Colleges and universities are faced with the difficult challenge to not only recover but completely change their traditional educational models. As we adjust to this post-pandemic world with new restrictions on occupancy, the bricks and mortar of the past is not suited to six-foot spacing and one-way circulation rules. The convergence of a shifting educational model and the restrictions on space is where many administrators and deans are today.
With enrollment declines mounting, colleges and universities must make a change or face closure. The sudden shock of COVID-19 and the accelerated shift to online learning showed institutions that it is in fact possible to completely shift their educational models and still be successful. However, in order to be sustainable, institutions must consider whether the system showed brief resilience to crisis or whether the flipped classroom was better suited for learning. Additionally, administrators must continue to identify and address mental health needs of online students, not to mention the amount of reopening restrictions and regulations that must be carefully followed. Fortunately, the shift to online learning has been evolving for many years. Mid-western community colleges learned early in the mid-90s to offer classes to students beyond commuting distance.
Now, as higher education establishes ways to adapt, instead of “bouncing back,” perhaps this time can be used to strategize ways to “bounce forward”.
This is where architects and planners have the edge. They have the skill and experience to synthesize a large amount of information and generate solutions that maximize health, safety, and well-being of all people living, working, and visiting a community. Planning includes health and safety, the natural environment, economic factors, physical buildings, social implications, and future casting. Architects think about everything from code enforcement to circulation to how individuals interact with the space to material choices that may impact the spread of disease. Proper planning and design creates resilient systems that can endure changes and meet any challenge.
Massry Art Center at the College of St. Rose
Reexamining the Facilities Master Plan
What will the future hold for colleges and universities as they move forward with strategic planning? As institutions navigate uncharted models of post-pandemic higher education there are many opportunities to reimagine their traditional campus. It is important that institutions remember that, while they may be outwardly remote and disparate, they need to remain internally centralized. Students, faculty, and staff need to feel at ease that their resources are still found in one place. However, as the on-campus population decreases – perhaps due to new online learning options – and occupancy restrictions limit gathering spaces, it is necessary to consolidate these core functions.
Communal spaces and circulation paths should not be overlooked when moving forward. Many colleges and universities do not employ universal design when creating foot paths throughout their campus. As the push for social distance and one-way circulation becomes a design standard, some colleges may enact solutions that are inadvertently harmful to some of their students. Consider a standard sidewalk that typically allows for multiple directions of traffic. If it is determined that sidewalks become one-way circulation from building to building, and they include stairs or other obstacles, differently abled students may not be able to navigate these spaces with ease. This is why it is important to consult with trained architects and planners experienced in circulation, ergonomics, and how humans negotiate spaces.
As communities everywhere learn to cope, there may be new partnerships that are waiting to be made. Colleges and universities may face decisions to divest in their satellite or off-campus buildings, but may find new opportunities to align themselves with local businesses that need new spaces to create appropriately distanced workspaces. These partnerships can create synergistic relationships through financial security, community value, and training/internship programs. Determining how to create this partnership or discovering new sources of funding are just another aspect to planning.
Calice Advanced Manufacturing Center at SUNY Broome
Rethinking Residential Communities
Administrative professionals at residential colleges have struggled with meeting enrollment goals, accommodating over-enrollment, and managing space confines, all while maintaining the safety, health, and well-being of the students living in those spaces. In recent years, the stress of meeting enrollment goals has forced colleges into adopting triple and quad room styles. Coupled with the increase in mental health needs of many current and incoming students, residential colleges were faced with the dilemma of accommodating student needs while meeting institutional and operational goals.
As colleges scrambled to move students out, residential departments were on the frontline, managing logistics and backlash. It was discovered that that not all students could return home and the very occupancy issues they faced year by year hit an extreme as they determined where to relocate their on-campus students. Had residence halls adopted suite-style, single rooms, many of the issues with student health and safety, the security of their belongings, and move out may have been alleviated if not avoided.
Prior to COVID-19, it seemed impossible, if not completely irrational, to reduce on-campus populations. However, with social distancing and the need for self-quarantine, smaller populations allow for ease of access. With occupancy restrictions, multi-student rooms may become obsolete. This is why it is important to reimagine the student residential experience.
Assessments and Utilization
During these traditionally slower summer months, institutions look to determine when reopening will be. While some are pushing to partially open in fall, others are holding off and only offering online classes until they can offer a full semester in spring. By extending remote policies until spring, some colleges can use the fall semester to address their needs and goals as informed by new policies. This would give time to complete a building inventory and space utilization study without disrupting coursework.
While the fear may be that students will experience a lack of engagement or miss a crucial aspect of communal pride and oneness, offering ways for students to have a voice and a hand in the “design” of their college may provide valuable insights, as well as a sense of ownership.
Architects and planners are well versed in community engagement both in person and online. Combining shareholders, trustees, faculty, staff, students, and community members, colleges have an opportunity to create a realistic and effective plan for continued use of their on-campus facilities.
The nuances of spatial planning, resource allocation, building utilization, and universal design are easily understood by architects and planners. They recognize not only the bottom line, but the life cycle costing and long term effects that decisions have on their clients. Colleges and universities should not enter this new world alone. Planning for the future post-COVID-19 will take a considerable amount of time and expertise. The best outcomes arise when experts and community members are engaged in the design process.