Encouraging Collaboration Through “Third Place” Design

By Jackson Kane & Becky McDuffie

The rising cost of higher education and the proliferation of online learning opportunities has given rise to speculation about the fate of traditional brick-and-mortar universities. However, the role of the residential university is as relevant today as it was when the great universities of Europe were being founded a millennium ago. They are communities of learning, or, in Thomas Jefferson’s phrasing, “academical villages,” where students and faculty can participate in the process of discovery and collaboration.

In addition, institutions are moving toward group work and problem-based learning, and the ubiquity of information technology has changed the very nature of work itself. As lines between work and play increasingly blur in society, so do the physical boundaries that have traditionally separated these spaces. This expresses itself in multifunctional, collaborative spaces that accommodate directed study, social study and informal social interaction.

Well-designed spaces encourage face-to-face interaction and discourse, which become increasingly valuable in today’s digital age, when many students rely on technology to mediate communication. Interpersonal collaboration and community building help to facilitate and inspire a culture of learning, transform the lived experience of a campus and, in turn, increase student attraction and retention.

Creating a “Third Place”

At Patterson Hall at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Lord Aeck Sargent preserved and transformed the school’s first-ever women’s dormitory into a modern Living Learning Center. Photo Credit: Brad Feinknopf/OTTO 2016

An important concept in community building is the idea of the “third place,” the space where people gather that is neither home nor work. On a campus, collaborative, multi-use spaces create a “third place” atmosphere where students and faculty can interact with one another and build relationships in an environment that exists outside of their usual contexts. Different from academic spaces such as classrooms and offices, or residential spaces such as dorms and apartments, “third places” such as food services, green spaces and common areas are often those most deeply associated with the university experience.

For example, national architecture firm Lord Aeck Sargent recently worked with Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta to design the Billye Suber Aaron Pavilion, which debuted in May 2017. Situated between two of the school’s primary academic buildings, this “third place” facility includes meeting rooms, informal gathering spaces and an open-air rooftop designed to provide connective and collaborative reprieve for medical students, staff and faculty.

From a design standpoint, a collaborative “third space” that is open and inviting, with plentiful natural light and visual transparency, encourages use. With its glass façade, the Billye Suber Aaron Pavilion is the most visible building on the Morehouse campus, allowing students to see one another enjoying the space, thus motivating spontaneous, unplanned use.

Designing Inherent Responsiveness

There is an inherent tension in designing a space that is articulated clearly enough to encourage certain kinds of behavior, yet is flexible enough to accommodate myriad uses that may not have been considered at the time of design. To achieve this, it’s helpful to think in registers of scale and permanence.

The form of the building and the outdoor spaces it creates are the least susceptible to change, so the relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces is critical. The structure of the building is also unlikely to change, so it should be designed to easily accommodate complete rehabilitation or renewal of the space over time.

Building systems are next. Power and data should be distributed broadly, with both wall and floor outlets to allow multiple occupations of the space. The placement of interior walls is critical for visual and acoustical separations, as well as for the scale of the spaces — from large gatherings to intimate conversations — to ensure the space can accommodate the entire spectrum of need. Moveable partitions like white boards or other visual barriers, and flexible, moveable, durable furniture enable students to reconfigure a fixed space to meet changing needs.

Highly collaborative, formal and informal social spaces throughout Duke University’s Gross Hall include a makerspace for student exploration and the Energy Hub. Photo Credit: Lord Aeck Sargent

At Duke University in Durham, N.C., the nearly abandoned Gross Hall was transformed into a collaborative “center of centers,” connecting the schools of business, law, public policy and engineering. Highly collaborative, formal and informal social spaces throughout Gross Hall include a makerspace for student exploration and the Energy Hub, which revitalized the first floor into a vibrant and engaging social space to foster informal collaboration between students interested in energy and the environment. The Energy Hub has a mix of furniture for different types of interaction, including comfortable, lounge chairs for individuals to relax as well as tables and chairs for group work.

Proximity and movement are also key considerations to the design. Spaces designed for specific use can be treated as destinations that draw students along planned paths. More informal spaces, intended to accommodate spontaneous and serendipitous interaction, are located along these paths or at critical nodes or junctures where chance meetings are likely to occur. In this way, a student attending a specific event in a highly programmed space is also encouraged to interact in unintended ways with other students moving along the same path.

To read the entire article, check out the November/December issue of School Construction News.

Jackson Kane, principal, and Becky McDuffie, senior associate, work for Lord Aeck Sargent, a national architecture, planning and interior design firm.