The New Design Future of Campus Planning Post-COVID

The last eight months have looked collectively different than the all the prior years leading up to this point. Everything in higher ed seems to be changing, and campus design is no different. After a decade’s focus on maker spaces and collaborative learning, interest is shifting to hygiene concerns such as HVACs. 

What does the future of campus design look like post-COVID?

Steve Morley, Director of Campus Planning at Credo, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about approaching campus planning in the short-term from both a public health and pedagogical focus.

College Campus Design: The Short-term Future

Prior to this pandemic, some campus environments already weren’t introducing a healthy volume of fresh air into some spaces. Traditional main buildings that relied on radiator heat and lacked return air systems often stayed as sealed as possible.

Now, we are seeing a number of these spaces getting restricted because it’s hard to get fresh air into spaces that have been sealed for energy consumption reasons. So campuses will be looking to develop solutions that help increase air volume in interior learning spaces. 

In areas where the climate allows, we’ll also see outdoor areas adjacent to indoor areas such as patios and rooftops used as a healthy solution for air health issues.

Campus Planning: Pedagogy vs Public Health

Our faculty, staff, and students need to take first priority, but public health guidance may seem a bit foreign to a program-informed focus. Public health emphasizes separating people from one another while pedagogy intentionally seeks to bring campus community members together. So separation versus collision — two outcomes seem to be in opposition to one another. 

Right now, we’re talking about entry points and directional traffic, but pre-pandemic, we saw opportunities for people to run into one another as a positive thing. In fact, we referred to that as intentional serendipity. 

We used to design hallways as places to pause and reflect before going into a classroom or to hold a conversation after class. Today, even in residential life, some of the corridors that used to be vibrant with life are now just filled with instructions to walk this way or exit this direction.

How do we merge public health priorities with pedagogical realities?

  • Rethink how we create barriers. Those barriers that keep people from one another could take on a program-informed purpose. For example, they could be whiteboards with space for students to express their thoughts.
  • Introduce plant life. Knowing we have a biophilic response to plant life and knowing that certain kinds of plants can contribute to indoor air quality can help us create a positive environment.
  • Personalize unfamiliar environments. Seeing something familiar in an otherwise unfamiliar environment improves our sense of wellbeing. A school could create spaces for students to personalize some of the campus themselves. 

How to Evaluate the Campus Space You Have

Schools should consider their current resources as assets, not liabilities. Back in March, physical space became the antagonist we needed to get away from. Now that we’re going back on campus, we need to assess the facilities and grounds resources for their potential. 

Start with classrooms of course, then evaluate what other spaces could be used in a different manner than they have been up to this point. Think about campus theaters. It’s very likely that we won’t see  theater performances like we did pre-COVID. But these spaces are large enough for big class gatherings, campus life events, or pop-up meal distribution centers even during social distancing. 

Designing Safe Campus Spaces, not Sterile Spaces

For years, we were moving learning commons to an open-office-type concept. Now, we’re going back to more partitioning. But that doesn’t mean those partitions need to be sterile, blank, and non-functioning.

In fact, they should be the opposite — spaces filled with the vibrant activity of student life or digital displays of university branding. It could be something that emphasizes the athletic brand and what the schedule will look like for upcoming games. Or it could be an opportunity for art majors to create the barriers artistically.

We just have to look for opportunities to create a safe environment without being sterile or bland. Many of those opportunities, which in and of itself reduces some of the sterility. It’s not just something that was installed, it was also something that they got to help make, build, or provide for their own experience.

Next Steps for Institutions Doing Post-COVID Campus Planning

Hopefully, it’s not time for a do-over with regard to campus planning. It may, however, be time for an evaluation. What could be the 2.0 version of what you already have? 

What you have may look one way in 2020, another in 2021, and yet another in 2026. So it’s important to prioritize. But for now, the moment demands a greater level of agility in our solution development, not only for the near term, but for the long-term as well.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Steve Morley from Credo. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.