Creating Communities

On an unprecedented scale, U.S. colleges and universities have been examining the quality of their residential facilities. What have they found? A need to improve not only the conditions of their residence halls, but also what the facilities offer to support the mission of education.

As a result, residence halls-once some of the simplest buildings on campus-are becoming some of the richest and most complex in scope and purpose. And because up to 50 percent of all campus facilities are devoted to student residential life, recognizing this transformation in residence hall design is critical to a school's success.

A return to old ideals The historical mission of a liberal-arts education called for schools to develop character and instill values such as tolerance, respect and community service. As part of that philosophy, schools had a responsibility to guide as well as instruct, to create settings for developing the whole student.

Residential design is again embracing these historical ideals-the belief that a liberal education is a social and moral project as well as an intellectual one. From that return to old ideals, new residential ideas of living and learning communities are emerging. They are flexible and can take many forms, but their common strength comes from the ideas and values of community.

Among the features of these new residential programs: an emphasis on shared, common space and on dining together as a community activity; spaces for academic, social, and recreational activity for both small and large groups; and arrangements for adult residential participation.

While it seems clear that these new residential models need to contain some mixture of these spaces, it seems equally clear that successful residential living and learning communities do not need to follow any precise formula. Each institution should determine its space needs based on its own traditions, culture and economic resources.

Planning and design principles Certain core ideas are needed to assemble a program that fosters collegiality, communication, interaction and a unique sense of place.

-The shared main entry. The single, common front door is a simple notion straight from domestic precedents of the house. It is vital to establish a sense of community. A common entry maximizes the possibilities for contact between members of the community. It focuses and funnels the people stream to encourage an atmosphere of energy and activity. It clearly establishes where the community begins, and for visitors, where to find it. It enhances safety and security by providing a place to observe and control comings and goings. Multiple entries, even if they offer some convenience, will not promote these community goals.

-The shared common path. It is the community's "Main Street." Connected to the shared main entry, the shared common path is the spine of circulation along which the public spaces-academic, social or recreational-are arranged. Everyone coming and going from the building is witness to the shared activity of the community around them. The design can express the path horizontally as hallways, concourses and arcades, and vertically as ceremonial stairways.

A shared path with visual connections to community life also establishes what can be called the "sidewalk cafe phenomenon." Just as with a sidewalk cafe along a busy street, people can observe what is going on around them or be observed without being self-conscious. This can break down barriers that are often a real issue for young people of college age. A shared path that is clearly expressed is a critical organizing principle in creating the kinds of benign, safe settings that encourage interaction and promote a sense of community.

-Community spaces on the common path. Large-group community spaces are in many ways the heart of a design. They most clearly embody and express the values of the community through academic, social and recreational gathering, presentation and performance. Their location along the common path expresses to the community the significance and value of interacting, communicating and connecting with others. A close relationship between the community spaces and the front door makes community life accessible and available to visitors and guests.

-The spaces "in between." In an academic and social community, a great deal of the learning and interaction will happen accidentally and informally. The spaces "in between" are simply places along the shared path-nooks, alcoves, widenings, interesting overlooks, accommodating stair landings, window seats and vestibules-that provide settings for serendipitous meetings and conversation.

-Flexibility and adaptability of shared spaces. Program needs, aspirations, tastes and patterns of behavior inevitably change, so public spaces need to be flexible. Simple strategies are best. Shared spaces with simple, clear shapes can accommodate a variety of furnishing configurations and uses. Placed side by side, these spaces can be expanded to accommodate large groups. This kind of flexibility not only is economical, but also promotes use and a sense of liveliness and activity.

-The armature of circulation. Over time, programs evolve and needs change. The most important element in providing a facility with flexibility is a strong and clear armature of circulation that will not change. If this path is clear and expresses a sense of place, then the spaces it connects can undergo alterations and reconfigurations without disturbing the community's essential character. This armature of circulation becomes the framework for flexibility.

-Residential neighborhoods. Student residences will naturally be the largest single program element, and may constitute a considerable population. To avoid anonymity and promote interaction among neighboring students, organize the student rooms into clusters or neighborhoods.

To foster neighborhood formation, each cluster will benefit from nearby spaces, such as student kitchens or vending cafes that can accommodate small-group socializing, study, recreation or eating together. To reduce isolation in the residences, these spaces can draw students out of their rooms and intercept them in convenient, attractive places to gather. These spaces should be placed along the shared path at places of frequent traffic to allow students looking for interaction, conversation or companionship to check out what's happening.

-Variety and flexibility in rooming arrangements. Students' private, personal spaces can take many forms: stand-alone singles, rooms shared by two or three, or suites of various sizes. There are strengths to each. Students generally desire a variety of rooming arrangements to choose from as their situations evolve from freshman to senior year.

Colleges and universities can create flexibility with simple steps. Connecting doors between rooms can create two- and three-room suites if needed. Adding doors to existing suites will allow schools to redefine the size and boundaries of those suites. Boundaries can be redefined to provide a flexible arrangement of singles or doubles, two-, three- or four-bedroom suites.

-Special adult residential needs. Adults living on site can be central to the sense of community in a residence hall. They can be important models of comportment and collegiality, and provide the perspective, maturity, experience and knowledge that will guide and instruct students. However, they are adults with lives and aspirations beyond the mission of the facility and lifestyles that can be dramatically different from the students they serve. Residence hall design can address their special needs.

Adults' private residences can be separate from the student neighborhoods while still accessible to them. If there are multiple adult residences, they can be arranged vertically to create adult neighborhoods around private stairwells. It is important to provide them with separate private entrances for use after-hours, with convenient parking nearby.

-Outdoor space. The front yards and backyards of a residential facility can be more than a passive visual resource. They can provide useful outdoor community rooms for gathering. As in a house, they can be important arenas for expressing community life in outdoor settings.

More private backyards can be opportunities for gardens and terraces, and intimate places for socializing. Front yards tend to be more public and ceremonial, and offer possibilities for courtyards, porches, verandas and pavilions that can be settings for formal and informal gatherings. What makes a campus memorable is largely determined by the charm and quality of its outdoor spaces. A residential facility can fulfill a larger community purpose by contributing to campus aesthetics.

Edward Harkness donated funds to Harvard and Yale in the 1930s so that those universities could build undergraduate "houses" and "colleges" modeled on the Oxbridge system. But for most colleges and universities, the opportunity to reinvent-and build anew-its entire residential system is rare.

Most schools that want to transform the residential life they offer to students must build on and around their existing structures.

Middlebury College's Board of Trustees resolved in the fall of 1998 to begin a major retooling of its existing residential program. It developed an enhanced "commons" system based on three cornerstones-decentralized dining, nearby housing for a faculty associate and continuing membership for students.

Although the Commons had existed at Middlebury since 1991 in the form of five discrete clusters of residence halls, these communities had little involvement in the administrative operation of the college.

The board's resolution to retool the system showed a commitment to what college president John M. McCardell Jr. has called "seamless" around-the-clock learning. This involves strengthening the relationship between intellectual and academic life, and developing the school's physical and administrative infrastructure.

Loosely based on the housing systems at Yale, Harvard and Rice universities, the plan calls for decentralizing the Dean of the Students' office and deploying deans to individual Commons. Each dean works with a tenured faculty associate, and each administrative team focuses on the educational development of its roughly 400 student residents.

In developing and revising its residential program, the college has had to balance its most idealistic programmatic goals, its most pressing institutional needs and the expectations of students. A "typical" program incorporates a dining hall, an office suite, library, seminar rooms, student beds and other social spaces.

Moreover, fitting this plan to a beautiful, rural campus distinguished by open spaces and sweeping mountain views poses a host of challenges for the architects. Thus far, the college has engaged the firms of Herbert S. Newman and Partners, Kiernan, Timberlake Associates, and Tai Soo Kim to develop three of the five Commons. Construction began this summer on Ross Commons. It will include a residence hall with senior apartments, a 1,000-square-foot library and a dining hall with views of the Adirondack Mountains. Ross Commons, scheduled for completion in January 2002, will establish a new standard for residential life at Middlebury College.

Middlebury's enhanced residential plan also has generated an ambitious, multiyear facilities scheme, aimed at providing the space required both by the Commons program and by an expanding student body (up to 2,350 from 2,200).

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