Giving students room to grow

by Joel Pettigrew

An evolution has taken place in higher education over the last decade. Today’s campuses have come a long way from the narrowly focused academic institutions of yore. They are not just places where one goes to study, but dynamic microcosms of activity where one goes to learn and develop—both socially and intellectually. They are demanding environments, where students wrestle with academic and social pressures at an ever-accelerated pace. They are places that challenge and shape one’s sense of self and social identity.

“So, what does it mean for students to engage in a space?” asked Laura DaRos, assistant dean of student affairs at SMFA, Tufts University, and panelist for our recent discussion on today’s evolving college campus. As architects, we return to this question as we envision new spaces for students. Especially when traditionally, students have not been invited to the planning table for the next campus center or redesign of a dining facility, as Panelist Jason Meier, director of student engagement and leadership at Emerson College, pointed out.

Designing campus facilities for student development 

At Shepley Bulfinch, create environments that fully anticipate the life and activities of the students across the campus. Balancing the intricacies of campus context and culture with a cohesive design concept, we look to reflect how they embody these multifaced spaces.

As we go through the design process, we constantly test our considerations. At each touchpoint, we ask: What message is our design communicating to the students? In our new dining facility, is there an inviting and accessible area for people who are dining alone? And does the seating arrangement create havens for introverts to recharge in a quieter way? When we envision a new student center, does our design allow for fluidly connecting in the space? And does it carve out areas to concentrate and create, as well as spaces to make connections and host activities? Are these spaces flexible and adaptable to the programmatic needs and the range of activities that may take place in the building? Have we given enough thought to the amenities? Not least, have we saved enough room for storage?

When design fails, it is due to neglecting the function of the space. If the multicultural center is hidden in the back of the third floor of a building, what signal does this send to the underrepresented groups about their place on campus? Is the signage intended for only students with certain learning styles and abilities? Is the artwork in the space representative of the student body, or could it be potentially offensive to some?

“Students are juggling academic and social pressures, aggravated by our fast-paced world. In response, campus communities are focusing on programs that provide respite and nurture the development of balanced, healthy lifestyles. We create places of wellbeing to accommodate individual reflection and lively gatherings." Janette Blackburn, FAIA, LEED-AP, NCARB, principal

Bringing together campus life

We designed the Commons for the University of New England (UNE), in Biddeford, Maine, to encompass student life as a whole—addressing academic and social constructs. The building was conceived as a multipurpose venue, housing the main dining hall, offering flexible event and communications spaces, and fluidly connecting study rooms to common areas and recreation spaces. To link student life with academic endeavors and locale, the Commons is sited at the intersection of several main campus pathways and features stunning views of the nearby Saco River from every floor.

We created the interior palette using colors, patterns, and elements that reflect the surrounding natural landscape, while also connecting it to UNE’s campus in Morocco. The Commons is a single building designed to feel like a village—a coming together of multiple aspects of campus life, representing the variety of programs housed within it and the entire student body.

Time and again, we have observed that good design decisions directly translate into an atmosphere of belonging and inclusivity. Diverse learning styles, modes of thinking, and a myriad of activities need thoughtfully imagined spaces that promote students’ wellbeing and success.