Our old science building, from the 1960s, had only one room that was easily available to students, and it sucked. The table was too big, leaving hardly any room for chairs. And the chairs were all rejects from elsewhere, and all were uncomfortable.
But there were always students in that room, doing whatever they had to do, conversing with one another, bursting out to find one or more faculty, whose offices were nearby, or to go to classes, which were also nearby. Proximity was a major reason why they used this horrible space. So was the simple act of getting together. Space mattered.
So when we designed our new science building (early 2000s), we wanted to include lots of student space, and the architects helped us get it.
There are expanded areas near landings and along railings, most of it close to classrooms and not far from laboratories. The soft chairs and small tables are used throughout the day.
We made clusters of faculty offices, and left a common area in each cluster with a table, white board, and simple, comfortable chairs. Some areas also have a microwave and mini-fridge, which students often ask to share, hardly ever abuse, and have never stolen.
There are also dedicated study rooms with tables and comfortable chairs. They have glass walls and lots of windows with nice views. While we were arranging the new furniture, the students helping us suggested that we add white boards. So we added white boards. We prevented faculty and administrators from reserving these rooms for meetings (the person in charge of reserving rooms was kind enough to take them off the list). Students always have priority. Students use these rooms all the time, write on the white boards all the time, and when they are preparing for exams, write on the glass walls, too. Yes, dry erase marker can be erased from glass.
One entrance to the building has a three-story atrium, and there are soft chairs, a few sofas, and small tables. Sometimes events require additional tables and chairs for a conference or meal, and students love to sit at the tables before and after the event for as long as the tables are present (no, they don’t mess up any tablecloths).
Another entrance has a two-story foyer and a small, carpeted area with a two chairs. These were the only wooden chairs we put in the building, and they are hardly ever used. We hadn’t expected them to be used because of the high traffic so close to the entrance, so we put in these exotic-looking chairs that were visually attractive, but uninviting. When someone brought a soft chair from another building, it was immediately used a lot. We should have put in soft chairs from the start.
Above that entrance is a balcony near three faculty offices and a conference room. We put in soft chairs and a small table, but students hardly ever sit there, and we still aren’t sure why. Maybe it’s because the conference room is often available, and has a white board. Maybe it’s because there are decent chairs in the nearby common area shared by the faculty offices. Maybe it’s too far from the classrooms, all of which were at the other end of the building. It’s a mystery.
The conference rooms are often used for faculty and administrative meetings, but there are plenty of times when they are empty. That’s when students move in. Students are particularly attentive to the presence of meetings in which food was served. When the meetings end, students grab the leftovers. But even without food, students know about and use the space.
One of the enclosed stairwells has windows, so we put in a nice wooden bench on one of the landings next to the window. In fifteen years, I have seen one student on that bench. I used it more often than the students. Maybe if the bench had cushions, it would have been more attractive. I certainly would have used it more myself.
Overall, even though we would change a few things about a few spaces, most of them worked as we had hoped. And there is no doubt that students would have used more spaces if they were near the action (faculty, classrooms, traffic) and attractive (soft seating and tables).
In short, student space matters.
And space doesn’t design itself. We consulted students during the design process, and faculty discussed it at length (Kim Schandel, Brian Niece, Stuart Cromarty, Ed Dix, and Steve Theroux all contributed). The architectural team at EYP, led by Heather Taylor, incorporated our wishes through their expertise, giving us the wonderful Richard and Janet Testa Science Center. Everyone deserves a huge amount of credit for contributing to a great process that led to a great result.