As we consider new realities and what the future may hold, one thing is certain: they will be indelibly marked by current affairs and historic events in fresh and powerful ways. Higher education and the college experience have already been dramatically impacted by the coinciding reckonings of COVID-19, social justice, and climate change.
As architects, interior designers, and planners, we explored ways we might address these concerns. The result is a series of vignettes that imagine what to do with new and existing buildings on campus, reflecting how the new normal will likely shape the built environment and our behavior.
The Learning Multiverse
For close to a decade it has been said that colleges and universities need to prepare to offer programs that strike a balance between in-person and virtual learning. Before it was in response to the growth in online education options and maintaining a competitive edge, but today’s lens is colored by the effects of the pandemic. While the current situation has expedited thinking about new ways to conduct remote learning and how to best maintain peer-to-peer learning, “our solutions for how to design college campuses to be resilient to pandemics should also encompass the prevailing wisdom of issues we were facing before the pandemic,” cautions partner James Woolum.
360-degree classrooms are already starting to replace traditional lecture halls, the overlay of a pandemic preparedness design plan could incorporate the ability to install crystal clear, yet impermeable, room dividers that would encircle a central zone from which the professor can continue to teach in front of students, who could also be safely enclosed in protection zones. A two-way audio system and raised, 360-degree screen would provide audio and visual support to allow a limited-capacity group of students to socially distance while still engaging with each other and the professor.
Just as our healthcare clients are seeing a new equilibrium emerge in the ways digital and in-person care can be balanced and foresee a permanent transition to an omni-channel delivery of care, we can hypothesize that places of higher learning that were traditionally anchored to a physical campus will follow a similar approach.
Creating courses that reduce or alternate periods of time spent on campus by certain groups of students will result in a reduction of the daily on-campus population and allow for group and communal spaces to continue to be used with safe social distancing practices in place. But successfully blending virtual and in-person learning will take an operational shift on the part of institutions and a behavioral shift by students, staff, and faculty—all of which will need to be supported by design. “Design, whether it’s through architecture or graphics and wayfinding, is about experience and behavior,” says Woolum. “Sometimes, like following a pandemic, it’s about changing behavior.”
Socializing and Social Justice
If there is one thing we have learned during the quarantine of 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement, it is that isolation and a dearth of shared experiences dramatically impact our day-to-day mental health, as well as our abilities to process big moments in our communities, like the crises of social justice and health safety.
How could a school best facilitate meaningful conversations to address topics on race between students and faculty? “Exhibition or gallery spaces that might spark ideas and seeds of dialogue are often quiet and not designed for engaged conversations,” says principal Steven Lewis, “but purpose-designed settings could be created on campus specifically for raising and discussing big topics that are often best processed and overcome together.”
Social justice and creating a culture of equity and inclusion on campus is just as critical as maintaining health safety and protecting people from a deadly virus. Though they may seem at odds given that one requires distance and separation and the other thrives on togetherness, “design can support and show equity. The key is in being intentional with what we are designing,” says Lewis. “For example, circular spaces evoke greater feelings of equity, whereas the use of marble can diminish that sense.” Over time buildings take on new meanings and purposes, but certain elements or combinations of elements can carry the exclusionary and discriminatory stains of the past—these may be invisible to some or still strikingly fresh to others. “It is the architect’s role to be conscious of the language of the built environment,” Lewis reminds us, “and to ensure that new buildings provide a symbol of shared ownership, equity, and safety for current and future generations.”
Creating the Healthiest Environment
We are at a pivotal point when it comes to sustainability. “We’ve made great strides up until now, but this is a critical juncture where we risk losing that progress with a frantic reaction to the pandemic,” says associate and sustainability specialist Avideh Haghighi. “We need to think longer term and really evaluate whether our short-term reactions are aligned with how we’d like our spaces to evolve. Antimicrobial everything may seem like a great idea in this moment, but there are very real implications for our health, which actually depends on maintaining bacterial diversity.”
A deeper exploration and use of biophilic solutions could be, ahem, the solution. “Colleges and universities can use this pandemic as an opportunity to innovate the next level of sustainability,” says Haghighi. “Consider bio-façades using living algae to cleanse the air and generate energy, or bacteria-based self-healing concretes, or the addition of ‘green screens’ and ‘green pods’ comprised of air filtering plants set among circulation routes, informal seating areas, and work zones that could create safe separations without causing feelings of isolation.”
Perhaps one of the simplest solutions to improve the health of building occupants, as well as the environment, is to create fresh air spaces. Classrooms with operable windows and ceiling fans, as well as literal outdoor and open-air spaces. These are an easy solve for campuses located in temperate climate zones, but as new normals are developing on a near-daily basis, it may not be outside the realms of possibility for colleges in areas that experience major seasonal differences to consider having students on campus year-round.
“Flexible and mixed-use spaces that are designed to use and connect with the natural surroundings could provide a way for universities to create a setting for students to safely maintain their studies and their social lives in a shared environment during a pathogenic health crisis,” said partner Braulio Baptista. For example, a student residence could become an all-in-one micro campus where classrooms and amenities are all housed in one location. Serviced with a combination of open-air and fresh air-ventilated spaces, potentially with self-cleansing and self-healing surfaces, students and faculty could live and learn together in containment, avoiding the spread of a virus.
There is not one easy solution to solve the shared problems we are facing across all typologies. But, more than ever before our design approach needs to be conscious of and responsive to the ways in which sustainability and environmental concerns, systemic racism and social justice, wellness and health safety, performance and productivity are locked together. In short, an intersectional approach to design moving forward is imperative.
*All illustrations by Alan Kawahara, ©ZGF