Robert Benson Photography
emory 2

Pursuing Equity

July 5, 2022
Design strategies for educational facilities can help make spaces welcoming to all students.

For colleges and universities, the concept of equity and fairness is about ensuring that all students have access to what they need to be successful. This means exposure to opportunities, social and academic networks, all types of student-related resources and other support structures. Architects and their collaborators support this mission by using various design strategies applicable to academic, athletic and student life facilities.

For many students arriving on campus in 2022, the experience may be their first time living away from home. Many students have attended university classes virtually during the pandemic and never stepped onto their campus. Thus, designers seek to create a sense of place where everyone gains an authentic and empowered sense of belonging and participation. They use strategies such as building location, making the visibility of interior spaces apparent with generous windows and glass storefronts, and integrating adaptability, all of which contribute to the goal of providing welcoming and comfortable experiences. Infrastructure and basics such as adequate light, robust wi-fi, power sources for devices, and gender-neutral restrooms also are essential to equitable design.

The equity of well-being

Even before the stresses of the last two years, student anxiety and depression were critical challenges facing universities across the nation. Design can aid in advancing students’ psychological and emotional wellness by easing access to on-campus services for mental health and physical well-being and enabling easy travel for those with disabilities. These concepts are integrated into the design of the Student Health and Wellness Center at the University of Virginia (UVA). The facility’s location is in a developing mixed-use district on the main campus along a primary network of campus circulation routes. The building has spacious lounge lobbies that offer students seamless access to many health and wellness services.

Design for the Student Wellness and Athletics Center at North Carolina’s School of Science and Math–Morganton (NCSSM) merges fitness, physical and mental wellness with clinical and athletic programs. Counseling programs occupy glass-enclosed interior spaces adjacent to the main entry. This welcoming configuration contributes to destigmatizing and demystifying mental and emotional health care. By bringing services that once were hidden into the mainstream flow of campus life, universities can take an important step in advancing equity on campus.

Equity is also about ensuring that dining areas offer options that can accommodate students' food sensitivities, religious practices and personal preferences. At Emory University’s new Student Center, the architecture supports the inclusion and placement of multiple dining options that meet the dietary needs of all students and that prevent cross-contamination.

Equity for community

Fostering students’ sense of belonging and ability to create community is another key aspect of equity in design. To make the Emory facility overtly welcoming and inclusive, the architecture provides for a generous glass storefront and multiple points of entry. The design’s openness welcomes movement around and through the building’s spaces, day and night. The Commons, visible from the grand connecting stair and from all levels of the building, is the campus “living room” with comfortable, moveable furnishings. Numerous outdoor terraces serve as front porches for individuals and groups.

The design of spaces for organizations and groups must consider how areas dedicated for a specific group or organization, such as student government, are presented to students. Their location, accessibility, sharing opportunities, and programming may, when appropriate, make it possible for the activities of one group to merge with another. For instance, a combination of shared conference and lounge spaces close to one another means one group’s activity can cross into another’s to establish or strengthen connections.

The newly opened Student Center at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in Durham includes a wing of student-focused spaces and a large volume of dining, gaming and multipurpose event space joined by a central commons. This open space is the main entry lobby and a hub for all activities contained in the building. Multiple lounge areas within the commons connect to many program components. Adjacency and high visibility advance student organizations by enabling them to expand into and exchange space with the outdoors, other activities and events, and dining areas.

Gender-neutral bathrooms are the new standard, introduced into the International Plumbing Code 2021 edition. The Emory Student Center includes a full set of gender-neutral bathrooms near designated student workspaces. Their configuration includes fully enclosed compartments with a communal area for sinks. Emory made a strong commitment to including these spaces.

Equity from the outdoors In 

Equity is enhanced when higher-education institutions provide easy entry to all public spaces. At Emory, UVA and NCCU, the public, lounge and multipurpose spaces are highly visible and designed to flow with daily student patterns of movement. Outdoor spaces on a campus help promote access. Welcoming and accommodating patios, terraces, lawns and gardens all encourage the campus community to gather, find a spot to work, and meet.

Exterior power sources and robust wi-fi improve the function of outdoor spaces for individual student and group or class work. All the projects mentioned—including at NCSSM—include integrated wi-fi and power to make it easier for students and classes to gather in the fresh air. Public outdoor and community spaces within a project also break down barriers between a building and its context, whether it is a campus, a natural area or an urban district.

At NCCU, student organization spaces spill out to a broad greenspace. At Emory, a southern plaza wraps the main building and accommodates spill-out for the café with group and intimately scaled spots. At UVA, the street-side facade looks out to a shared green space for the new campus district. In addition, these projects were designed to offer broad views out to the surroundings, so occupants connect to nature and to campus life.

An equitable process

Although all campus buildings present opportunities to grow equity for academic communities, student life buildings—student unions, residence halls, health and wellness centers and athletic facilities—provide new models for advancing equity and ensuring a welcoming campus culture.

To achieve equity, designers must engage fully with a building’s user groups to gain awareness of the focus, priorities and activities of stakeholders. With this knowledge, commonalities between groups can be uncovered to inform strategies for functional and spatial efficiency that bridge a campus’s various populations fairly. 

Diversity within building teams—on the design team and among clients—ensures an inclusive process and result. Students can be effective contributors to the design feedback loop too, further elevating equitable project features. Integrating sustainable, resilient and energy efficient qualities safeguard the planet for future generations. Our role as design leaders is to ensure these and other project decisions are made to benefit all users.

About the Author

Scott Baltimore

Scott Baltimore, AIA, is an Associate at Duda | Paine Architects. He was instrumental in shaping the Duke Student Wellness Center, University of Virginia’s Student Health & Wellness Center, and the Emory Student Center. He holds a Master of Architecture from Yale University and a Bachelor of Environmental Design from North Carolina State University.         

About the Author

Scott Shell

Scott Shell, AIA, LEEP AP, is a Principal at Duda | Paine Architects. HIs portfolio includes projects such as the Duke School of Medicine's Trent Semans Center, North Carolina State University's Talley Student Union and the Emory Campus Life Center in Atlanta. He received a bachelor of environmental design and a bachelor of architecture from North Carolina State.

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