Higher ed architect on transforming campuses in the COVID-19 era

Rethinking learning spaces, residence halls, lab spaces and more as colleges re-open and prepare for the future
By: | June 16, 2020
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Change is coming to campuses as they reopen to a “new normal,” at least for the fall. But according to one architect with significant higher ed experience, the pandemic puts colleges and universities on a familiar path.

“The reaction to COVID is not a seismic shift,” says John Martin, a principal of Elkus Manfredi Architects, who has worked on master plans and individual buildings to integrate living, working and social activities on campuses and in cities. “It’s kind of where colleges and universities were headed already. It’s certainly an accelerator of some change that’s been coming to campuses incrementally.”

From where Martin sits, institutional leaders are thinking of the fall semester tactics separately from the future of 2021 and beyond. But they are planning for both near-term and long-term—and generally moving forward with new construction and renovation upgrades.

He believes officials should tap into the expertise of architects for guidance on re-opening. “We’re an important part of both the tactical and the strategic changes,” Martin says.

“I don’t know a single university president who called his architect first about what to do in this pandemic,” he quips. “But clearly we have a role to play in the physical planning.”

Learning spaces

Most campuses have already moved away from large lecture halls and toward flipped classroom models and having multiple places throughout campus suitable for small-group work. This should help allow for the ability to have, say, TA-led discussions, live, with small groups that can maintain social distancing as they meet, Martin says. With such spaces outfitted with light-moveable furniture, they can be rearranged as needed.

Furniture can also be removed in the short-term if necessary. And campuses are increasingly looking at purchasing fabrics and surfaces that are anti-microbial—although recent studies have shown that surface-borne transmission of the COVID-19 virus is relatively minimal.

The percentage of classroom space on campuses has generally been getting smaller and smaller, he says. “On the typical campus, less than 5% of the space is devoted to classrooms.” Small conference rooms, however, are highly flexible spaces. “If I’m a university president right now, I’d much rather have five 20-person rooms than one 100-person room.”

Academic spaces have been brought into living environments on campuses. “COVID will push the accelerator on that change,” Martin says.

He also anticipates that lab spaces will be in hot demand, with the pandemic motivating more young people to explore the sciences. Many colleges have already invested in interdisciplinary lab facilities that may accommodate fewer students in the short term to meet social distancing requirements.

Living spaces

COVID has forced some higher ed institutions to pivot on construction projects nearing completion. For example, residence hall project teams may be looking to eliminate all double rooms and increase the shower/student ratio. “Six to eight students sharing one shower is no longer acceptable. They’re now trying to figure out ways to take out toilets temporarily to add shower capacity,” Martin says. “It’s not a long-term but an immediate solution. It’s about maximizing opportunities to get as many students back on campus as possible.”

After all, residence life is a revenue-generating operation. And anything that can be done to increase safety and limit liability if students get sick will be done.

Overall, the shared bath has been vanishing in residence halls as they move to more private, gender-neutral toilets, Martin points out.

As for common areas, Martin is seeing overlap between commercial office spaces and student housing—from makerspaces and teamwork areas to video huddle rooms and open floor plans. In the short-term, such spaces can allow reduced capacity. For example, rooms built for teams or three or four can be independent study areas, and rooms designed for 15 may only accommodate four.

He doesn’t advise shutting down common areas altogether right now. “That common space at the ground floor of the residence hall is where that African-American kid from south side of LA can meet the kid from Brentwood, where the people from the south side of Chicago can meet the kid from suburban Chicago,” he says.

Dining facilities will also look different this fall and beyond. A few weeks ago, Martin got a call from the chief facilities officer at a prestigious small private institution, at which he was working on repositioning its 20,000-square-foot dining hall, which serves one-third of campus.

Now, instead of working with the preliminary site analysis (“after COVID, it’s all worthless,” the facilities officer says), he’s helping officials at the school to rethink dining, with food delivery and takeout models of huge importance now. “This might encourage the living/learning community concept,” he says, adding that the model dates back to the immersive environment that has its roots at Oxford. “Maybe there is no central dining hall on campus anymore. Maybe dining takes place in the residence halls.”

More guidance on getting campuses back open

A team of designers from LEO A DALY’s higher education practice have conducted a detailed study of guidelines for returning to campus and have applied them to academic buildings, residence halls and the campus overall. As the whitepaper explains, organizing students into live-learn cohorts can limit their exposure while providing social engagement that is central to the college experience.

Building systems

Mechanical and plumbing systems of buildings are getting a lot of attention, Martin says. Mechanical systems must exhaust the air rather than recirculate it—yet “even five-year-old mechanical systems don’t have these heavy HEPA-14 filters we’re going to now.”

As for individuals, Martin has a plea: Don’t bring your cell phone into the bathroom with you. Plastic phone covers and the electrical charge work to attract particles—and most campus toilets don’t have lids.

Installing lids on toilets is a practical, simple measure campus facilities leaders can take to help prevent sickness during this time, he adds.

Looking ahead, he would like to see buildings with greater ceiling heights, especially in common areas that call for more air circulation.

“Better air, better furniture, and probably less density for the foreseeable future—those are the things governing our common space design,” Martin says.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

More coverage of campus re-openings can be found on UB’s coronavirus page.