Interior Design in Higher Ed: A Changed Sense of Space in 2021

One major effect of the Covid-19 pandemic is a changed sense of space (or proximity) whether it’s staying 6-feet from other people or hunkered down in our homes to keep socially distant. The pandemic was the first time that many higher education institutions considered a face-lift to their built environments based on these spatial concerns. These concerns have been especially prevalent in higher education institutions, as many students and faculty returned to campuses nationwide this past year. Crowded study and classroom environments are now a thing of the past thanks to the Coronavirus and interior designers are stepping in to help solve these challenges.

The priority is to maintain a safe environment for all students and educators within higher education environments. However now more than ever, institutions also want to foster a sense of wellbeing and community – which may be eroded in the wake of the pandemic and social distancing. A physical campus is still an important aspect of campus life, including interactions with other students (and educators). A deep connection to the physical space fosters a students’ affinity to their school and maintains retention. In 2021, many schools redesigned their space(s) to align with their identity and values. Color, art, and furniture play a central role in creating an impression of this identity. These not only reset the tone from old to new but also assist in changing the student expectations about the qualities they will be developing in these spaces. “Students like to see their own faces and those of their peers in imagery associated with their college”, says Michael Tyre of the New England Board of Higher Education. “Because students have been mainly masked in 2020/2021, why not make use of otherwise blank spaces in hallways or exteriors to hang large wall graphics or banners showing the student experience and featuring real, current students?” I couldn’t imagine any better art installation than the students themselves! Higher ed institutions also looked at how online and in-person learning work together in the physical environment. Enhanced, blended learning connections bring these two styles of learning experiences together to create an elevated sense of community. When students can connect with their instructors and have access to inspiring spaces, this can lead to better learning outcomes, which is the #1 goal of all educational institutions!

So, we’ve touched on identity and community, but what about the classroom and other shared spaces? In 2021, outdoor learning space grew exponentially on campuses nationwide. Green spaces were converted to outdoor study/learning spaces, while some schools opted for another approach which was updating indoor ventilation systems to improve their indoor air quality and circulation. Many schools offered hybrid courses to offset the number of students on campus at one time. Egress and flow patterns were adjusted, elevator capacities reduced, class release times staggered, and the use of common spaces was limited. Desks/tables were removed, reconfigured, and strategically placed to observe the 6-foot physical distancing guidelines. Flexibility and fluidity are also key in these spaces. These types of environments allow colleges and universities to be more adaptive in the changing educational landscape. Furnishings that are mobile and allow for a room to expand or contract based on the needs in that space and time, is a trend that is not going away any time soon.

Other solutions, adapted from the healthcare sector, including designing for disinfecting by using smooth, easy-to-clean surfaces and introducing barriers that deflect the virus. Cleanliness of all spaces, with soft and hard surfaces, throughout higher ed environments also plays into the students’ and educators’ sense of safety and well-being throughout the pandemic. Redesigned learning spaces must also support physical, emotional, and cognitive comfort. Many people were hunkered down on their couches or kitchen tables for months and studies show that physical comfort fosters a stronger learning environment. Flex seating and huddle spaces grew out of necessity, but also to foster an emotionally safe and supportive culture for teaching and learning. Spaces in the higher ed built environment have been thoughtfully designed to create inclusiveness, community, and provide calming spaces for respite out of a strong need in a post-pandemic world.

On a technology front, Wi-fi was strengthened in surrounding areas like parking garages and more off-campus housing to accommodate remote learning in spaces that are also mobile. They started to embrace how technology and the physical environment can work together to create better-blended learning experiences. The introduction of large-scale collaboration devices to support remote connections ensured a sense of inclusion during and post-pandemic, which was lacking for much of 2020 and even into 2021!

It may go without saying, but I will still say it anyway, the Covid-19 virus is a reality we will be living with for quite some time. It’s like a dorm roommate you can’t seem to get along with. It’s like the most challenging teacher in the history of education but one that teaches all your core classes for your major. It’s the student loan debt that never seems to go away. You get the picture. However, the after-effects have forever changed how interior designers think about and design spaces not only in the higher education sector but across the board. The goal of any interior designer is to enhance the user experience and improve the quality of life for people in that environment, but nowhere was a global pandemic predicted that would change how humanity would feel about space and proximity. We learn, we adapt, and continue to stay agile and resilient in response to the Covid-19 virus.

Written by Anne Holden