How will campuses change because of COVID-19?

Colleges and universities on way to becoming more adaptable, equitable, and sustainable
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
By Elliot Felix, Kelly Sanford, David Herd, and Stuart Brumpton

Higher education experienced 10 years of change in about 10 days. Learning moved online. Staff moved to remote work. Research went largely digital. Student life and support services became virtual. This has left colleges and universities questioning how much space will be needed in the future campus, how it will be operated, and how to make our built environment more healthy, sustainable and resilient.

Facilities planners and managers are faced with short- and long-term challenges simultaneously. In the short-term, they are assessing systems and spaces for health, density for social distancing, and new operations such as frequent cleaning and expanded hours. In the long-term, they are taking a fresh look at the balance of spaces on campus. If 30 per cent of our workforce plans to stay remote, what does this mean for our office spaces? If a 300-person course can be taught more effectively in an online module, can we repurpose some of our lecture halls? Are learning and working online the new swing space?

Planners and managers are working to determine how to get the most value out of their spaces and seeking to strengthen that value. Rather than default to expansion, this also means working with what’s already in the portfolio, monetizing excess space, and putting speculative construction on hold (except projects already funded or in the works, particularly those that are donor-funded). This reflection on how to improve experiences and efficiency together can also be an important part of staving off a campus closing all together. In the U.S., many estimates foresee about a quarter of institutions at risk.

Thinking about space, services, staffing, and systems together

As people return to the campus or workplace, facilities teams will play an important role in developing and maintaining socially vibrant, healthy, and technologically-enabled environments whose performance enables the positive experience for people and resilience for the future.

To play this role, facilities teams will have to monitor and act on both hard and soft data. Hard data will consider air quality, energy/water consumption, space utilization, and people flow. Softer data will include comfort and experience, gathered by taking the pulse of students, faculty, and staff. Using a mixed suite of analytical data and dashboards to make sense of them, facilities teams can make data-driven, evidence-based decisions that empower the institution to maximize both efficiency and experience of their campus assets through real-time insights. From these data come strategic updates, in both the short and longer term, that can be made and continually analyzed and optimized as the environment changes. This need for an agile and responsive approach will allow confidence to grow, adapt, and test future resilience and implications of achieving carbon, water, waste, and other sustainability goals.

COVID-19 increased the adoption of technologies used to monitor, manage, and use spaces: a campus app with push notifications as you approach a closed building, daily temperature checks and symptom reporting, booking a seat in the library, ordering a meal before picking it up, monitoring utilization and occupancy in real-time. Going forward, technology will be more and more of an interface between people and the spaces we inhabit. We’ll all be living a hybrid, “phygital” experience that is part physical and part digital.

How will campuses and their operations change?

Different types of space will be impacted in different ways. Ultimately, space is built around use, and some activities will change more than others. In workplaces, some assigned desks will shift to hot desks, with more space designed for people to drop in one to two days a week in lieu of permanent desk assignments. Wet-lab researchers are outsourcing components of their experiments to off-site labs while dry labs have transitioned smoothly to remote work. Will this open up more space for wet labs in the long term? Libraries are also expanding virtual access to both services and collections—stack space will be replaced by collaborative hubs and new services. Housing has been de-densified and will likely stay that way, with more singles going forward. Dining is shifting to more pre-ordered or grab-and-go meals at smaller tables.

Colleges and universities will continue to move functions off campus that don’t need to be there, whether it’s the rarely used library books or back-office administrative functions. Many campuses are looking for ways to better utilize their outdoor spaces, not just for recreation but for meetings, study, and classes as well. With more PPE and pre-packaged meals, more stockpiling, and less sharing of everything from spaces to utensils, campuses will also need to review their storage, distribution, and waste strategies. Operationally, institutions must also balance two countervailing forces: their desire to centralize control to better manage assets more efficiently (i.e., centrally-scheduled classrooms) versus their desire to distribute functions that minimize contact and therefore risk (i.e., to create campus “neighbourhoods” with small cafes).

In terms of this “phygital” relationship between people and the built space around them, public health will be the main driver in the short-term. This will mean more focus on air quality, which has benefits beyond basic health, including enhancing wellbeing, productivity, and the positive perceptions of the space. Current industry guidance suggests one of the primary ways to minimize transmission of COVID-19 inside a space is an increase in both the ventilation rate and the amount of predominantly clean outside air. Institutions can look to optimize the existing systems along these lines and further increase quality with the addition of HEPA or UV filters. This may be challenging depending on the configuration of the systems.

Buildings that are designed around natural ventilation or mixed-mode ventilation will have an advantage here over sealed environments. Over the long term, building design will embrace historic architectural solutions employed before the advent of elevators and air conditioning, such as higher volume spaces, displacement ventilation, more daylight, operable windows, and wide stairs.

In addition to controlling any air-borne transmission, the physical contact that students and staff have with the environment can be minimized, with the added benefit of reduced cleaning costs.

The addition, or upgrade, of occupancy sensors for lighting and AV systems can reduce the need for switches, and card readers can also be linked to automatically opening doors. Data can be used to track and monitor performance of the systems and they can be optimized over time to reflect popular usage and occupancies.

Becoming more adaptable, equitable, and sustainable institutions

College and universities have been defined by their traditions, but their success now depends on their ability to change, especially to address structural issues like access, affordability, and equity.

Institutions are becoming more adaptable. Staff are not only working remotely; they are also doing new things with new technologies and leaner processes that remove layers of approvals.

The near universal adoption of remote-enabled technology has turned skeptics into advocates when it comes to things like providing remote student services, collaborating with colleagues across disciplines and departments through online tools, and even teaching online courses in a more engaging and intimate way. It also includes more outreach and partnerships with companies and communities who can fuel innovation, share space, and create economic opportunity.

A crisis is a terrible thing. It’s also a terrible thing to waste, and so as the initial fog of COVID-19 lifts, colleges and universities can become more adaptable, equitable, and sustainable.

Elliot Felix is founder and CEO of brightspot strategy, a strategy consultancy on a mission to transform the higher education experience by making it more engaging and equitable. Elliot is an accomplished strategist, facilitator, and sense-maker who has helped transform over 90 colleges and universities and is a frequent speaker on reimagining higher education.

Kelly Sanford is senior strategist at brightspot strategy. Kelly ignites dialog between college university stakeholders and leaders to co-create practical and innovative strategies for institutions. As an architect-turned-strategist, she believes great design balances a respect for existing context with fresh ideas and rigorous research. She always seeks to generate an experience that fits the place, community, and zeitgeist.

David Herd is managing partner of Buro Happold’s California region and has significant experience in high performance building design and sustainable master planning. David’s collaborative approach and distinct leadership skills have enabled his teams to achieve the highest levels of sustainability with innovative engineering solutions for over 75 higher education projects across the U.S.

Stuart Brumpton is a principal at Buro Happold. Stuart has over 25 years of experience delivering large, multidisciplinary integrated projects, including business schools at Carnegie Mellon University and Arizona State University. Having worked in the UK, Germany and the U.S. he brings international best practice to deliver engineering solutions addressing aesthetics, quality of space, site specific constraints and low carbon technologies.



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