Rethinking space: Education

We’re starting to get a clearer picture of what education facilities might look like this fall when (or if, depending on where you are) students return to schools and campuses. It’s clear that there will be significant changes in high-density spaces like common areas, residence halls, and dining halls. Adjustments for libraries, labs, and administrative spaces also have to be carefully considered.

While administrators try to figure out how to safely bring students back to class, many K-12 and higher education design projects remain on hold. We’ve talked with some of our education clients who have been working hard on solutions for an in-person, online, or a hybrid model. Whichever option they choose will have an impact on all of the spaces that otherwise would bring students together on campus.

Large classrooms and lecture halls like these can be adapted to meet separation requirements by removing fixed or loose seating. Drawing: DiDonato Associates.

The University at Buffalo (UB) announced this week how they will be implementing the reopening plan that they first announced last month. Measures will include testing, face coverings, online and in-person classes, and reducing classroom seating capacity. One of our projects at UB is the renovation of several large lecture halls with our colleagues from DiDonato Associates & Get Fresh Industries. Phase 1 was supposed to start construction in May, but has been pushed to 2021 because of this spring’s construction site shutdown in New York State.

The original design brief required that seating capacity not be reduced. How things have changed in a few months. Filling a 300-seat lecture hall is definitely not a good idea right now. In 18-24 months from now, we hope to be in a much better place with respect to COVID-19. But which scenario should we plan and design for now? That’s a question that a lot of designers and clients are asking.

Lecture halls like this one give students about 24 inches of desk space, meaning there are a lot of people sitting very close to each other. That level of risk is unimaginable right now.

Perhaps the biggest question is how long these changes will be needed. All we as Designers and Architects can realistically do is focus on what we need to do today, and find ways to support our clients. We can help them understand how to adapt and be more flexible in their current spaces. For projects that were in the design phase prior to the shutdown, there may need to be a total rethinking of design parameters, because – even if temporary – everything has changed.

For existing spaces, start with analyzing traffic patterns and furniture placement. How can you adapt a furniture layout to make it easier for people to remain safely distant, but still function within the space? Depending on the size and type of space, that may be relatively easy or near impossible to pull off.

Circulation into, around, and out of rooms will need to be adjusted. Reducing seating capacity in a classroom can be done by physically removing loose chairs or individual desks. If you have fixed seating in a lecture hall, consider designating every 3rd or 4th seat as usable (whatever allows at least 6′ of separation), and tape off the rest. Signage may also be necessary inside and outside the room.

Maintaining 6 feet of separation obviously reduces seating capacity, which affects scheduling. That may make the hybrid model of in-person plus online attendance much more appealing, especially if the AV and IT infrastructure is already in place. If there’s one thing that has been made clear after 4 months of online learning, it’s that technology is essential to the immediate future of education.

Air circulation is a big concern in any room where students and faculty may be gathering for an extended time. The relationship between COVID-19 infection control and air movement is still being studied, but the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has released guidance to help reduce risks. Expect that guidance to continue to be updated as the impact of aerosolized pathogens inside buildings becomes better understood.

Typical HVAC supply vent in a large lecture hall.

ASHRAE’s new position paper emphasizes filtration & air movement as the biggest influences on occupant health. That may require additional exhaust points, MERV-13 or higher filters, or other equipment investments for classroom buildings. Introducing UVGI lighting is a CDC recommendation that ASHRAE agrees would be effective for killing or inactivating micro-organisms. Those light fixtures need to be properly shielded to prevent direct eye exposure.

The collaborative and informal learning spaces that we have come to value in higher education design need to be re-thought as well. Our design for “learning landscapes” outside of the UB lecture halls were intended to give students a place to touch down in between classes or work on collaborative projects. Reducing the seating capacity, changing the furniture types, or spreading the furniture out into other unused corridor space would help to keep the spirit of the idea but make spaces like this safer to use.

Learning Landscapes planned for the wide circulation spaces outside lecture halls provide informal meeting and study space close to class. Illustration: Get Fresh Industries.

Rethinking education spaces requires that Architects, Designers, and Engineers reevaluate what we know and have always done in space planning, furniture selection and placement, and HVAC design. There have already been important design lessons-learned that we can carry forward into future projects. Whether these changes are temporary or will need to be more permanent remains the biggest unknown for the design professions.

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