Unprecedented changes are taking place on college and university campuses. We’re in uncharted territory. What role will building design play in mitigating disease transmission – can we change how we design the built environment to make it healthier? Modern buildings are generally designed to promote social mixing. By promoting interaction and chance encounters, open layouts are thought to generate more creativity and teamwork – and yet, these open layouts are also very efficient in spreading viruses like Covid-19. Here are some ideas regarding what changes we might find as higher education opens back up and we go back (eventually) to the campus.
Classrooms, Labs and Breakout Spaces
Even though standards and methods have changed over the years, the paradigm remains constant: humans have taught for millennia in a communal setting. Whether a teacher imparts knowledge from the front of the room, whether students gather in groups within the room to work on projects together, whether the room has a door or is simply an alcove, learning generally happens within a defined space.
- The current standard size for a classroom of approximately 30 students is about 900 square feet and is generally furnished with two-person movable desks and seats, a lectern, and 1-2 fixed screens or whiteboards. We may assume that the room dimensions are about 30’ x 30’. With social distancing, the norm, locating students 6 feet apart reduces the number of students allowed in that room to nine, and the instructor makes ten.
- Teaching spaces are changing as colleges and universities adopt:
- Increased blended learning: teaching and learning with asynchronous (Canvas, Blackboard, D2L) and synchronous (Zoom) platforms can yield significant benefits when combined with the intimacy and immediacy of face-to-face instruction. Precious classroom time will be more productively utilized for discussion, debate and guided practice.
- Increased distance learning: colleges, once hesitant to adopt on-line learning are now evaluating which courses are best taught online.
- Classrooms may look less like the classrooms we’re used to, incorporating more of:
- Distance learning facilities – less classrooms, but more space for students to take a test, office space for instructors, or space where students may sit and take their online course, independently or with other students
- A shift from lectures in classrooms towards more hands-on learning laboratory spaces integrating both lecture and laboratory activities within the same class sessions – a strategy that helps students to retain newly learned information and skills – requiring a large flexible space
- A higher level of academic support and student services, tutoring, study, and student services online and in-person
- Lecture capture systems that would allow classes to be simultaneously taught both online and face-to-face
- Class scheduling may change due to reduced density: with a limited amount of teaching spaces accommodating a reduced number of students allowed within each classroom based on social distancing, additional class sections might be necessary, and these additional sections might be scheduled at times and days very different than what we’re used to
Entries, Public Lobbies & Circulation
Almost all students use smart cards and other technology to enter campus buildings electronically. This is a simple procedure that has kept resident halls and campus buildings – especially after hours – safe. To combat the invisible intruder Covid-19, campus buildings must take on an additional layer of security.
- Touchless entry: automated via ID-card, facial recognition, cellphone-controlled entry will become the norm (yes, even in the parking garage!)
- Distancing at entries: no entering the building as a group, no holding doors open, no loitering in public areas. Enter singularly, slowly, and walk into…
- Wellness screening at entries, including temperature screening, and a series of questions regarding travel, etc.
- Plastic guards
- Hand sanitizing at intervals throughout the building: if it existed before, it will be increased
- One-way hallways and corridors
- Lobby furniture removed or relocated to accommodate social distancing
- No guests allowed!
Residence Halls / Dorm Rooms
Will the shared dorm room go the way of the dinosaurs? Will the single become the wave of the future? What happens to shared bathrooms? Students spend a great deal of time in their housing facilities, and colleges and universities have always used residence halls to foster a sense of community on campus. Today’s new and renovated housing projects offer a variety of common areas – lounges, seminar rooms, game rooms, and other socially-oriented amenities that offer opportunities for students to engage in conversation and interaction – for just this purpose. What happens now?
- The hotel industry is predicting the incorporation of self-cleaning bathrooms as well as pod rooms – smaller modular spaces that can be sealed off from other guests while also offering the ability to be quickly torn down and disinfected.
- Reconfigured space to eliminate communal bathrooms:
- Provide private bathrooms for each bedroom
- Rearrange communal bathrooms so that fixtures are separated (as for gender-neutral)
- Staggered times assigned to use communal facilities
- Use of apps software to schedule communal spaces, with pre-assigned and staggered hours for usage
- At a minimum, rearrangement of furniture to accommodate social distancing in communal areas
- The creation of more defined spaces geared toward specific tasks, with specific schedules:
- Rooms dedicated to virtual reality
- Rooms dedicated to distance learning
- The disappearance of some spaces: for example, in-residence fitness centers. Social distancing, staggered schedules and cleaning can be handled more efficiently at the campus recreation center.
- Movement of some activities outdoors
- Less, or no, person-to-person communication with housing staff: communication by telephone
- While the above measures are concrete, visible activities that may, and in many instances, should be undertaken, the college or university will want to create a sense of well-being, of a being a safe haven. To provide that sense of safety, the institution might:
- Provide spaces that encourage movement and relieve stress: yoga, meditation
- Incorporate biophilic design by at least providing clean air and natural light
- Provide water stations
- Provide kits with gloves, masks, sanitizer, and safety guidelines
- Provide isolation spaces for students or staff who test positive
- Parents – and students – will want to be reassured that, as students are finally moving back in, the college or university is providing the healthiest environment possible, and that all possible precautions are being taken.
Technology / Materials
COVID-19 has sped up the incorporation of all types of touch-less technology—automatic doors, voice-activated elevators, cellphone-controlled entry, hands-free light switches, and temperature controls, sensor-based lighting, sensor-based plumbing fixtures, more opportunities for handwashing and sanitizing, as well as incorporating RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology.
Designers will increasingly specify antibacterial fabrics and finishes, including those that already exist – like copper – and those that will inevitably be developed. Easily cleanable tile and sheet flooring may replace carpet, and fabrics will be “wipeable”, able to be sanitized. We can look to the materials used in healthcare design to provide guidance. BTW: certain manufacturers no longer recommend the use of anti-microbials in fabrics. Antimicrobial treatments protect products from degradation by microbes and bacteria. They are not intended to decrease infection among humans and do not work against viruses such as Covid-19.
Cleaning / Sanitation
Pre Covid-19, a building custodian literally swept through the academic building, sweeping floors, occasionally wiping surfaces, primarily emptying trashcans and disposing of the general flotsam that hundreds of students and faculty passing through left behind at the end of the day. Post Covid-19, this will change.
- Reducing the spread of infections by maintaining high levels of cleanliness is extremely important. Many procedures that hospitals and healthcare facilities currently practice can, and should, be implemented across a wider array of buildings types, from copper handles to improved ventilation designs, to interiors targeted at cleaning efficiency.
- A more systemic approach to cleaning might include:
- Increased personnel (roving teams that clean buildings several times per day)
- Upgraded strength, CDC and EPA-approved, cleaning solutions and disinfectants Increased cleaning and disinfecting of touchpoints (door hardware, elevator buttons, handrails) several times per day
- Use of smart towels and microfiber towels, Implementation of the “one room/one mop” policy hospitals use, and flat surface cleaning of tables and counters
- Increased trash collection
- Automated systems that include misters that spray a disinfectant over surfaces to kill germs, viruses and bacteria, as well as spray and vac (no touch) cleaning systems currently in use in many facilities
- The use of anti-microbial foggers to allow after-hours disinfection of entire rooms
- Systemized, electronic training
- Making as many surfaces as touch-free as possible
- Universities and colleges will have to monitor continually evolving CDC Guidelines specific to Colleges and Universities.
While the current social distancing seems to be a necessary reaction to a pandemic, it’s reasonable to think that concerns about future viruses might encourage architects to design with an eye toward open spaces that enable and encourage people to spread out while still interacting with each other. We’ll never get to the point where we completely avoid public gathering – humans are social animals – and it is the shared spaces and places that create common experience and individual and community wellbeing. We really do live in a world in which we are all very connected. We simply may have to become a bit less physically so, until vaccines and effective treatments can be developed, allowing us to return to what used to be considered “normal”.