Designing for Higher Education in a Pandemic World

From halting classes to delaying new construction projects, the pandemic has had a measurable impact on post-secondary institutions.

Quick adaptation to remote learning has kept schools afloat, but as we emerge from lockdown, the threat of COVID-19 calls into question how academic facilities will accommodate our return. Will classes resume in-person, or online? Will social distancing measures impact class sizes? Will international students be able to come back to campus?

Post-secondary institutions may choose to gradually resume classes and campus activities using careful planning. Certain hands-on academic activities, such as labs, can’t be conducted virtually. In response, some Ontario universities have established a two-pronged approach to re-opening this autumn: announcing a mix of small, in-person classes and labs, combined with larger online classes and lectures.

Now more than ever, we need excellence in post-secondary education design. Navigating academic facility design in a pandemic world involves creating safe learning environments that are not only hygienic, well-ventilated, and bright, but now have flexibility to implement physical distancing, and technology to accommodate remote learning.

While much remains uncertain, as of June 2020, key design solutions can be prescribed at gradual stages of reopening to help colleges and universities enhance health and safety while fulfilling their role as centres for learning and teaching.

Retrofit Solutions

  1. Place handwashing stations or hand sanitizer at entrances and exits so that students can conveniently disinfect their hands. We have designed numerous laboratory and culinary spaces where hygiene is paramount and handwashing is required multiple times throughout each class. It is now essential that we integrate handwashing facilities into traditional classroom settings to decrease the spread of germs.
  2. Use integrated graphics and wayfinding, such as patterned window films and clear door numbering, to create easily navigable environments that optimize social distancing. While post-secondary facilities should be logical and well-connected, integrated graphics and wayfinding can enhance architectural solutions, making the movement of people more efficient. For example, clear wayfinding in high traffic areas, such as hallways and entryways, helps occupants navigate through spaces, reducing overcrowding.
  3. Incorporate sensor and touchless technologies to prevent the spread of germs through contact with switches on doors, lighting, and Audio-Visual equipment. It is imperative that we take advantage of sensor and touchless technologies that already exist, by emphasizing their visibility and ease of use.
  4. Reconfigure classrooms to provide adequate space between occupants. A square classroom is an ideal shape for accommodating different layouts, as opposed to a classroom that is long and narrow. Wall dividers can be used to reconfigure a classroom that is not an ideal shape or size. Dividers can be opened to double the size of a classroom, or closed to create multiple smaller classrooms. Recessed floor outlets ensure that the layout of furniture and equipment are not constrained by access to wall outlets. As social distancing rules relax, flexible classrooms can return to reconfigurations with less emphasis on physical distancing.
  5. Resist the trend to over-populate workspaces. In recent years, open offices have been preferred for their ability to accommodate a maximum number of occupants. However, increasing the density of workspaces is undesirable in a pandemic world. Now is the time to prioritize private space, and reduce overcrowding in classrooms, offices and lecture halls. Adequate space for staff and students to practice social distancing is of paramount importance. Private or semi-private workspaces also prevent people from disturbing each other with sound.
  6. Incorporate Audio-Visual technology into classrooms to facilitate remote learning. We have designed a number of electronic learning environments where lectures can be recorded and streamed to students. These include classrooms and recording studios that are equipped with power, Audio-Visual equipment, green screens, and sound-proofing so that faculty can record or stream lectures in a quiet and focused environment.

New Build Solutions

  1. Select surfaces that can easily be cleaned without looking institutional. Our designs for culinary schools – highly sanitary environments – have leveraged colour, texture and light without sacrificing health and safety requirements. Beneficial learning environments require bold and colourful surfaces that are both stimulating and sanitary.
  2. Specify interior systems that prevent the build-up of moisture and germs. Seamlessly connected interior finishes such as stainless steel, sealed floors, and integrated coves with built-in drains prevent bacteria from collecting and can be easily washed without water seeping into cracks.
  3. Create common areas that inform people to sit apart. Built-in furniture in cafeterias, office receptions, and hallways should be designed to discourage gathering in close proximity. For example, while one long bench is excellent for corralling large groups of students, we should now create multiple, shorter benches that can hold the same number of students at an appropriate distance apart.
  4. Ensure that social distancing in classrooms does not stifle collaboration and connection. We design learning spaces that promote the cross-pollination of ideas. This often requires physical gathering – where students and staff pull their chairs or push their tables together. In a pandemic world, cross-pollination takes on a new connotation, and our goal is to prevent the spread of germs. While we do not want to reduce connection, the design of the classroom should remind students that they should be distanced while communicating and collaborating. This means using fixed tables and avoiding seating arrangements that promote gathering in large groups. Integrated technology that facilitates remote communication can also help students feel inspired by each other, despite being isolated from each other.

Gow Hastings Architects is a Toronto-based architecture and interior design studio specializing in higher education.