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Factors Fueling a New Era for Campus Planning

Northwestern's new San Francisco satellite space is one example of how the institution is integrating its global brand into campus spaces. Image © Gensler.

Earlier this year, The Atlantic published a story depicting a new normal for higher education—one fraught with a dwindling pipeline of enrollees, rising tuition costs and an increase in school closings. It posits that the increased savvy of the higher-ed shopper, coupled with years of criticism around rising tuition costs and student debt, have driven universities to a tightened economic reality. In a climate where every dollar counts, universities are getting smarter about capital improvements to the campus and approaching decision-making more like today’s developer: What is the highest and best use of space on campus today? How can we ensure that the improvements we make appeal to our ‘customers’—students, faculty and staff—and keep them coming back for more? How does our brand go beyond school colors and evoke the true experience of our institution?

With this shift in approach, we as designers are increasingly becoming partners at the front-end of decisions about where and how the campus can improve. While physical condition and cost continue to inform capital budgets, the ability to weigh and measure these factors against more qualitative phenomena—brand strength, user experience and student success—can lead to better use of resources and greater impact.

For example, how might a process like renovating a library change if its success was measured against improved learning outcomes, freshman retention or faculty recruitment? Furthermore, in a community of diverse competing voices, there is a certain appeal in a decision-making process that yields data-driven, equitable, and objective outcomes. Across all types of institutions—no matter size, reputation or location—we’ve seen a hunger for a more informed, holistic approach that ties capital decisions to metrics that matter.

This year’s SCUP-52 Conference amplified the dialogue around this topic, giving us the opportunity to present with Northwestern University on a recent project that exemplifies this type of comprehensive approach to campus planning. This strategic process, which required a collaborative partnership between our interdisciplinary team and Northwestern, centered on campus common spaces, which comprise about 1.9M square feet of roughly 12M square feet of total real estate across the University’s Evanston and Chicago campuses. The process employs an approach informed by data, illustrating a paradigm that is indicative of this new era of campus planning.

First, some background

Northwestern established The Common Space Program to enhance the continuous renewal and recapitalization of the University’s interior common spaces with the fundamental goal of cohesively integrating the institution’s global brand across campus spaces. The impetus for this program stemmed from Northwestern’s recognition that the campus environment, and its common spaces in particular, serve as the first physical impression of the institution. Yet these spaces—lobbies, restrooms, stairs and corridors— are often left unmanaged or overlooked as a result of historic funding models. The desire to change the status quo coupled with several other factors—the opening of multiple new buildings, the recent launch of Northwestern’s branding campaign, and a renewed focus on strategically stewarding capital resources—created the initial need and led to the eventual success of this process.

The process started with understanding the current state, defining the future state, and conducting a gap analysis that would determine how Northwestern should strategically fund capital projects. Graphic © Gensler.

The process

Together with Northwestern, Gensler produced a data-driven tool for prioritizing common space projects and space guidelines that would serve as a design framework for implementing those projects on the sprawling university campus. The process was comprised of four main components:

Designing the Process: The process was comprised of four main components: the development of a set of Standards & Guidelines (Step 1); the assessment of all common spaces on campus (Step 2); a project prioritization based on a gap analysis of the current state of common spaces today vs. an aspirational future vision for common spaces (Step 3); and finally the implementation process for delivering these projects and messaging the program to campus stakeholders (Step 4).

Step 1: Standards & Guidelines

How do you develop a design framework for spaces that are diverse in context, age, style and type?

To address this question, we developed the Standards & Guidelines, a roughly 400-page document that provides a design framework for all common spaces on the campus. The bulk of the piece is devoted to a range of prescriptive standards and high-level guidelines for each type of common space. (For example: How might a lobby in an academic building differ from a restroom in an athletic facility?) A set of guiding principles and aesthetic story form the fundamental basis of the document, developed through a robust stakeholder process.

Gensler's Observe tool allowed the team to customize survey questions to address physical condition, brand strength, and experience. Graphic © Gensler.

Step 2: Space Assessment

How do you evaluate space based not only on objective measures, like physical condition and cost, but also on qualitative measures, like user experience and brand strength?

Understanding the current state of common spaces was critical in envisioning an aspirational future. Together with the Standards & Guidelines process, teams assessed each common space across both campuses using Gensler’s iPad-based observational analysis tool, called Observe. Spaces were assessed based on physical condition, but it was also critical to capture how users might experience the space, the brand strength of the space, and the overall impact of the space based on purpose and location. These categories served as our basis for the prioritization framework.

This slide provides an overview of the factors used in the prioritization; to determine utilization, wireless access points (5,000 in total) from both campuses served as a proxy for relative use across all 200+ buildings. Graphic © Gensler.

Step 3: Project Prioritization

How do you conduct a cost-benefit analysis based on physical condition, cost, experience and space utilization?

The prioritization framework essentially provided a cost-benefit evaluation to help Northwestern determine which renovation projects would give them the biggest bang for their buck. Using an analytical tool built in Excel, the team performed a gap analysis between the current state (as revealed from the assessments) and the future state (as envisioned in the Standards & Guidelines) based on a set of criteria: physical condition, cost, utilization, and experience. The prioritization allowed Northwestern to put into place a more equitable and objective decision-making process that took into account both quantitative and qualitative factors.

Step 4: Implementation

How are resulting projects implemented as a result of a program like this, and how do you guide the broader community of your institution to honor and utilize the tools created?

Northwestern recognized that the success of a program like this lies in strong advocacy, stakeholders’ commitment to regular use of the tools and a broad approach to messaging. To that end, the core committee leading this effort for the University has conducted a robust process to provide context to this initiative, why it’s important and how it can be used.  This committee of representatives from across the campus serves as advocates and champions, constantly working to communicate the importance of the Common Space Program. As part of the project, materials were developed to introduce the program, provide context for its purpose, structure and illustrate how it can be used as each phase of the design process.

What this means

This project offers a solution that can be applied to many variations of the same challenge that institutions face today: how to steward resources most effectively in the face of high expectations and a volatile financial outlook for higher education. This type of process is also scalable with the potential to be applied at a campus-wide level or more department-focused; it can be addressed by a facility team or other departments across the campus depending on the question at hand; and it can be utilized with varying levels of funding amounts. This ability to align resource spending with campus experience has begun to create a new platform for universities, opening up the possibilities of what it means to plan for the future.

The project was recognized in the 2017 Gensler Research + Innovation Awards (GRIA) program, where juror Kim Erwin, associate professor at the IIT Institute of Design, noted that “The project takes the idea of space inventory to an entirely different plateau. It took a real estate approach and made it an institutional approach.”

Meghan is one of Gensler's Firmwide Education leaders, co-leading a global team focused on the design of innovative learning environments. Her work on a broad range of project types with various education clients has developed her experience across all aspects of the design process. You can contact her at meghan_webster@gensler.com.
Lauren is the Brand Design Center of Excellence leader in the Northcentral region. She plays a key role in managing diverse project types integrating strategy, brand design and analytics. Her experience leading multidisciplinary teams has given Lauren the ability to collaborate with a wide range of practice areas looking to solve challenging design problems. Contact her at lauren_wanski@gensler.com.