Back to School: Modern Day College Campus Planning Considerations

Campuses are continually referencing their masterplan to guide decisions. Periodically, these masterplans are revisited, fine tuning them to address current needs. Campus planning is an important part of college and university design, whether it be to establish a new campus or, more commonly, micro masterplanning to consider how a new facility fits into an existing campus context. Architects and designers are always seeking ways to integrate new projects into an existing campus fabric in a way that improves the campus and makes a positive impact on the student experience. 

When it comes to contemporary college campus planning, a few key considerations come to mind, from the buildings themselves to the way they define and impact campus use patterns.

Prioritize the spaces between buildings — they are just as important as the buildings themselves. Many of our memories of college aren’t of time spent within the confines of the classroom, but rather time spent on the quad, walking from class to class, or on the steps of the student center. Much like interior seating and study environments, campuses benefit from a diversity of outdoor spaces to serve a variety of functions. Large public spaces such as the main quad can accommodate large-scale events, and also present a primary image or front door to the campus. These spaces naturally attract students and encourage connections.

Smaller, more intimate outdoor spaces allow for quiet reflection. As student study space is in high demand, establishing outdoor spaces that can support classroom or small group collaboration functions in good weather is a great way to extend the available usable space on campus, as well as provide a diversity of learning environments available to students. There are outdoor furniture purveyors currently developing prototypes for permanent outdoor furnishings that can support instruction or small-group collaboration, which will support this function to a higher degree than in the past.

Planning these outdoor spaces requires careful consideration of the solar orientation and weather patterns. The academic year spans the colder months in much of the country, so good solar orientation, wind protection and shelter from the elements can make the difference between a space that is heavily used throughout the year and one that sits vacant.

Understand campus circulation patterns. Considering how people travel from one building to another is especially important on college and university campuses, as this brings great opportunity to provide outdoor spaces that encourage connections. When planning a new campus facility, it is important to look beyond the immediate site and understand overall campus circulation patterns. Anticipating pathways with heavy use so they can be sized appropriately, and looking for ways to let students “eddy out” of the flow in order to allow them to connect between classes is important. Consideration should be given to where students are coming from, and where they are headed, to capitalize on opportunities to foster crossdisciplinary connections. 

New campus projects will affect campus circulation patterns by changing the types of exterior spaces formed by the buildings, and by establishing new desire lines for pedestrians across campus open spaces. When designing a new campus facility, the location of building entries and the formation of quads and pedestrian paths should be carefully considered in the context of the existing campus use patterns. 

New or renovated campus buildings can create or re-route pedestrian flow, which could overwhelm campus pathways or open spaces if not carefully considered. New campus facilities can activate previously underutilized campus open spaces, making a positive contribution to the campus. Designing buildings with easy access and interconnectivity can also spur connections and interactions, even outside their four walls.

Consider how each building relates to one another. When planning college campuses, it’s important to consider the way buildings relate to one another. This not only involves thinking about how different uses on campus are located, but also how the buildings that house those functions relate to one another in a way that encourages interaction and access by students, faculty and staff. Many of our campus projects involve a level of micro masterplanning that looks beyond the immediate site to understand how the facility will fit into and support the established campus ecosystem it is integrating into.

College campuses are often bringing new buildings into the fold — either by renovating existing buildings or filling a void with something completely new. Designing those buildings to fit the campus aesthetic context is an important aspect, to ensure the campus presents its individual brand in a consistent and unified manner. This requires that the architect or designer have a good understanding of the architectural vocabulary on the campus, so it can be referenced and re-interpreted on a new project in an intentional and thoughtful way. 

Make campus planning and micro masterplanning a priority on all campus projects. Factors such as solar orientation, campus open spaces and pedestrian flow have influenced campus design for centuries, and should be considered on a variety of scales for any college or university project. It’s important to make continuous campus planning a priority as longstanding colleges continue to evolve. With the ever-increasing immersion of students in technology, the key to successful planning lies in fostering human interaction and social encounters.

At its heart, the value of an institution lies in the people who live, work and study there. Prioritizing campus planning on a variety of scales helps to integrate new buildings into the greater context of the larger campus and carry existing college campuses forward to new generations.

About the Author

David Schafer is a LEED-AP and OZ Architecture principal with more than 25 years’ experience as an architect. David oversees the firm's education practice area and has worked on a variety of project types through his career, but his primary focus is on the design for higher education. He can be reached at [email protected]