The following perspectives were to be presented at the March 2020 100th annual conference of the Association of College Unions International (ACUI), in collaboration with Orok Orok of Prairie View A&M University. The conference was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Randall Knight is an Associate Principal at MHTN Architects. He has nationwide experience serving a diverse list of higher education clients, in planning and designing student life facilities.

 

At MHTN, we are curiously exploring and sensitively seeking greater understanding of the complex dynamics of diversity and how design can lead to more enriching futures for all of us. The narratives and experiences of diverse and underrepresented communities are all around us and we have had the valuable opportunity to work with higher education professionals and students who are making a difference on the front line of inclusivity initiatives. The following perspectives, grounded in many years of design experience, seek to build momentum in our efforts to follow their example and do better.

Colleges and Universities should be places where students and faculty from diverse backgrounds come together to learn, set aside preconceptions, and collaborate. The confluence of these social dynamics engenders the foundational experience of Higher Education. Institutions seeking to enhance student experience and foster diversity innovation need to understand how planning and design can impact outcomes. Creating environments to welcome and promote diversity requires sensitivity to design factors that influence perception and inform interaction.

1) Power of Perception

Our understanding of space and light have psychological implications: compression/release, dim/bright, rank/fresh. These conditions stimulate positive and negative responses. Our senses are linked to the qualities of space and the “feel” of that space subsequently impacts our ability to connect with others. Our perception of an environment can be subconsciously imprinted onto our relationships.

Student organizations, especially small ones are sometimes shoe-horned into leftover spaces on campus, often of marginal quality and lacking uplifting psychological influences. Consequently, the associations we attribute with a cohort due to their physical environment forms a bias construct. Just as color has generational and gender overtones, so too our perception of environment can be subconsciously imprinted onto our relationships and interactions. Design has the power to modulate perception.

Many institutions do the best possible to support student groups. Capital maintenance is critical, regardless of facility age. While this cannot overcome all psychological shortfalls, it can help minimize disparity between winners and losers.

LGBTQ Resource Center, North Carolina Central University (NCCU). The Student Center will give the Center outside views overlooking the new campus quad.

 

2) Legacy of Symbols

Institutionalized bias operates on a scale high above the daily individual interactions on campus but has lingering impact on student culture and engagement. Institutional memory can extend beyond decades becoming colored by the symbolic presence of a University’s prized legacy. Symbols become the shorthand of identity, silently appropriating the values and stories of past generations. These are rarely nefarious, but the initial meaning has the unfortunate propensity to dull over time.

It is important to remember who is telling the story. The official account always attempts to reinforce institutional memory, but it is the anecdotes that tend to persist. Institutional stories are intended to unite but can often be blind to the underrepresented; they favor a “champion narrative.” Fortunately, there has been increased positive movement in the tectonic shifting of such narratives, away from misappropriated symbols of winners and losers, towards favoring student voices.

With so much digital messaging, stories are fleeting, and institutional branding has shifted to a virtual world. However, the old analog trappings of past heroes and accomplishments are still enthroned around campuses, seemingly in places of honor, and physical permanence.

Every new planning or design project should be seen as an opportunity to course-correct and ensure that institutional priorities, and the stories created to fund them, are connecting with today’s student experience.

 

3) Seeing Yourself

New York Times, January 19, 2020.

In the final weeks of 2019, an art exhibit titled “Seeing Newnan” sent ripples through the small community of Newnan, Georgia. Large photographs of every-day residents, were installed as urban murals, revealing an unexpected diversity. There is a liberating truth that can resonate when invisible people are revealed. Similarly, a campus can ignite the spirit of comprehension, tolerance, and shared humanity by consciously choosing to make visible all participants of its dynamic community. When diversity is showcased, it has the effect of celebrating identity, rather than reinforcing.

Many institutions are wondering what is to be done with all the gilded frames in the halls of legacy. Leaning into the discomfort of this conundrum, trying to choose between honoring legacy while embracing a future journey, campus leaders are seeking comprehension. Many institutions are discovering there is nothing lost by broadening the definition of “founder.” The process of making space for new heroes allows for an expansion of the concept of heritage and an acknowledgment that celebrating achievement should not be bound to timelines. Reframing success starts by acknowledging one story at a time.

North Carolina Central University Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, memorialized at the feet of University founder James Edward Shepard.

Making space on campus to frame new stories can lead to increased sense of belonging and long-term loyalty. Solid and meaningful connections to the institution will ensue. Conscious efforts to see students and faculty, to make the invisible seen, can find meaningful expression in branding and environmental graphics that highlight untold stories of the past as well as spotlighing nascent and emerging narratives. It is critical to design these installations for easy renovation and renewal.

Environmental Graphics at the University of Utah’s Gardner Commons.

 

4) Places for Dialogue

Creating space for expression is essential for hearing students. This has been the central role of student unions, nurturing community and dialogue on campus. Flexible meeting space is essential for maximizing the kind of overlaps that lead to community intersections. In MHTN’s design for the new student center at North Carolina Central University a conference room for student collaborations doubles as a dance practice room for intramural stepping teams. With a calculated adjustment in finishes and adjacent storage, the room can become an unexpected place for cultural crossover.

Unintended consequences of certain adjacencies can lead to territorialization, like the placement of all gender restrooms in close proximity with student communities prone to conquest. Foreseeing the potential for contested space is a critical skill in the design and planning team for any facility renovation or new build. Bringing disparate student groups together requires thoughtfulness to ensure underrepresented voices can flourish.

 

5) An Argument for the Commons

Open lounge environments are critical to the types of interactions that foster cross-disciplinary and diverse engagement. Distributed along primary circulation, accessible to all, they can act as a neutralizer, especially when they are paired with amenities like views out to campus, access to power for mobile devices, and art. The Commons, is an especially evocative and transformational place, where the evolution in public dynamics continues to push campus societies towards more humane and outward expressions of solidarity and unity. This space does not come cheap, but it brings the possibilities of dialogue amplified to a higher scale. Beware that the institutional agenda does not usurp student claims to the Commons. In all things, preserve zones for decompression, the universal need of all students.

Emory Student Center Commons at Emory University.

 

6) The Food FIX

Food tends to be forgotten in the efforts on campus to widen circles of inclusivity. Often, food programming is driven by entities that may not share Institutional goals and initiatives, sidelining inclusive menu options in favor of safe, sales-driven offerings. Our cultural identity is tied to our pallet. Campus becomes a home-away-from-home, where students and faculty search for ties to the familiar. Expanding menu offerings is a small effort that welcomes more circles of diversity into dining venues. Any argument to the contrary discounts the reality of students’ natural tendency to explore. Cuisine promiscuity will not change their intrinsic appreciation for familiar flavor but it will open their minds to tasty and valid alternatives; such food diversity threatens no risk to prevailing campus identities.

Emory University’s Dobbs Common Table, having just completed its first year of operation, has transformed the paradigm of campus dining. The broad array of choices not only embodies healthy food culture, but addresses student-requested desire to meet multiple dietary codes and restrictions, from gluten free to kosher, halal to vegan. The design nestles distributed serveries in unique environments that are inspired by iconic Atlanta neighborhoods. Careful planning ensures easy and flexible updating as student needs and tastes evolve.

Campus Dining at Emory Student Center’s Dobbs Common Table, Emory University.

Finally, the coffee effect cannot be underestimated. Just as a watering hole during drought, the culture of the café promotes social equilibriums. Interior design often incorporates most of the key metrics in spatial phenomena mentioned previously, and location drives campus community to the place where one can always receive what they seek.

Student “Flex” Lounges at Emory Student Center, Emory University.

 

7) Choreographed Adjacencies

When it comes to planning who fits where in a campus building, a complex choreography always ensues. Unfortunately, outcomes are rarely governed by student input. This leads to unintended consequences and perpetuated stereotypes. The team that leads a campus community through planning and design will be most successful in reaching their aspirations for diversity innovation if they listen to students. Students are on the leading edge of change. Any process must empower student voices.

A working design session with NCCU student leaders during their annual leadership retreat.

Location matters. Positioning building occupants in a basement or a penthouse communicates priorities and judgements with far reaching down-stream ramifications. When in doubt, student spaces should be given the prime real estate. The main floor interests always outnumber available square footage, so think vertically and challenge designers to choreograph connections to above and below with creative solutions that can enrich the spatial environment. Be watchful for the potential of design proposals to marginalize.

Whether through alchemy, chemistry, or artistry, designing for diversity is fundamentally rooted in listening. Any institution committed to getting it right must be courageous enough to make space in a design schedule to let architects and designers get to know them. Make space for immersive interactions with students and the unique campus culture and traditions that perpetuate openness, tolerance and unity.

North Carolina State University Talley Student Union

COVID-19 is Affecting Design from Our Places of Work to Retail to Education

The year 2020 has certainly turned everything upside down and inside out. Things we take for granted have been transformed into luxuries (e.g., toilet paper, dining out), healthcare systems have been taxed, teachers have been asked to innovate and quickly switch to a new pedagogy overnight, and so many of us have been forced into a global workplace experiment. What will be the lasting impacts of this global pandemic on health care, education, economy, and social justice?  Now is the time to curate what our new normal will be because we can’t go back. We have an opportunity to build a future of better health, better education, better work-life balance, a better structure of equality and inclusion, but none of these will happen by chance.

As architects and designers, we help shape the world we live in through the built environment. Moving into a post-pandemic world, we are looking at creating spaces that are safe and flexible; spaces that integrate health/wellness and that also build community.

SAFETY

Because building codes take time to write and adopt, they reflect a pre-pandemic standard to maintain safety in buildings and homes. What we know about pandemic safety data is rapidly updating weekly, so we are thinking beyond building codes to create spaces that promote health and well-being. In open plan offices, where barriers have been coming down over the last 20 years in the name of collaboration, we are figuring out how to allow the collaboration while preventing the spread of germs and viruses. The commercial furniture manufacturers have been shifting gears. A plethora of dividers, screens, and panels have come onto the market to address this need to come together in our collective return to the workplace below). To help aid social distancing in this transition period, Milliken launched a new carpet tile collection aimed at “encouraging unity at a distance”.

JSI LK Style Under-Surface Mount Screen

Milliken Flooring - Social Factor Carpet Tile Factor

Milliken Flooring – Social Factor Carpet Tile Factor

In specifying products for the interior environment, cleanability has always been important but is now a new level design factor. It is reality that furniture and fabrics have not been cleaned as often as they should be (or at all). Where anti-microbial coated fabrics might have been specified in the past, we are now looking at fabrics that are cleanable with CDC recommended cleaners to kill viruses on the surface. Employees want to see things being cleaned and are more concerned with the type of cleaning products and frequency of cleanings than ever before. Organizations must revamp cleaning protocols to align with new CDC guidelines to ensure safe environments. We are seeing a major shift from a desire for carpet and fabric that can “hide dirt and stains” to a desire for cleanable surfaces and a commitment to making the operational changes to cleaning protocols.

FLEXIBILITY

Ease of travel has made our world even more connected. We are watching to see how design of travel changes to minimize risk of virus transmission, and how business and leisure habits reshape. The desire to meet face to face is innately human, as is the fascination of experiencing other cultures. Enabling spaces to adapt to future crises or pandemics involves building flexibility into all aspects of design.

The need for flexibility and adaptability only increases as the world keeps its eye out for the next virus or global shift. Modular walls have been around for years, but the quality, finish options, and acoustical performance has advanced, making them a great option for a growing company or one that needs to reconfigure frequently.

Flexible meeting space with mobile furniture | Steelcase

Flat floor multipurpose spaces and furniture create additional flexibility to address changing market needs and quell future workplace outbreaks. Large meetings rooms with smaller, mobile tables (rather than a large, formal, fixed tables) can be used for meetings but also as flex space for temporary workstations during times when social distancing is important. Light, removable screens and partitions can be easily moved around to create barriers between people, much faster and less expensive than reconfiguring heavy system furniture panels with integrated power.

Technology plays an important role in the flexibility of a company. Retailers that had invested in online platforms were quickly able to make a shift and have supported an increase in online sales during the pandemic. Companies that had infrastructure in place were able to quickly shift many of their workers to remote work. Many office workers were previously tied to a desktop computer in the office where the server is located but virtual networks and cloud services are allowing remote work where it was not possible before. In education, classrooms and teachers that already had the technology to support online learning were able to make the switch easier. We will see the integration of more advanced video conferencing capabilities become standard in almost all industries to support dispersed learning, collaboration, and innovation.

COMMUNITY

Community remains at the heart of why we build buildings. The built environment is where we learn, celebrate and worship, work and innovate, shop, connect, heal, and even mourn. Now, more than ever, WHY we build is in refocus. As humans we have a need to connect with others, and, we need to widen our view to create spaces that are more inclusive and diverse.

Building codes, in the past, have been the measure of accessibility, addressing the needs of those with a physical disability. A shift in our thinking can make a big impact.  Instead of designing spaces FOR people with disabilities or those in under-represented populations, we need to design WITH these groups. We must seek to understand without making assumptions.

Student unions on college campuses have had diversity and inclusion at the forefront of their operations for decades. Often referred to as the living room of campus, the union or campus life center should be a welcoming space for all students to feel not only welcome, but that they belong.  Studies have shown that when students feel like they belong to a college community, retention and completion rates go up. In order to foster belonging, college unions are home to a variety of student led programs, support networks, advising and counseling services, social spaces – food and recreation, safe spaces – equity meetings rooms and all-gender restrooms, all aimed at addressing balanced needs of students so they can focus on learning, collaboration, connection, and innovation. Many also have outreach programs to give back to communities and help future students realize the potential of college.

Lessons can be learned from these university spaces that seek to understand, show empathy, provide access, foster dialogue and conversation with the understanding that if we lift others up, we are all lifted in the process.

Emory University Campus Life Center, Atlanta, GA

The beauty of considering net-zero-energy ‘s potential to shift building industry norms is that it is not based on implementing “state of the art” technology, but is simply based on what has been described as “state of the shelf” technology and strategies by the New Building Institute’s CEO, Ralph DiNola (https://www.architectmagazine.com/practice/what-it-takes-to-go-net-zero_o)

Net-zero projects are on the rise. The momentum is building, particularly in K-12 schools across the country. Why? Owners are seeing the potential operational and maintenance economic savings, and also the documented side benefits. People, as they are living, working, collaborating, creating, and studying in these high performing buildings are experiencing increased health, well-being and productivity benefits.  A building that performs at net-zero on an annual basis, with one hundred percent of the project’s energy needs being supplied by on-site renewable energy on a net annual basis, is by nature resilient, and the perfect springboard for integrating regenerative strategies which further shifts the building industry status quo.

The Department of Energy (DOE), in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), is encouraging the K-12 sector to achieve net-zero on their construction projects.  Interestingly, their message to school districts is that K-12 schools can achieve a net zero project within the construction budget of a conventional school.  The DOE’s website reports that the “K-12 sector alone spends $6 billion annually in the U.S. on energy bills, more than textbooks and computers combined, and second only to teacher salaries. Reducing energy usage by 20% across the education sector would result in energy cost savings of more than $3.3 billion that K-12 schools, colleges, and universities can better spend on educating students.”  (https://www.energy.gov/eere/articles/pathway-zero-energy-schools)

Educators are recognizing the powerful opportunities created for teaching and learning in a net-zero school by enabling the integration of learning, design, sustainability and environmental stewardship. Students learn to collaborate and lead in achieving measurable zero energy goals. There is an anticipated ripple effect in the broader community including students, teachers, staff and parents.

The synergistic benefits that K-12 schools are experiencing can easily be applied to other building types. Case studies and technical details are found in ASHRAE’s Advanced Energy Design Guide for K-12 School Buildings, published in January 2018.

MHTN Architects is pleased to be currently participating in the peer review of the AEDG for Small to Medium Office Buildings Achieving Zero Energy.  We have been looking forward to getting this sneak peek, and excited to share strategies of implementation with our clients.

By Sarah Winkler, AIA, SE, LEED AP
Project Architect, Associate: Predesign & Programming Leader, NZE Environments Leader

After nearly a half century of Americans moving out of the cities into the suburbs beginning in the 1950’s, recent data from Strong Towns [1] suggests that Americans’ housing preferences may be beginning to shift. “56% of millennials and 46% of baby boomers prefer to live in more walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods” often known as walkable urban places. Read more

Many healthcare institutions across the country have a “master plan” or perhaps have a document that shows physical locations of buildings on their campus with paths for growth which, often times, focuses on utility infrastructure and asking the question, “how much building can be developed on this site?”

Deceptively, it is easier to rally around the functional need rather than define a common vision.

Strategic Planning in a large organization can be very challenging.  Why do many healthcare institutions struggle to utilize a strategic plan to create lasting change? The most common reason is that those called to act on the plan do not feel a sense of ownership, authorship, or engagement in a common vision. The simple remedy is to involve all key stakeholders – meaningfully –  during the planning process.  A sound proposition can be composed and adopted when there is a common understanding of vision for the future.

To begin the strategic planning process, you have to ask the hard questions.  Assess your organization by looking for opportunities to improve what is not working. Determine why.  Who are your competitors and what are you doing to rise above?  Prioritization of the organization’s challenges and opportunities will begin to distill what is important to the organization.  Then, together, commit to change.

The important question to ask your key stakeholders is, “are you ready for change?”.  The beauty of a strategic plan is that it is 100% customized to your organization.  It can amplify the unique qualities that make your organization great and provide a common vision for the future!

Before your organization can prepare for change, it is well worth evaluating where the institution ranks in terms of planning maturity.  How does your institution currently employ strategic planning?  The SCUP Planning Institute lays out four distinct stages of planning maturity.  This can help you better understand where your organization is today and areas to improve.

  1.  Chaotic.  This is where planning team may or may not exist.  The planning is “Ad-hoc” with people who are not aware that planning is happening.  There may be some level of distrust among stakeholders.
  2. Reactive.  This is a strategy of “Firefighting”, running from issue to issue trying to keep things moving with a sense of progression.  At this maturity level people are in silos and have limited engagement as a team.
  3. Proactive.  Coordinated efforts of stake holders with a “teaming” attitude.  Trust seeds are planted among strategic planning team and with leadership.  Operationally runs smooth with transparent communication.
  4. Optimized.  Integrated planning team.  High level of trust among team members.  This level of maturity has the highest propensity for innovation to the planning process and will yield the highest rewards for the future.

It is our experience that a large majority of organizations operate within the “Reactive” stage of maturity.  As leaders in healthcare planning, we take pride in assisting organizations in planning for a better future.  Thoughtful strategic planning will have lasting positive impacts on your organization, making vision real.

By Curtis Leetham, AIA
MHTN Director of Healthcare Environments

You may have heard: Energy consumption in buildings accounts for nearly 40 percent of the total U.S. energy use. Heating and cooling loads represent the largest building-sector energy end-use. This fact alone is a big motivator to me to design building envelopes to place less burden on systems that expend energy.

The exterior enclosure of our buildings involves many components, and mandates that we find smart ways to streamline their efficacy.  Appropriate air and moisture barriers, along with the proper amount and location of continuous insulation in external walls, ceilings, floors and roofs, are the base. We continue to see a huge impact made with proper window-to-wall ratios, and highly efficient glazing with appropriate solar heat gain coefficient and light transmittance. How we design the primary thermal barrier between the exterior and the interior of our structures not only affects the heating and cooling loads required but can also play a key role in producing natural light and ventilation as well as set the level of comfort to the building occupants.

By considering regenerative features in the envelope, mechanical and electrical performance can be greatly enhanced. However, these efforts are ineffective if we have an open or short-circuited building skin. Air sealing alone can reduce the need for heating in a building by 20 to 30 percent. Attention to detailing a continuous air barrier must become the focus of detail of all transitions between materials and planes. Clear communication on how to treat transitions below grade, floor to wall transitions, sealing at window openings, soffits, roofs and parapets can be a difficult task, but worth our focus.

We are currently developing a series of 3-dimensional details that can be used to clearly illustrate continuity of the air barrier at the key transitions throughout the building. By providing a tightly sealed envelope, our mechanical and electrical teams can be assured that their systems can run at full efficiency. This also makes it easier for the contractor to understand the intent and goals.

It seems that with every project we find more and more ways to make our buildings not only energy efficient, but also regenerative.  It is second nature for our design teams to seek the right combination of extremely efficient HVAC systems, geothermal systems or LED lighting systems to reduce consumption.  Now, technology is integrating regenerative features like photovoltaics in shingles, paint and window glass.

Could solar panels on a roof soon be a thing of the past?  Not sure. What’s exciting is that every day we are testing and examining new integrated innovations designed to reach the market affordably, and save money/energy in day-to-day operations, with less.

By Greg Beecher, AIA
MHTN Associate, Leader in Building Envelope Implementation

 

Since the first installation over 50 years ago, Synthetic turf has had major impacts on the sports field industry.  With over an estimated 12,000 synthetic field installed in the United States these impacts are manifest is many ways.  The synthetic turf industries continually strive to reduce the impacts that their fields have on the athletes and the public by reducing injuries and potential harm to the environment.

The reduction impact injuries is one of the main goals of the industry.  The main impact injuries are to the feet and legs and to the head.  To reduce these injuries the industry has introduced infill materials, increased the pile height of the carpet, modified the materials and density of the fibers and the infill, and evolved the grass blade design.

The original Astro Turf installed in 1966 was essentially an indoor/ outdoor carpet with a foam pad installed over concrete.  The technology advanced from there by increasing the pile length and introducing sand infill mixed with crumb rubber.  To date shock absorbing pads have been introduced in concert with different types of infill materials such as pellets made out of recycled shoes, Acrylic Polymer coated sand particles or organic infill using the likes of shredded coconuts or processed nut shells. The latest technology looks to be coming out of a by byproduct of research in the automotive industry.  This impact absorbing pad manufactured from resilient thermoplastic urethane material that looks like bubble wrap that will reduce in height by 90% when impacted and then returns to its natural form. All of these innovations have been made in an effort to reduce the impact injuries to the athlete and insure their safety.

The impact of the heat absorbed and then released by synthetic fields is felt primarily by the athletes themselves.  This is one of the biggest concerns of synthetic fields. While the temperature measured 3 feet above the turf can register at about the same as the air temperature, the temperature at the surface of the field can register much higher.  The industry has utilized different methods to reduce the effect felt by the athlete of the heat being transferred from the turf up through the athlete’s feet and legs.

Irrigation of the fields is one of the methods called upon to reduce the heat effect.  This is done through the installation of fixed or mobile water “cannons” that are used to wet down the field when the temperatures are extreme.  The design of the shape and composition of the grass blades is being used lower the temperature by up to 15 degrees. In some locations Cooling systems are being installed under the field to lower the temperature.  Some of the latest information says that the proper way to keep the players safe is to provide misters to keep the athletes cool and safe from overheating.

The introduction of synthetic turf has also had an impact on sustainability.  The installation of a synthetic field will reduce/ eliminate the use of irrigation water and reduce the use of fertilizers that have to potential to infiltrate and harm water sheds.  The use of misters to cool athletes in lieu of irrigation systems to cool the entire field can again reduce the water usage and help conserve water.  The use of shock absorbing pads underneath the carpet can reduce the amount of infill material that needs to be replaced when it is time to replace and recycle the fields.

Synthetic fields have and average lifespan of about 8 years.  The disposal of the materials used in the field has an impact on the environment.  Different Methods across the country are being used around the country to reduce the amount of materials ending up in landfills.  These methods range from reusing the materials in golf course sand traps to removing, cleaning and reusing infield materials in future fields and repurposing and recycling the other field components for use in other products.

One of the main efforts that can be used to mitigate and reduce the impact of the fields to both the athlete and the public is to maintain the fields properly.  Proper maintenance helps provide the needed protections for the players by supplying smooth playing surfaces and correct shock absorption and extending the playing careers of the athletes.  It also extends the lifespan of the fields, reducing the amount of recycling needed and saving the owner money.

By Vincent Olcott ASLA
MHTN Associate, Leader in Sustainable Site Strategies