June 4, 2020

How Campus Architects and Planners Thought About Reopening for Fall 2020

Advising Leaders, Forecasting Trends

By Elliot Felix and Kelly Sanford

Editor’s note: In May 2020, brightspot held sessions with campus architects and planners to understand how they were responding to the pandemic and preparing for their future. A lot has changed since then but the reason we brought these leaders together remains the same: there is value in collaborating with peers during a time of crisis to share concerns, navigate challenges, and move ahead together – and these ideas remain relevant for emerging from the crisis stronger than before.

In early May, brightspot held sessions with leaders in student affairs, professional schools, campus architects, and libraries to understand how institutions were responding to the pandemic and preparing for their future. What follows is a summary of three themes cutting across conversations with 38 institutions as well as five lessons learned specifically from a conversation with 20 campus architects and planners. We are sharing what we learned in the spirit of helping others navigate challenges and move ahead. 

“Being together is a big part of education – being introduced to new people and new ideas. How do we ‘double down’ on the value of place to make the interactions of people learning from one another even better than before?” – Campus Architect 

Charles Library at Temple University

Part I: What are colleges and universities most concerned about for the fall?

A. Decision-making in the face of uncertainty is a challenge: Institutional leaders face uncertainty about the future of their institutions, as multiple drivers for decision making remain in flux. Although surveys indicate that many students are still planning to return to campus (or at least remain enrolled in some capacity), it remains unclear how these decisions may change over the summer months.

Along with enrollment uncertainty comes budget uncertainty, compounded by anticipated cuts made to state and federal funding. Finally, absent federal guidelines, institutions are stuck in the tricky place of planning around changing local health guidelines, which not only change in response to local virus prevalence, but also change as we learn about how the virus spreads. In the face of uncertainty, identify the trends – our whitepaper on the future of higher ed can help – and then use scenario planning to create the different futures to plan for. 

Chronicle of Higher Education’s Tracker on Reopening Plans (n = 830 as of 5/29/2020)

B. Adapting spaces for social distancing: Considering changes for the fall, adapting spaces for social distancing was an overwhelming concern across student affairs, professional schools, campus architects, and library leaders. Quantitative guidelines for precisely how much distance should be used for retrofitting new building and furniture layouts are just emerging now (e.g., Does 6’ apart translate to a 3’ radius, or a 6’ radius, when it comes to furniture placement? FEMA recommends 113 sf per seat) These concerns were especially acute when considering housing and dining facilities which traditionally rely on high density and shared fixtures.

The American College Health Association (ACHA) has released a set of guidelines and weekly webinars discussing various elements of campus life. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has a Reoccupancy Assessment Tool that includes a checklist of considerations and recommendations for reopening facilities. Regardless of what planning metrics are used, colleges know that the future campus will be less dense, and can start by assessing their existing spaces, tracking assumptions, and aligning strategies to phases set forth by governing authorities.   

AIA Hierarchy of Controls for COVID-19 (adapted from NIOSH)

C. Institutions need new norms for the new normal: In addition to changes in spaces, systems, and operations, new behavioral norms will be needed for testing, reporting symptoms, wearing masks, opting into tracking systems, off-campus activities, and much more. Once norms are defined, institutions must orient members of the campus community through communication and training, and maintain norms by modelling them (such as through designated peer ambassadors) and reinforcing protocols with consistent signage.

Creating and communicating the norms is the first step — monitoring and accountability come next. You’ll need to develop policies and protocols for accountability such as establishing monitors/enforcers, reporting structures for non-compliance, and disciplinary action. There are many resources out there on creating and maintaining norms; among the most accessible are Cialdini’s Influence and Sunstein and Thaler’s Nudge and the Heaths’ Switch. Perhaps the best way to think about this is with an analogy: if space is the hardware, norms are the software. They have to work together.

Poll results on the biggest challenge (n= ~60)

Part II: What’s on the mind of Campus Architects and Planners?

brightspot held a conversation with 20 campus architects and planners from across the country, both small and large, public and private. The group we spoke to felt the transition to remote work and had been successful. They celebrated increased productivity and decision-making while acknowledging that serendipity, nuance, and critical thinking may be diminished. As leaders of capital projects with domain over the physical campus, they were concerned about the potential to both over- and under-react in regards to long-term projects and more immediate retrofitting. They are navigating situations in which they are responsible for things they can’t control (e.g., evolving local health guidelines). Finally, they see an opportunity to emerge from this crisis stronger than before.

“We’ve always had so much space. Now the conversation is shifting: How might we have less empty space? How are we going to create capacity by spacing people out? Where can we reclaim space to allow this to happen? How can we allow people who can, to stay home?”

  1. Remote work is going well. Fortunately, many campus architects and planners report that their staff have adapted well to the remote work environment. Going forward, they seek to formalize a remote work program and policy to determine who returns and who stays remote, along with tools, training, and adjustments to space and schedules. Leaders seek solutions that are safe so that more vulnerable staff can stay online and decisions about who works when and from where are fair and equitable. This flexwork program we created with the University of Minnesota might be a good model. 
  2. Things are getting done right, but are they the right things? Andrew Carnegie noted that leadership is doing the right things and management is doing things right. In that spirit, many campus architects and planners acknowledged increased productivity, leaner processes, and greater access/availability for meetings – but many also feared that serendipity, nuance, and critical thinking might be lost. There are lots of ways to prioritize such as the Eisenhower Urgent-Important matrix, but the important thing is to step back to check for alignment with your broader goals and to set aside designated unscheduled time like office hours so you can deal with the important, non-urgent things.
  3. Leaders are concerned about overreacting or under-reacting and how projects already in the pipeline need to change. Many institutions have big projects that are in design or under construction. The pandemic is prompting questions about whether it makes sense to keep those large lecture halls or all that office space. While there are no easy answers to this, there are some clear trends that our whitepaper identifies.
  4. Planners feel caught in the middle at times, with responsibility for the campus but limited control over it. Decisions about classes, research, dorms, and athletics may be driven by state/local guidelines or other considerations outside the realm of the campus architect or facility planner. Besides the classic tips on influencing without authority, one way to get ahead of the curve is to communicate what you can do; for instance, what are the future capacities in classrooms based on what assumptions?
  5. Institutions want to emerge from the crisis stronger than before. A crisis is a terrible thing. A crisis is also a terrible thing to waste. Many campus architects and planners want to be sure they’re not losing long-term opportunities for change with what they are doing in the short term. So, maybe now is the time to make big changes. Perhaps institutions can enable more flexible, remote work and decrease office space? Maybe large classes move online (where they should be anyway) and large lecture halls are repurposed into large active learning labs with tables on tiers? Or institutions could move the infrequently used library books and journals to off-site storage to free up space for students? 
Examples of Academic Workplace Innovation

We hope these reflections and resources help you move forward and we welcome your thoughts and comments. To complement this information, you can read our whitepaper on higher education after COVID-19 peaks, learn how students are feeling about the pandemic from our student experience snapshot survey, consult the resources we compiled on navigating the crisis, and refer to this article with guidance on reopening with care. Good luck as you move ahead!

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