The Space Challenge: IHEs Are Building Facilities and Outdoor Spaces That Are Designed to Encourage Collaborative Learning, Social Interaction, and Student Well Being

Article excerpt

The Hilltop bakery at Mallinckrodt Center Washington University in St. Louis' (Mo.) student union, was once the social hub on campus. Students would flock to the meager 30-seat hot spot, famous for its smoothies and coffee shop vibe, before, between, and after classes. But because of its popularity, limited seating and space posed a problem. Inundated with socially hungry students (eating was often secondary), this was really the only place outside of the dorms where students could casualty interact with each other. But that all changed when the university renovated the interior of its five-story, 40-plus-year-old Olin Library, nestled in the heart of campus.

WHERE SOCIAL AND STUDY WORLDS COLLIDE

White it always attracted myriad students during finals time, the library was otherwise greatly underused. Its poor layout, outdated 70s decor, inflexible furniture, institutional-like lighting, and mass shortage of computers were to blame. But last May, when the $38 million renovation was completed, a much more efficient library emerged.

Boasting an additional 20,000 square feet, composed of a 150-seat, 24-hour cyber cafe on the first floor, wrap-around glass windows on art floors, softer furniture, a relaxing blue and green color scheme, new, energy efficient lighting, double the amount of computers, and group study rooms, the library has become a vibrant social and learning environment.

At least students and faculty seem to think so--library usage is up by 50 percent, says Susan Baker, dean of libraries and vice chancellor of information technology at the university. She suspects the new wireless environment was a big draw. "We didn't really know how many students had laptops until we provided them with outlets, network access, and a 100 percent wireless environment." About one third of students come to the library with laptops now, she says.

While the library's top floors are more study-focused, the first and second floors are bustling with activity. "I never would have thought the library would be a social place. But now if I ever want to run into someone, I know to go to the second floor of the library," says Shana Klein, a senior at Wash U. Between the cafe, which often serves as a 24/7 meeting ground for study groups, and the wrap-around windows, which allow students to "see and be seen," there's plenty of opportunity for social interaction. "Students love that they can do work but also see friends go by. It makes them feel less isolated," Baker says.

Of course, the library also caters to students who want to be more serious. It is, after all, a library. The top floors are intentionally designed to offer a much quieter and private atmosphere. In addition to offering private rooms, there are built-in nooks and crannies where thru-traffic and distraction are non-existent. Klein, who rarely visited the library prior to the renovation, now stops in at least once a day. "It's an all-in-one building. I can hang out, study, eat, and check my e-mail. It's my home away from home."

The positive response to this renovation comes as no surprise as Wash U. spent several months interviewing students and faculty to find out what exactly they wanted from a library. "We've built a lot of beautiful buildings on campus. None of them have had quite the same impact as the library," Baker says. "This facility was really designed around the needs of our students and faculty."

STUDENT-CENTRIC DESIGN

More and more IHEs are realizing the power of their design decisions. "With the growing focus on student life outside the classroom, facilities are starting to play a critical role in the transitional life between the social and intellectual environment," says Tom Kearns, principal for design at Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott architecture firm, based in Boston. The ultimate transitional facility is the student union. The 33,000-square-foot Hansen Student Center at Illinois Wesleyan University, demonstrates how a facility can effectively integrate the two environments. …