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Designing Campus Communities for Living and Learning

The Garage at Northwestern, Image: Garrett Rowland

This year Pamela Delphenich (PD) led a series of conversations on key issues surrounding the design of campus communities for living and learning. On May 18th she spoke with Henry Humphreys (HH), Dean of Students at Philadelphia University, former Senior Associate Dean for Student Life at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former Director of Residential Life, Boston College. They discussed what priorities are truly important in creating a holistic student experience that supports academics, wellness and social growth.

PD: How does on-campus student housing help students succeed on campus?

HH: When students arrive on campus, it is often their first time living away from home. It isn’t uncommon for them to have anxieties about academics, their social life, or even what their living environment will be like. Student housing, both on- and off-campus, helps eliminate, or at least minimize their anxieties around basic needs so they can focus on academics. By providing them with community, you make the students part of something where they can achieve a sense of purpose.

PD: You mentioned giving students a place to sleep, how does dining play into the equation?

HH: As with the residence halls, community dining helps students focus on their academics and wellness rather than their basic needs like food and shelter. But dining is really about more than eating. Both residential and retail dining create a place for quality decompression, which complements the often intense process of learning.

I was once in a private dining room at MIT with a group of alumni. Laughter from the main dining room was so loud that it disrupted our meeting, which the alumni found troublesome. I had to remind them that laughter, at MIT—during finals--is a good thing. Spaces for passive recreation, where students can be themselves and relax, help teach our students how to relax.

PD: We’ve spoken about places for living and relaxing. What are campuses doing to support learning outside of the classroom?

HH: In both new construction and renovation projects, campus planners are intentionally creating a progression of spaces, so that students have places to gather for collaboration in small and large groups. More and more urban institutions are designing dense high rises with small, efficient bedrooms, with a focus on common areas for students to gather for both learning and socializing. When they need to be alone, students can retreat to their bedrooms.

Image © Gensler

PD: With the rise of these efficient bedrooms, are there concerns about students feeling isolated?

HH: Absolutely, and planners are taking action to minimize such feelings. When you and I worked together at MIT we thought about renovating a pair of residential buildings, which date back to the early twentieth century. One idea that we considered was to enlarge the windows, so that even if you were alone, you could see others. Also at MIT, a recently renovated fraternity house transformed previously unused space by the elevators into small study rooms. With floor-to-ceiling windows, these rooms allow students to work individually without sacrificing the connection to their community.

PD: In addition to on-campus connections, today’s student population maintains many relationships online. How does that factor into planning?

HH: Today’s students are digital natives, they rely on technology for everything and feel handicapped if they don’t have 24/7 connectivity. Regardless of their intended function —academic, residential or administrative — buildings simply cannot have any dead spots for texting, mobile calls, video chats and even technologies that haven’t been invented yet.

PD: What do you think will define campus planning for living and learning in the next five to ten years?

HH: So many campuses plan for students of that moment, instead of the student of tomorrow. Today’s junior high students will make up the Class of 2026. Campuses must consider this demographic as they look ahead.

We must plan buildings that can be easily adapted over their life span to meet changing program and technology needs that will come with this group. Many institutions expect their new buildings to last 40-50 years, yet programming requirements typically shift after less than a decade. Consider the impact on the bottom line if a building designed today could be cost effectively modified every 10 to 20 years.

Successful businesses are already using their real estate portfolio to achieve their goals. Campus planners will follow this lead and tie their plans to their institution’s strategic and long-term goals such as retention, alumni engagement, and more. This will ultimately lead to success for the institution and its students.

Pamela Delphenich, FAIA, leads the Education practice area in the Boston office. Before rejoining Gensler after a gap of more than 25 years, she directed campus planning for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she spearheaded MIT 2030, establishing a 20-year vision for campus renewal and growth. Previously, she oversaw all physical design and development at Yale University, and directed Yale’s Framework for Campus Planning which established a roadmap for Yale’s comprehensive renewal program. Contact her at pamela_delphenich@gensler.com.