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As many students prepare for an imminent return to campus, educators around the country and the world are rethinking traditional pedagogies and campus culture. While there are many near-term implications around physical distancing and capacity, COVID-19 will also have long-term impacts to learning both inside and outside the classroom, giving way to novel educational and business models in post-secondary education. The current public health crisis is an unprecedented scenario – but many of our “new” adopted behaviours actually represent accelerations of existing trends. The question designers must ask themselves: How can we embrace the learning opportunities of this pandemic and period of uncertainty to advance educational design?

By forcing educational institutions to embrace technologies and innovative learning models, COVID-19 has upended society’s (arguably outdated) notion of what the “classroom” is and how it can be conceptualized. It has shown us that we urgently need to eliminate the traditional single-purpose lecture hall. Instead, we need to design flexible, hybrid spaces – ones that can support both large gatherings and small breakout spaces and blur the lines between both virtual and physical realm.

While more progressive universities were already doing this (such as York University, where ZAS designed the Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence, without traditional lecture halls), this imperative could be more widespread in post-secondary design in the coming years. Campuses need to incorporate spaces that provide as much opportunity for learning outside the classroom as within it. But physical space is still important – a captivating, dynamic learning experience draws students to a campus, whether in person or virtually, to begin with.

This was top-of-mind as our team conceptualized a new student-centred learning and support hub at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC). The Instructional Centre Phase 2 (IC-2), a design collaboration with CEBRA Architecture, has a 500-person auditorium, known as The Campfire, resembling a space more for TED Talks than teacher presentations. Its mixed-use malleability also aims to give spatial variety for collaborative, engaging discussion in person or by video streaming.

The Instructional Centre Phase 2 (IC-2), a design collaboration with CEBRA Architecture, will be built at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus.

In this way, the dawning era of asynchronous learning could help foster greater accessibility and equity to higher-ed. If we can accommodate an in-person classroom one day and then outfit the space for a lecturer to give a lesson to a mostly online audience the next day, we could flatten the socio-economic playing field of post-secondary education. Those who cannot afford to stay on campus will still be able to log in to class easily from out-of-province (or country, for that matter) and others deterred from attending in-person lectures because of commitments at home or mobility issues could have options to attend class on their own terms.

Meanwhile, immediate concerns around movement in campus buildings – such as clustering in the hallways – could give way to a new type of circulation model. We may see a decentralization of stairways and the removal of hallways altogether (IC-2’s stacked learning landscape, for instance, promotes different routes of movement). Successful campus design will focus on interconnectivity and the elimination of silos for a more layered space for learning. With a multitude of options in terms of how they can traverse a building, sit down and organize themselves, students will be able to congregate in small groups or to have more space amongst themselves. Social and crush spaces then become more meaningful and useful in the life of the building, while at the same time fostering a natural means of decentralization and, by extension, social distancing as required.

This spatial variety also extends to the connection with the outdoors. With much of the world having faced collective lockdown for months, the pandemic has underscored, more than ever, the critical importance of access to green space ­– from public parks, to plazas and other natural environments – for mental and physical health. Additionally, from a public health perspective, access to an abundance of open-air milieux for students to socialize, collaborate and gather – from green rooftops to porous ground floors that extend outdoors – could help mitigate future disease spread while also encouraging physical distancing when necessary. A strategy of embedded courtyards provides opportunities to improve natural lighting and enhance ventilation for improved indoor air quality and overall public health.

And student health will take on a whole new meaning in the months and years to come. Universities will need to take a holistic approach to the heightened need for mental and physical health services by localizing support in one centralized and prominent place. Rather than hiding it in a corner of the campus, IC-2, for instance, positions student health and support services on the penthouse floor of one of the soon-to-be busiest buildings on campus. This purposeful initiative sends a message that students’ wellbeing is both recognized and prioritized. The diversity of programming support – from meditation rooms to lactation suites to help for those with mobility issues – also embraces a diversity of inclusive measures. With potential impact across the entire institution, this is an important step towards becoming a place where all students feel welcomed, valued and supported.

Ultimately, societies and student groups are non-linear. Campuses, therefore, must be built to support intersectionality. COVID-19 will only underscore this, as many students may choose to defer a year because of affordability or health concerns. While there is a lot of anxiety and apprehension about the return to campus in September, this pandemic has in many ways accelerated trends in education for the better – creating more accessibility, disrupting traditional models and making way for new pedagogies and new voices. Now is the time for designers to face this challenge with understanding and creativity, together with our clients, their larger academic communities and health partners.

Paul Stevens is senior principal and founder at ZAS Architects

Reimagining the University Campus During COVID-19

Paul Stevens of Toronto firm ZAS Architects argues that the pandemic could finally bring about more inclusive, multi-use spaces – and put students’ wellbeing first.

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