped classrooms to allow for more unique groupings and " a more secure, intimate, womb-like environment," Kroll says. There are also a lot of breakout points within the egg that further facilitate flexibility in the classroom.

"We had to know: Were the width of the aisles right?
Were the risers in the tiered classroom the right
height? Were the chairs and desks flexible enough?"
-Allan Friedman, University of Chicago

MBA students at University of Chicago are relishing in a flexible, collaborative learning environment of their own. The 415,000-square-foot, seven-floor Chicago Graduate School of Business Hyde Park Center, which opened last September, offers 12 classrooms, 2 seminar rooms, 31 group study rooms and 42 interview rooms where corporate recruiters can meet with students. The $125 million facility, built by Rafael Vinoly Architects, based in New York, boasts 60 percent more space than the previous B-school facility, "which wasn't designed for the way business professors teach today," says Allan Friedman, a spokesman for the university's GSB.

"Within the past 20 years there has been a big change in how business school students go about their daily activities," says Friedman. "Students today don't just come to school to attend a class. They come here in the morning, and they stay 8 to 10 hours. They eat here, they socialize here, they attend group meetings here." The university, in effect, set out to create a nurturing environment for these long-staying students.

But first, the university completed hundreds of hours of research on students and faculty to determine how they use space. Part of that research involved building a mock classroom off campus. Students were invited into the classroom to comment on its layout, accessibility, and design. "We wanted to make sure our faculty and students got an environment that worked for them," Friedman says. "We had to know: Were the width of the aisles right? Were the risers in the tiered classroom the right height? Were the chairs and desks flexible enough?"

Also, because of the academically rigorous environment inside the classroom, it was important to create several informal gathering spaces outside the classroom. These spaces have a dual purpose: they can facilitate spontaneous hallway conversations or they can provide a perfect opportunity for quiet, alone time. Students can find a perfect respite in the six-story, sky-lit glass atrium winter garden, which is possibly the building's most impressive feature. "Because it is the focal point of the building, it serves the purpose of a town square or a piazza--a place where students can mingle and meet each other," Friedman says.

These creative design concepts upon which academic buildings are based can also be applied to the world of residential life. Dartmouth College's (NH) McLaughlin cluster, slated for completion in fall of 2006, is a perfect example of how design can create a sense of community. The proposed 342-bed residential cluster will feature two main buildings with a number of shared features, including a large grassy courtyard, high-tech study rooms, and a two-story cluster common area that will be attached to one of the buildings. The decision to limit the residential cluster to about 350 students was very intentional. "This number seems to work well as a community. There are just enough students with enough different interests to create a vibrant living community while keeping it intimate," says Martin Redman, dean of residential life at Dartmouth. "By building one social space instead of two separate ones we can create a relationship between both buildings," he says.

Clustering also allows opportunities for groups of students to do more than just socialize, but to arrange study sessions and work on PowerPoint presentations together. There's talk about putting electronic whiteboards in the study areas, says Jack Wilson, associate director of facilities planning for Dartmouth. He says the university is currently looking to partnerships with high-tech companies to facilitate this.

In addition to the clustering effect, Dartmouth will also offer its signature unique room setup. Instead of offering an individual dorm room, it will implement a "two-room double" concept, where two students get two rooms that lead into one other, which they can use as two separate bedrooms or a double bedroom and a living room. "This setup actually encourages more student interaction at the same time that it creates opportunities for privacy," Redman says. This is especially beneficial for anxious first-year students who are far from home and have never shared a room before, he says. "By having two rooms, you can creating the opportunity for students to have some private space without disrupting one another. If one wants to go to bed early, the other can use the living room to study or listen to music. It really helps with the development of the roommate relationship." The actual bedroom size will also be increased in the new buildings, from 100 to 120 square feet. With space being at such a premium, Redman assures that 20 square feet can really make a difference.


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