Social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) are top of mind for campus planners around the world, and architects and designers who work in the education sector. For the team at Washington State University (WSU) Tri-Cities, JEDI issues played a key role as ZGF worked with students, faculty, staff and many other stakeholders to design a new 40,000 SF interdisciplinary Academic Building that celebrates students’ commitment to a better world and demonstrates the university’s commitment to making that world a reality.
Centrally located between Seattle, Portland, Spokane and Boise, WSU Tri-Cities has largely been a commuter school catering to a student body with an average age of 26 and representing a diverse demographic: 42% are first generation college students and more than 42% identify as minorities, many coming from Latinx backgrounds. In addition, the campus is expanding from 2,000 students to 5,000 and the Academic Building is one of several new developments setting the table for that growth.
These considerations impacted WSU’s key project drivers to expose students to a diversity of subjects and to create a sense of belonging and community on campus. Hence our shared commitment to designing an academic destination for everyone, with the resulting building representing a space where every square foot is laser focused on a single purpose: graduating civic-minded citizens who can work across disciplines to solve the world’s most pressing problems.
Engaging Students in the Design Process
Bringing together students of all backgrounds and disciplines in one building can foster a sense of belonging and community on campus. ZGF used design workshops with student representatives from every department to get their input early in the process and ensure that the promise of interdisciplinary learning is extended to all students.
For example, on a campus map, students were asked to trace the paths they take every day to classes and other destinations on campus. We started to see patterns around areas that are social hubs, pinch points and locations that students avoid altogether, giving us insights into how to make the Academic Building as welcoming and inviting as possible.
In another exercise, students were given building blocks labeled with the various program elements that would go in the building, such as labs, classrooms and breakout spaces. They put the pieces together as they thought the building should be organized. Another exercise utilized flashcards to present design options—this or that—to narrow in on students’ preferences.
Students also brainstormed what they wanted to see in the building, like larger classrooms. Until then, the small campus and intimate class sizes had been a selling point for WSU Tri-Cities. The unintended consequence was that students couldn’t always get into their first-choice classes due to limited space. Along with larger classrooms, WSU Tri-Cities committed to investing in faculty development so educators could scale their small-classroom strategies for larger groups.
During the planning process, project stakeholders toured several other campuses in the Pacific Northwest and were inspired by elements of other ZGF projects including study nooks, collaboration spaces and ample access to daylight. The wood stair ZGF designed for The Spark: Academic Innovation Hub at WSU’s Pullman, Wash. campus was a particularly popular element that was adapted into WSU Tri-Cities’ program.
Informal spaces in the Academic Building include a lively collaboration zone and central grandstand stair. The design team worked with ArtsWA, the Washington State Arts Commission, to bring a sculpture by artist Paul Wexler to hang in this space.
Shedding Siloes for Collaborative Learning
One goal for the WSU Tri-Cities Academic Building is to engage undergraduate students in science and research earlier on in their education, starting freshman and sophomore years. Research is essential to WSU’s land grant mission and it’s an economic driver for the region and state.
Another goal is to promote diversity in the sciences. Both interdisciplinary study and undergraduate research are proven strategies for exposing non-traditional students to STEM fields, specifically women and students of color.
Extra wide corridors lined with study nooks and niches are designed to encourage spillover and collaboration outside of classrooms. The extra width also allows daylight filter through the building.
The final design for WSU Tri-Cities’ new Academic Building features open and collaborative learning spaces balanced with an appropriate mix of small group niches, individual study spaces and breakout rooms for more concentrated learning. The diversity of spaces not only maximizes the ability to collaborate and learn anywhere in the building, it acknowledges and supports different learning styles and personalities and breaks down siloes for more effective interdisciplinary study.
Ultimately, leveraging student input resulted in a building where every square foot serves a purpose and offers an opportunity for growth: nurturing the next generation of leaders who will make the world a better place.
Sara Howell, AIA, NCARB, is a principal at ZGF and served as project manager for the Washington State University Tri-Cities Academic Building.
Fiona Booth, AIA, NCIDQ, LEED AP, is an associate principal at ZGF and served as project architect for the Academic Building.