Student Centers: Mixed-Use Is Now the Norm

At colleges and universities across the U.S., student centers are changing in dramatically new ways. Traditionally, student centers (or student unions) were just that - centrally located buildings that served as hubs for social activities with offices for student governments and other extracurricular organizations, mail services, dining, recreation and games. As educational instruction evolves and student populations become more sophisticated, the traditional boundaries between academic and nonacademic life are becoming less discreet.

These trends are restructuring the role of student centers, campus buildings and the functions that they serve. Students still live in residence halls and professors still teach in classrooms, but the categories of student life are beginning to blend. Study areas, like the library, are no longer confined and restricting, mirroring the expansion of the educational process at large. Technology is also key, as cell phones, wireless networks and the Internet allow greater flexibility in the way that students communicate with peers, study and socialize.

Schools are keeping pace by scattering student services throughout buildings on campus, dispersing the type of activities that used to only be available in one place. Buildings with singular functions, such as student centers, classroom buildings, residence halls, dining facilities, libraries, etc. are giving way to mixed-use buildings that incorporate many of the same types of services that student centers did in the past. This trend began with the popular living and learning concept that transformed residence halls from places to sleep to places to sleep, socialize and learn. It has since carried over to other building types, such as classroom buildings, where features like student lounges, computer rooms - or even coffee shops - are fast becoming the norm.

As campuses change and programs grow, administrators have to weigh the advantages of tearing down, renovating or adding on to their physical facilities. On American campuses, where space is always a premium, mixed-use buildings can consolidate functions and allow administrators to maximize space.

Dispersing nonacademic functions among residence halls, dining facilities, classroom buildings and other academic facilities also helps to defray the problems of expansion faced by schools as their campuses develop and grow. Stand-alone student centers, while offering a network of student amenities, can be far from residence halls, which are often placed at the edges of campus.

Many of these changes are rapidly becoming more prevalent on campuses because they do not always require the construction of new buildings. As institutions explore ways to maximize their existing facilities and renovate their physical assets, they are starting to reconfigure their buildings in response to educational and social growth.

Wellesley College's Pendleton Hall is a case in point. Recently, CBT transformed the 55,000-sq.-ft. building from a 1920s physical sciences building into a state-of-the-art social science learning center with upgraded equipment and learning facilities. Renovating the historic property also provided the college with the opportunity to recast a traditional building on the main quadrangle as a contemporary hub for teaching and socializing that would strengthen the community at large. The school was especially eager to integrate casual gathering places that would encourage students and faculty to meet.

Social activities, once the provenance of the student center, were incorporated into Wellesley's learning experience. Where the old building was divided in two by a huge lecture hall/auditorium that truncated its two sides, CBT carved out a three-story atrium and main entry, which has helped to redefine the building as the social heart of the school. Now, the building's centerpiece, the atrium, has become a campus hotspot that hosts social and intellectual events. New videoconferencing facilities even connect Wellesley students with their peers around the world. An intersection of interior stairways was shaped into an activity hub with a message center, open Internet access and soft seating.

These physical modifications relate directly to changes in how students learn. Although many parts of the building are wired so that students can plug in laptops and have access to the Internet, the reconfiguration of the building actually facilitates face-to-face interactions between students and faculty, and encourages them to exchange ideas.

The same priorities were shared by Brandeis University, which recently built a two-story, 24,000-sq.-ft. addition to its Graduate School of International Economics and Finance. Program components of the Lemberg Center include three state-of-the-art classrooms, 24 faculty offices, conference rooms and meeting areas, and a café. The building was also conceived as a true living/learning center that will come to fruition when student residences are added in a later phase.

The Lemberg Center acts much like a typical student union with flowing circulation spaces, generous common areas and informal seating for casual discussions that provide multiple opportunities for students to come together and interact. It acts as a full-service learning and social center that is equipped with new social hubs, such as a spacious lounge and a cyber café with a food concession that gives students a place to mingle or work in teams. An adjacent conference room even accommodates small presentations and conferences.

These two examples show that student centers can help schools to manage growth by facilitating academic and social as educational experiences mature and evolve. The rise of mixed-use facilities also illustrates that comprehensive, integrated buildings can be much more than the sum of their parts.

Christopher Hill and Robert Brown are partners at CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares Inc. in Boston.