Taking the 'Institutional' Out of Institutional Design

College has always been thought of as a home away from home, but until recently it wasn’t expected to be a particularly luxurious one. Even at elite universities, students might expect meager dormitory rooms, bunk beds, and squeaky metal desks. The dining hall, with its mysterious steam-table offerings, was often the butt of predictable jokes.

No more. As competition for good students — and supportive alumni — has grown, and as “gourmet” burritos and mocha lattes have become standards in the “real world,” colleges and universities have had to rethink what makes a truly inviting home away from home. Leslie Davis, executive director at Sacramento State’s University Union, has found that “students are discerning customers. Once you establish that a handful of schools have the academic program you want, the other factors are location, money, and amenities. What do discerning student customers want? What will bring them here and keep them here?”

The challenges are significant. Campuses have grown incrementally over many decades, during which time changing architectural fashion has diluted the sense of campus unity and identity. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, dormitories and other campus buildings were often conceived more as riot-control devices than as places of comfort and nurture. And, as is always the case, expectations have risen faster than budgets.

Even the best campus planners and architects, immersed as they necessarily are in the familiar patterns of institutional design, rarely have the tools they need to address these heightened expectations. But their colleagues in hospitality design do. Design for hotels, resorts, spas and wellness centers, restaurants, and the like is steeped in the principles of a welcoming architecture and in the planning, construction, and budgetary efficiencies of an industry that has always depended on getting the most gracious bang for the buck. What are some of the things that campus architecture can learn from hospitality architecture?

Immediacy of Welcome

When you check in to a hotel or resort, you want your vacation to begin immediately. Anything that gets in the way of this eagerly anticipated respite — long lines at the front desk, getting lost on the way to your room — is intolerable. Good hospitality design eliminates obstacles and welcomes visitors with comfort and confidence.

To the young student who may be too shy to ask, a building must reveal itself intuitively. A lobby can’t be merely a place for signs pointing this way and that; it is an opportunity to pause, to orient oneself, to see the building’s major program elements — and how to get to them. In a complex, multi-function building like a student center or recreation center, planning for intuitive understanding is an art, one that hotel and resort designers have mastered. As Hornberger + Worstell principal Burton Miller, AIA, explained, “Arrival at a hotel is an experience of a sequence of spaces, not ‘wayfinding’ signage. You provide a point of orientation from which the building reveals what it has to offer. Arrival, entry, discovering the choices: all are choreographed.”

In addition to understanding the lobby as the place to grasp the offerings of the building itself, hospitality designers understand it as an opportunity to reorient to the landscape beyond. Too many academic buildings seem to have forgotten that one of the best ways to know where you are in a building is to have a view of the landscape outside of it. And, as Hornberger + Worstell associate Paul Adamson, AIA, noted, “To make a hospitality setting work, you have to finish and furnish these outside spaces, for definition and identity, shade and shelter, making a destination that’s distinct.”

Living Rooms
If an immediate sense of welcome is important on the residential college campus, Adamson knows that it is even more so on the commuter campus. “If students don’t have attractive places to hang out, they get lonely, and they drop out. Hospitality is even more crucial on the commuter campus, where students need to feel immediately at home.”

To build a community of engaged students, the commuter campus must offer places to gather for study and for fun that are more convenient, more attractive, and more comfortable than the students’ living rooms a short drive away. How to make a “living room” for several hundred or several thousand individuals? That’s what good hotels do, and, as John Davis, AIA observed, universities are increasingly recognizing that it is what good hospitality designers know how to do. “Hornberger + Worstell was chosen to design the student center at Sonoma State University on the strength of earlier hospitality projects based on ‘living room’ models. The university wanted a public building with a sense of place — commodious, comfortable, relaxing, with a lot of social interaction. A place to unwind and hang out; not institutional, but exciting, active, homey, a place to get lost or get found.” A place to form friendships.

Such friendships are treasures one maintains long after graduation, and when the growth of friendship is associated with a memorable place, the college or university captures the affection of students — or, rather, of alumni. Because today’s students, as the forward-looking administrator and educator know, are the potential supporters upon whom the school’s future will depend.

Memorability is the stock-in-trade of the hospitality industry, which counts on vivid experiences to bring guests back time and again. Creating memorability requires integrative thinking, because a memorable place is built up through the interaction of many things. An entry is not just a door; it is a progression, from forecourt, for example, through a small-scale space where one can take down one’s umbrella and collect oneself; opening, perhaps, into a grand, high-ceilinged hall, looking out to the quadrangle beyond. Such a sequence is shaped not just by space but also by light, moving from calm shade to bright openness for instance. And it is in relation to light that material choices can be both dramatic and economical: how does this color appear as the light falls on it from above?

Adamson underscored that, “Spaces like this are recruitment and retention tools. Well-put-together buildings give a sense that someone is concerned about my well-being. If people have a place to go that feels good, they’ll come and they’ll stay.”

Dual Use Spaces
The dual use of space is a strategy used throughout hospitality design, and it affords significant benefits — in both human interaction and cost savings — in the academic environment. In the convention hotel, for example, the most significant conversations take place not in the meeting rooms themselves, but in the spaces outside them. These spaces cannot simply be corridors. They must be sculpted to allow for the coffee buffet, for places to step aside and chat, to sit down with a laptop and grab your e-mail, to prepare for your upcoming presentation. And they must do so without wasting space.

“In a hospitality use, with its high-income audience, pre-function spaces are large and designed as gathering places near the primary function space.” By contrast, observes Adamson, “In the academic environment, the pre-function spaces are cut down to a third or a quarter of the hospitality size. The challenge is to create graciousness out of these smaller spaces through lighting and views, using discreet expansions for buffet tables and casual conversation, and so on.”

Similarly, the hallways of a student center are not merely conduits between one program space and another. They are places to meet friends, to relax with a cup of coffee, to do a little last-minute studying. Yet, in a time of tight budgets, not a square foot can go unaccounted for. Inches make a difference, and hospitality design measures out those inches to maximum effect.

Revenue Generation

Student life facilities are increasingly called upon to become revenue generators for their schools. Retail dining and other retail functions — travel agencies, branch banks, copy shops — must pay for themselves, or even return income to the school. Reconciling short-term construction costs and long-term operating costs for very particular market situations is a core expertise that can yield powerful benefits for the academy.

The economics of retail success are wholly outside the traditional expertise of the campus planner and architect, but they are an intimate part of the knowledge of the hospitality designer, who must understand not only the needs of a project’s developer, but also those of the operator. “In a hospitality project, there is either a developer or an operator who works from relevant experience and established standards. For a lot of academic clients, however, there is more of a learning curve, which requires a collaborative effort with the client group,” said Miller.

These are just some of the ways that hospitality designers can contribute to the success of student life centers and the sustenance of our colleges and universities. For the home away from home, “hospitality” is not a market sector; it is a way of thinking, in depth, about the places we cherish.

Tim Culvahouse, FAIA
, is editor of arcCA, the journal of the AIA California Council, and principal of Culvahouse Consulting in Berkeley. He can be contacted at [email protected]