How Architecture and Design Can Improve Student Well-Being

By Ina Bachmann

College can be one of the most stressful periods of a person’s life. Students are expected to meet the classroom demands, grapple with new responsibilities, and confront social pressures with their peers. Since the start of the century, as education requirements have become a standard part of any job description, the stress has only increased on students. According to a 2019 study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, major depression among young adults (ages 18-25) rose 63 percent between 2009 and 2017. The report also shows increased suicidal thoughts or other suicided-related outcomes by 47 percent. As if these numbers aren’t high enough, the COVID-19 pandemic has inflated them further.

Depending on the university, the college experience differs tremendously for learners. Some universities are completely remote, making it difficult for students at home to form new social groups and take on more responsibility, preparing them for adulthood. Perhaps the students suffering the most are those on campus but confined to remote learning. Many students moved into their dorm rooms this past fall semester with the expectation of having a socially distanced college experience, which would’ve entailed going to class and returning to their dorms. In-person classes were canceled as COVID cases rose across campuses and the socially distanced college experience morphed into one that was much more self-isolating. This is especially true at some universities that mandate first-year students to live in dorms. With these universities requiring freshmen to live on campus, there’s potential for a negative impact on their mental health.

As institutions look ahead to 2021, student wellbeing will become an even more important college experience component. Architects and designers are uniquely positioned to combat the rising numbers of students suffering from mental health illnesses. Working alongside universities, designers will now have the opportunity to balance mental and physical health and create spaces to support and promote a healthier lifestyle. Prior to the pandemic, colleges were already emphasizing student wellbeing by creating more exercise facilities and promoting healthy eating habits. Those who design colleges will have to meet new expectations for students. At NELSON Worldwide we foresee four key ways universities can use architecture and design to improve student wellbeing on campus.

The Hybrid Classroom

It has become evident that students reap a variety of benefits from in-person learning. To achieve this, universities must reimagine the classroom. These new classrooms will go beyond the typical six-feet of space and dividers we have become accustomed to. These new classrooms will be a combination of in-person learning and virtual learning. The first major difference will take place in the front of the room; with instructors’ safety in mind. To keep both students and instructors safe the installation of transparent panels between both parties provides a sense of security and flexibility to safely teach in person, while also giving students that in-person interaction.

In a traditional higher education setting, classrooms appear much differently than their K-12 counterparts. Oftentimes in lecture halls that resemble a small theater, these spaces can sometimes hold hundreds of students. While these spaces may be great for social distancing, they lack the flexibility required to carry out a hybrid-learning style. To support this new teaching and learning method, flexible furniture such as pirouette tables and triangular stacking chairs in classrooms that aren’t anchored to the floor and can be reconfigured to accommodate different learning styles such as breakout groups, individualized working, or theater-style seating. These additions will be key for providing students more comfort, creating opportunities for collaboration at a safe distance, and getting students more involved in learning.

Healthy Classrooms

One of the first things that we can expect to see from education facilities during their reopening is modifying or replacing air ventilation systems. Changing HVAC systems that limit the spread of COVID-19 will be the first step to creating a safe learning environment for students and faculty. Additionally, lighting is another tool that universities can use to improve conditions. Certain UV lighting can be used to kill germs like bacteria and viruses.

Another way to improve the classroom environment to impact students is to ensure adequate exposure to natural light. One of the most difficult parts of students’ college experience is finding time to sleep. Spaces that facilitate proper daylight for productivity can allow people to sleep better at night. More rest is one of the biggest preventative measures for getting sick.

Outdoor Spaces

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, people of all ages were required to stay indoors, which eventually pushed them outdoors—for fresh air, exercise, and relief. With many students reconnecting with nature, this is an opportunity for universities to transform their outdoor spaces into learning areas. College students spend hours on end inside lecture halls and labs, and after this past year, you can expect students to spend more time using green spaces. To assist students with this transition, universities can use their existing outdoor spaces to incorporate amenities such as workspaces, picnic tables, charging stations, and Wi-Fi hotspots. If institutions can provide seating and make outdoor spaces technologically friendly, there is a realistic possibility outdoor spaces can become classrooms.

Safe Places to Eat

Dining halls have always been an important amenity for universities. Most students are without a kitchen on campus and rely on the cafeteria to supply them with food throughout the day. The most popular dining hall layout was filled with self-serving stations and communal tables for socializing. As students return to campuses, they can expect dining halls to look much different. Some schools have completely closed off the cafeteria to students during the pandemic and began delivering food to dorms. Much like in urban life, indoor dining has been stopped or limited, and takeout has become king. But dining alone or with a roommate in the same room night after night can become uninteresting. To support healthy eating spaces, colleges may encourage the use of outdoor dining. Cities across the world have transformed their infrastructure to facilitate outdoor dining, and colleges should look to do the same.

Another place that can be used as a smaller version of a dining hall is dorm common areas. Usually, each floor of a dorm building has an area for students to socialize or escape their roommate. To give students a peaceful and spacious place to eat, universities should look into transforming a few of these spaces into dining areas.

Like so many things in our society, major changes are expected to occur because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, perhaps none is more important than the future of architecture and design at college institutions. As students return and adjust to the new normal of college life, it will be everyone’s job to make that transition easy and less stressful.

Ina Bachmann, AIA, NCARB, is studio director of higher education for NELSON Worldwide.