If you had visited the student organization space on the second floor of the University Center on an average day in 2018, Dean of Students Amy Finley expects the head count would have been “about two.” It’s not that we didn’t have lots of energetic students planning events, activities and service projects. They were just doing it elsewhere. The problem was the space. Tightly packed with gray cubicles and a few work tables, the student organization area looked more like the drab setting from the movie “Office Space” than a place where students could get together, discuss ideas, laugh and organize. Not surprisingly, when Finley and her team began rethinking how to better tailor some areas in the UC to student needs, this space was at the top of the renovation list. Based on student feedback, the student organization space was reborn in summer 2022 as the Wolverine Commons — a student lounge with an open floor plan, cozy and flexible seating, and lots of places to spread out. Visit during lunchtime today and Finley says you’d see the average headcount has surged to about 50 students.
The Wolverine Commons example provides insight into a key socio-architectural truth: Our spaces can either be a hindrance to how we work, live and communicate or they can facilitate exactly what we want. The tricky part for planners and designers is that our needs often change more quickly than our spaces. Indeed, how we work, study and communicate has changed radically in just the past three years due to the pandemic experience. To cite an obvious example: We have more hybrid classes, so students and faculty are coming to campus less frequently — as are staff, who are more likely to have hybrid work schedules. This creates new opportunities to redesign our rooms, buildings and offices to best match today’s needs. (By the way, this is also a hot topic for our Future of Work working group, which we hope to cover later this semester.)
Updating spaces at a university is a nearly continual effort, but two of our most important communal campus buildings are about to get a big rethink. In order to better serve the needs of today’s students, faculty and staff, a new cross-campus team is leading an effort to revamp key spaces in the Renick University Center and Mardigian Library, as well as the outdoor space between the two buildings. As a first step, a design firm is helping organize focus groups to collect up-to-date information about what students, faculty and staff need and want. They’ll then organize that feedback into a phased renovation plan that includes options for improvements ranging from “minor to major.” “You’re always trying to make the most of student tuition dollars, so ideally, we want to identify things that will make a big impact without a lot of cost,” says Executive Director for Facilities Operations Carol Glick. “For example, if you look at some of the recent changes we’ve made to outdoor spaces, Adirondack chairs and outdoor games do not take a big capital investment, but they can make a big difference in terms of quality of campus life. Moreover, we want to identify different phases of projects, so that as funds become available, including for capital projects, we have a blueprint for how we would want to proceed.”
What improvements the plan will include depends a lot on feedback from the campus community, but Finley and Jean Song, the new director of the Mardigian Library, say some needs are already apparent. In the library, Song says access to power is a big issue. “We have an older building that has electrical outlets that were basically designed to be able to vacuum the space,” Song says. “We’ve jury-rigged a lot of things to make power more available where people need it, but our students and faculty would definitely benefit from a space that’s designed for the ways people want to power their devices.” Another observation: With the rising ubiquity of Zoom and hybrid classes, Song has noticed people doing something that would have once been taboo in a library: talking openly on their phones. “How much sound leakage is now considered OK? If I’m taking a hybrid class and I’m doing it in the library for whatever reason, is it OK to just be blaring it off my device? So our norms and behaviors are changing, and we don’t really have spaces that are set up for these new needs.” Song says Zoom rooms could really help address this challenge. Another area on her radar: specially tailored spaces that serve students with unique needs. For example, she thinks a family study area, where children could play or do homework alongside a caregiver, could be a huge help for multitasking students.
Next door in the University Center, the revamp is already underway. In addition to the Wolverine Commons renovation, Enrollment Services is staffing a new One Stop in the UC, a sort of in-person triage center for handling common student questions. In 2021, Finley's team also launched the new Campus Involvement Hub, where students can do everything from check out board games to get information about student organizations. They’ll also be creating a vision for the outdoor space between the buildings — as well as the “prime real estate” of the UC’s east-facing first-floor corridor.
As mentioned above, the team will be collecting lots of feedback to make sure the improvements best match the current needs of students, faculty and staff. They’ve already been dialoguing with student government, and starting this month, they’ll be sending out surveys and holding focus groups with all three key constituencies, as well as prospective students. They also plan to hold meetings specifically with library and UC staff, to better tune workspaces to today’s needs. After that, the design firm will put together different options, eventually yielding an exciting new adaptation plan for some of our most well-trafficked spaces.
Want to help with the UC-Library renovation project? The team would love to hear your ideas for how we can make these spaces better. Please fill out the faculty-staff survey. Story by Lou Blouin