More than six months into the global pandemic, most colleges and universities are kicking off the academic year completely remote while the long-term impacts of Covid-19 on higher education remain to be seen. We spoke with two of ZGF’s higher education experts, Taka Soga and Amanda Hills, about the trends that are rapidly changing how we think about campus design for students this year and beyond.
- Flexibility is the Ultimate Futureproofing
Kwantlen Polytechnic University, 3 Civic Plaza
One of the primary challenges schools are grappling with is how to adapt or repurpose existing facilities to allow for distance or hybrid learning. Simply put, to de-densify classrooms and residence halls, there needs to be fewer people on campus. In terms of space planning, this has created new opportunity for creatively and flexibly utilizing space.
“The challenge for designers is how to create spaces flexible enough to flip between technical and non-technical uses,” says Amanda Hills, associate principal. “Classrooms and laboratories that might otherwise sit unoccupied for hours a day between classes—or altogether during the pandemic—can be converted into technical spaces for STEM-related fields that require physical presence and specific equipment. These students can spread out into other less-utilized spaces, even if just for the short term.”
Universities that have already shifted to active learning classrooms with movable furniture are in a better position to pivot than those with extensive fixed seating, like traditional lecture halls. It may cost more upfront to build in the necessary structural and mechanical enhancements, but in the long run, adaptability offers the ultimate futureproofing.
- Supercharging the Hybrid Learning Model
Washington State University, The Spark: Academic Innovation Hub
The same way healthcare adopted telemedicine almost overnight when the pandemic hit, higher education quickly pivoted to online and hybrid learning. ZGF has been designing for a digital learning experience for years, but Covid-19 accelerated the need across all our higher education projects.
In addition to embedding technology on campus in an even more thoughtful way, now is the time to explore new ways of delivering impactful content to students who aren’t in the classroom.
Taka Soga, principal, says, “As designers, we must consider how physical learning environments can support the ‘new normal’ of hybrid learning. Many modern classrooms are designed with cameras pointing down on the lecturer and content is projected on screens. But if there’s no physical audience, would it be better to utilize a theater production space?”
- Pod Life
California Institute of Technology, The Bechtel Residence
If social distancing becomes the norm, what is the value of being physically present on campus? Will communal and collaborative spaces become irrelevant? We don’t think so. In fact, we think creating a family environment on campus to foster critical social connections will become even more important.
“Freshmen and sophomores develop some of their longest lasting friendships during their first years of college,” Amanda says. “Our job is to find ways to meet all the safety requirements coming out of the pandemic while still creating a sense of family and shared experience so that spirit of going to college is not lost.”
“The role of campus and community will take on new meaning. One solution we expect to gain traction is assigning students to small pods of three or four who attend classes virtually but live together and share amenities,” notes Amanda. “The Bechtel Residence at the California Institute of Technology is a prime example because we created a new prototype for on-campus housing by creating student suites. Instead of long hallways of rooms where everyone is in close quarters, student bedrooms are organized into suites sharing restrooms, kitchens and living spaces at more intimate scales.”
- New Is Not Always Better
Rendering of California State University, Los Angeles, Physical Sciences Building 12 Relocation Project
Given an uncertain future where institutions are dealing with issues of space, cost and flexibility—let alone a pandemic—reconsidering an upgrade to existing building stock makes a lot of fiscal sense.
“Transforming an aging or outdated building into something modern, multifunctional and pandemic-proof optimizes resources while reducing a university’s carbon footprint and futureproofing the building,” says Taka.
The adaptive reuse of a vacated, midcentury concrete building at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) into an irresistible new space for the university’s administrative services came down to cost savings and a design opportunity. Previously, CSULA’s student services and staff administrative spaces were spread out in disparate, aging buildings. ZGF was tasked with temporarily relocating these departments to the existing Physical Sciences Building to allow for seismic retrofits to the other buildings. However, a feasibility study revealed this building had more potential than just a temporary swing space—it was more cost effective to fully renovate and bring all administrative services under one roof.
The Opportunity Is There
The future of higher education will take many forms, but we know there will always be a need for physical spaces where faculty, staff and students can come together. What physical and digital forms that will take is yet to be seen, but if done right, the lessons we take from the current pandemic will allow for greater access, equity and potentially more affordable education in the years to come.