by Lily del C. Berrios, AIA and LEED BD&C Principal, Sizemore Group

Pandemic Awakening: A series of reflections on how COVID-19 will impact the design of cultural places and beautiful spaces.

Higher education institutions face unprecedented challenges as campuses reopen following the global shutdown. Leaders have been forced to consider logistical, capital and social changes to campus life in order to ensure the health and safety of staff and students.

To help campuses resume, Sizemore Group is working with higher education clients to create spaces that adjust to the current pandemic. As architects in a pandemic, we have been given the opportunity to rethink how the physical design of spaces contribute to the cultural experience of institutions. It is imperative that we design spaces in higher education that could better respond to pandemic life in the future.

Education institutions need to focus on ensuring physical and mental wellbeing–during the current pandemic and potentially more in the future–by:

  • Lowering densities
  • Optimizing human interaction 
  • Providing natural lighting
  • Improving access to air quality
  • Using more exterior spaces 
  • Providing concentration spaces

How do we accomplish this through strategic design? Some physical and logistical changes could include:

  • Fewer seats and workstations on campus 
  • Increasing or creating new virtual setting styles that make you feel ‘in the experience’
  • Changing pedestrian access and flow in buildings
  • Limiting the use of basic common items, such as drinking fountains and seating benches
  • Increasing the use of outdoor areas and lounges for teaching and meeting
  • Optimizing human encounters to better meet mental, emotional and cultural needs 

Sizemore Group is working with Gwinnett Technical College to add a canopy space to its new academic building to ‘bring the indoor out.’ The below design provides a covered area for exterior space for classes and activities.

Sizemore Group is also working with a higher education client to retrofit modular labs that were unoccupied. The retrofit would bring them back to their original use as BSL2 labs. In this case, the university is making an investment targeted to last more than five years.

Another higher education client is working with Sizemore Group on a temporary conversion to last not more than two years. Part of the scope of work includes the ‘post COVID’ design as it is intended to return to 80 percent of its original use.

Overall, higher education institutions are considering major changes to everything they’ve done before. 

Classroom Occupancy
Education institutions are faced with the need to reduce classroom sizes to maintain social distancing, in some cases down to 20 to 25 percent of the original capacity. To accomplish these smaller class sizes, schools are considering a hybrid model of online and onsite learning. We are seeing a dramatic shift to at least ‘hybrid’ delivery. Schools are looking into increasing the number of classroom facilities on site, but that does not account for instructor teaching capacities. 

Lab Occupancy
Schools are looking at ways to reduce the number of students in lab spaces, which requires a more hands-on, in-person teaching style. For science courses, there may be a shift to virtual simulation softwares to accomplish lab curriculum. 

Performing Arts Spaces
Reducing the number of occupants within performing arts spaces presents more challenges. It may take over a year to return these spaces to normal. It is difficult to host auditions and group performances while distancing. For example, choirs rehearse and perform as a large group in a small area, intaking and exhaling at a higher than normal rate. 

Grading
With decreases in class sizes, education institutions are reassessing how they track progress and completion of courses, as well as how they grade students who are attending virtually versus in person. 

Student Services
Institutions are considering what services traditionally offered on campus can now be shifted online. If services are held on campus, considerations are being made for how many students can be served in the same space and by appointment. 

Residence Halls
If universities reopen residence halls, they will likely only allow single occupancy, which will cause a loss of revenue. Other solutions are to seek residences for students off campus at apartments or hotels. Some campuses have hired moving companies to handle moving day for students; items will be dropped curbside and delivered to individual rooms by the moving company to minimize the number of people in the buildings.

Student Lounges
Campuses are considering removing or reducing the number of chairs and benches in student lounges and outdoor spaces. 

Sports and Large Events
Universities have been postponing events, reducing the number of sports per season, and limiting the number of spectators.

Access and Transportation
Urban areas are struggling to determine how students and staff, who traditionally use mass transit, should safely travel to campus. Campus buses, now being fitted with plexiglass between rows, will need to adjust to lower densities. 

Administrative Space
There may be a return to enclosed offices over open stations. Seating in reception areas, break rooms and meeting rooms will be monitored. 

Libraries
Libraries are adapting to accomodate a demand for online resources, as well as technology to address increasing concerns about cyber security and privacy. Institutions are determining the best ways to sanitize books, materials and study spaces. 

Cleaning and Sanitation
Campuses are considering the frequency of cleaning and sanitizing their buildings, as well as whether current staff is trained to do what will be needed.

IT and AV
The increase in online learning has pushed IT and AV departments to make major advances in infrastructure–to support and distribute access–and equipment–to accommodate more laptops, enhanced screens, monitors, recording and broadcasting. These departments are also considering room configuration–redoing typical classrooms to accommodate virtual learning. This means much better lighting, acoustics, cameras, two-way engagement software, etc. Additionally, IT and AV staff are being trained to record and produce courseware, as well as update policies to address new concerns about access, privacy and cyber security.

Air Purification
Academic institutions are considering the best type of HVAC air filtration systems to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In recent ASHRAE publications regarding the transmission of airborne diseases, the focus has been on enhanced filtration and increased ventilation air as the primary strategies for mitigation.  There is a secondary focus on utilizing UV-C technology and other unproven, emerging technologies.