Elevating Design and Research
Outside of the Office

October 9, 2020
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As an employee-owned firm, our people are our greatest strength. Even in the most challenging times, they exhibit expertise and leadership in their fields. October is Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) month, and a great time to celebrate the incredible work that employees are doing to elevate design and research in addition to providing great client service.


Architect Shannon Dowling was awarded a Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) fellowship. The SCUP Fellows program “supports members of the SCUP community seeking to carry out research that will benefit the integrated planning community and establish an accelerated path to an exceptional future.” Recipients are supported in their research by the organization and present at the national conference.

Over the next year, Shannon will study how colleges and universities can plan and design diverse, equitable, and inclusive learning environments that embody those values in physical space and provide campus planners and facility designers with a set of metrics with which to assess physical space. The results of this study will help inform how to manifest these values on campus.

“Through the research, I hope to create a roadmap for architects and campus planners to address these issues in a way that is meaningful, authentic and creates a more inclusive and student-centered campus environment through thoughtful, informed, and provocative integrated planning.”

The project will use a case-study methodology, and Shannon will be analyzing the mission, vision, values, and most recent strategic and master plans for three different universities, looking for measurable physical goals relative to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Through interviews with the University Architects and Campus Planners at each institution and comparisons of their plans and progress to peer institutions, she will look for patterns of successful ideas, designs, and campus interventions.

In the spring of 2021, Shannon will lead a workshop with interior design students, giving them a voice in the project and another avenue to share what’s been learned.

See the SCUP page for more details.


Melonee Quintanilla, a student intern working in the architecture practice group, won the 2020 AIA Maryland Excellence in Design Award for Graduate Student, Beginning Design. Her design “Lightbox,” was a vision for the renovation of the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation Building.

“I chose to do a renovation instead of demolishing and starting over for sustainability reasons, but I also wanted to preserve the existing sense of place in the building. The school has a lot of built-in memories, but there was room for improvement. The design goal was to uplift and share the architecture program with others and get more people exposed and involved in the practice. I also wanted to ensure that the landscape improved existing issues and presented a learning opportunity.”

The jury commented:

A thoughtful and well executed project. It received high marks in design excellence for literally elevating the architectural program on campus and incorporating a bioswale to deal with flooding issues. It was a very smart design move to put a light, glass-filled addition above the existing brick building, signaling the department’s activity to the university community and increasing the transparency of the architectural field.


Abby Thomas, with assistance from Connor Price and Mike McGrain, all from the landscape architecture practice group, had a concept selected for the Design for Distancing competition. This initiative by the City of Baltimore, the Baltimore Development Corporation, the Neighborhood Design Center, and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public health set about looking for designs to reconfigure public space to safely patronize small business during the COVID-19 Pandemic. There were 162 total submissions, 10 of which were chosen for the design guidelines book. These designs will be implemented in some small business districts in and around Baltimore, and offer solutions that could be taken up nationwide.

The chosen design, “ParKIT” is a mobile kiosk designed to hold the key items for creating a pop-up park (the kiosk itself can then be used for any number of vending or service functions).

ParKIT and the other winners design briefs are here.

See page 48 for ParKIT from Ayers Saint Gross.

Amber Wendland Joins the Neighborhood Design Center Board of Directors

September 21, 2020
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Amber Wendland recently joined the board of directors of the Neighborhood Design Center.

Founded in Baltimore during the civil rights movement, the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) has for decades been committed to engaged and participatory urban design to advance equity and strengthen communities. This has proven, wide-ranging positive impacts with over 3,500 projects across Maryland.

Amber has worked tirelessly over the years focused on improving Baltimore and its communities, including the East Baltimore Revitalization Plan. We spoke with Amber about her role with NDC.

What does being on the board entail?

The board has a number of subcommittees, but the general purpose is to help support NDC’s mission and grow their reach. NDC has a close relationship with their board, and they look to it for expertise and support. The organization is formed with a deliberate dedication to diversity in all its forms, including gender diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, diversity of experience, and diversity of talent. There are a lot of different backgrounds and knowledge people bring to the table and part of my responsibility as a board member is to uphold this heterogeneity moving forward.

How does this connect with the work you’ve done?

The Neighborhood Design Center is dedicated to the growth of healthy, equitable neighborhoods, and this appointment allows me to further advance my passion for designing with and advocating for under-invested communities while also advancing the mission of Ayers Saint Gross. NDC prioritizes engagement and this is a great opportunity to continue connecting resources and getting people involved in designing a more equitable, beautiful, and just Baltimore.

NDC does so many incredible projects for the City of Baltimore. Their dedication to promoting equity and ensuring an inclusive and collaborative design process resonates deeply with me.

So much of the East Baltimore Revitalization Plan was about ensuring the community had agency in the process and set the direction and vision of the plan. You could design a beautiful master plan, but it is meaningless without community voices and the passionate support from local leaders. Historically, urban planning and policy has often marginalized Black and Brown communities through a top-down planning approach, resulting in many of the challenges we see across Baltimore today.  Reversing that approach by fostering a community-led planning and visioning process must start with listening and building relationships with the community. This relationship needs to be prioritized and fostered, and among the best ways to do that is to listen intently, celebrate the voices of the community, and empower leaders.

At its heart, planning is about providing a roadmap—a series of options to fulfill the needs and desires of the community and a path to move forward. A plan brings cohesiveness and a shared vision, which in turn allows for clear messaging of the community’s needs, and allows funding, investment, and philanthropy to be sought, procured, and effectively allocated. Ensuring that community voices are the foundation of that cohesive vision and that they are intimately entwined with the process and thus represented in the product—a true sharing of knowledge—are critical elements to the success of a neighborhood plan, and I’m eager to bring the lessons learned, and continue learning, with the work of NDC.

So, what’s next?

The work that NDC does to improve neighborhoods, amplify the voices of community members, and fight for racial justice is incredibly important and continuing that mission is paramount. This work is especially salient as we as a city and country continue to push for equity and civil rights.

Over the past six months, we have had to adapt how we engage with communities, expanding virtual engagement and taking social distancing precautions for in-person meetings as the pandemic continues.

Another goal moving forward is to build a closer relationship between NDC and Ayers Saint Gross. The relationship between our organizations goes back decades, ebbing and flowing throughout the years. Now is a great time to reconnect and continue to build strong connections as we move into the future. Several of our staff have volunteered with NDC in the past, and this will increase volunteering opportunities. Much like a successful planning effort, this association will provide ways to engage and volunteer in a more cohesive way.

Amber Wendland is a senior associate in the Planning and Architecture practice groups, working in Baltimore.

Sharing Research: The ASLA
Campus Resiliency Series

August 27, 2020
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Principal Kevin Petersen joined a panel of experts presenting as part of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Campus Resiliency Series. Discussing the ways in which colleges and universities could adapt campus outdoor spaces in response to COVID-19, this panel of experts included landscape architects and planners in both the private sector as well as those working for colleges and universities. These events are excellent opportunities to share our expertise and learn from our peers and clients. We are thankful to the ASLA for the opportunity to participate.

Outdoor spaces have always been a memorable part of the collegiate experience, helping to define the character of a campus and providing iconic places for students to gather. In unknown times, open spaces can be adaptable and offer solutions that are effective in the short term but can also be long-term improvements.

Kevin shared results from our recent survey and spoke to the ways that COVID-19 is accelerating shifts in campus outdoor spaces that are already underway, and the ways in which a campus can harness existing assets. There is a natural tension between the desire to have a vibrant campus environment, which so frequently depends on density, and the need to have the safest environment. Kevin looked closely at what could be operational changes and the ways a campus could leverage assets into long-term solutions based on thoughtful planning and design.

The campus experience, and the place of open spaces, can be thought of as a collection of three major components: wellness, learning, and student life.

Wellness

Over the past two months, many of us have found solace in nature while social distancing. We’re reminded of the power of the outdoors. Dating back centuries, the idea that outdoor spaces offer a remedy for students away from academic rigors can be seen in the original plan for the academical village of the University of Virginia.

Landscape enhancements can have a powerful impact with modest investment. Outdoor spaces provide a therapeutic and calming escape, and gathering outdoors with appropriate distancing practices may offer reduced risk.

Learning

Every institution has difficult decisions to make concerning reopening. Social distancing can inhibit experiential learning, community building, and research. Although there are many opportunities to expand learning outside, it is not viable in all cases, particularly when academic programs require specialized tools and equipment. Campuses need to think carefully about how to categorize and prioritize learning experiences and environments. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. In many cases, it’s unclear what will and will not work, as there are very few–if any–proven precedents. However, keeping in mind the trends that COVID-19 has accelerated, an institution can target investments toward near-term solutions that will still be viable long-term. For instance, prioritizing flexibility and adaptability in learning environments–both interior and exterior–to support different pedagogies and learners has been an ongoing trend; multiuse spaces will likely see more utilization for the foreseeable future. For programs that are not equipment-dependent, establishing an outdoor classroom or other landscape enhancement can serve the campus well now and become established as a flexible gathering space on campus experience years from now.

Student Life

Finally, when we think about a campus as providing a place-based experience, student life and recreation is important in rounding out that experience. Landscapes can offer safe outside recreational experiences. We are all witnessing how parks, cities, and institutions are using their outdoor spaces, waterfronts, and other natural resources to reimagine recreation in the COVID-era. Collegiate landscape can similarly rely on their recreational spaces to inject levity into an otherwise challenging experience.

Many campuses will have a rare opportunity during the transitional period: lower parking demand. This might be an opportunity to experiment with pilot projects, like closing a parking lot or road to vehicles and repurposing it for recreational uses like cycling, fitness classes, or outdoor seating for dining. As with learning environments, these do not all have to be temporary. These could be the start of new outdoor experiences that become intimately tied to the identity of the campus.

Amelle Schultz, PLA, LEED AP is an Associate Principal in the Landscape Architecture practice group and serves as Professional Practice Network Co-Chair of Campus Planning and Design for the ASLA.

The Impacts of COVID-19 on Campus

August 17, 2020
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Colleges and universities are making significant changes to the configuration and operations of their campuses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are grappling with the same questions and assessing what it means for the future.

Ayers Saint Gross has always believed in sharing research with our college and university clients. In June 2020, we sent a survey to individuals in the academic, administrative, facilities, and student life departments of higher educational institutions across the United States. We wanted to gather insights about how back-to-campus strategy might impact forward-looking decisions about campus development. We asked questions about classrooms, workplace, student life facilities, the efficacy of remote operations, and the impacts of the pandemic on financial and strategic priorities.

All campuses can reflect on resiliency in light of the insights outlined in the report below. What is it that makes your institution distinctive? What aspects of this crisis threaten your ability to deliver on that offering? What creative opportunities exist to minimize those disruptions? How can you position yourself to be more resilient in the future? These are questions that may not be answerable immediately, but they are critical.

We hope this summary provides a window into the experience of planning for the future of college and university campuses during this uncertain time.


Comparing Campuses 2020: Carbon Emissions

July 20, 2020
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Since 1998, Ayers Saint Gross has annually published a poster featuring campuses from leading institutions around the world. We assemble this collection as a way to support these institutions in finding their common ground and celebrating their unique differences. We believe this understanding will lead to the creation of even better spaces in which to live, learn, and teach. We are pleased to present Comparing Campuses 2020.

Colleges and universities have grown more sophisticated in their approach to sustainability. Indeed, “sustainability” as a catch-all is increasingly becoming too imprecise. Institutions are concerned with resource efficiency, carbon neutrality, and embodied carbon. These are no longer niche concepts, and institutions understand the impacts of them both to themselves and our planet.

The Campuses

This poster compares eight institutions of varying size, geography, age, and classification, showing a figure ground of each campus that color codes buildings by their age and whether they have been recently renovated. We use age as a rough proxy for operational carbon–buildings constructed in the last 30 years are likely to emit less than those built in decades prior. We also explore the extent to which colleges and universities are reinventing their spaces in place. Renovations of older buildings can improve their operational carbon emissions while preserving the embodied carbon in their structure.

In the figure grounds we often see a core of the oldest buildings, with newer buildings both expanding outward and densifying the core. This expansion is not always radial and is focused by the constraints of campus setting and available land. Even when additional land is available, densification can be desirable to keep the campus sized to the pedestrian. The campus that encourages travel by foot and bike reduces the carbon emissions of its campus community. While the oldest structures on a campus are often those that have seen some renovation both for functional reasons as well as the contributions these buildings make to campus history, we also see significant numbers of mid-century buildings renovated since 2000. Renovations conducted prior to 2000 were not hatched as they were less likely to have included improvements in operational carbon.

The variation in campuses was intentional. We were pleased and intrigued to see similar resource efficiency issues were important across the different campuses, but the ways in which mitigation efforts took shape varied a great deal in their specificity. We grouped these similarities in four categories: reduce energy use by buildings, utilize renewable energy sources, manage water use and flow, and reduce waste.

Many schools use STARS (the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System) reports to monitor energy use. STARS offers a standard that encourages cataloging a variety of data in a way that can be compared chronologically within an institution or used to compare themselves to others. Many of the facts shared on this year’s poster come from STARS reports.

One of the most interesting STARS data points was the energy usage of buildings per unit of floor area. This statistic accounts for the change over time in the total GSF of an institution, focusing on the energy efficiency of buildings rather than the overall size of the campus. Reductions in this figure can be achieved by adding buildings that are more energy efficient, as well as improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings. According to Architecture 2030: “nearly two-thirds of the building area that exist today will still exist in 2050. Therefore, any transition to a low-carbon/carbon neutral built environment must address both new construction and existing buildings.”

Sources of energy in general, and renewable energy specifically, varies widely by geography. This is evident in the use of renewable energy reported by these eight institutions. Some campuses have on-site renewable energy generation, often solar and/or wind. Others are purchasing renewable energy credits from off-site sources or have access to utility-generated renewable energy. While all the featured campuses still rely to some extent on fossil-fuel derived energy, the transition to renewable sources is one being applied across scale of institution and even beyond higher education.

Reducing waste often relies on human behavior. There needs to be buy-in from not only the people on campus to recycle and compost, but also the contractors and vendors with which an institution partners. Solutions here require collaboration, and different campuses go about this in different ways. While most of our poster talks about reducing carbon emissions, with waste there is the opportunity to go beyond reduction. Composting is sequestration of carbon and can be applied against the carbon footprint of an institution.

Campuses across the country have vastly different relationships to water. Arid campuses have concerns with supply, whereas other campuses have concerns with flooding and stormwater. It is important to note that potable water has a carbon footprint regardless of location, and conservation of potable water is always a means of reducing carbon emissions.

Advancing the Conversation

Recognizing this growing sophistication and complexity, we wanted to ensure that we outlined opportunities for institutions looking to increase their efforts toward carbon and resource efficiency. We grouped these opportunities into three categories: catalog, plan, and implement.

Cataloging one’s space is key to understanding it. Leveraging space analytics to increase utilization and reuse of space can sometimes alleviate or delay the need for new construction. If building new becomes necessary, the understanding of space needs allows one to build the right space for the right reasons for the right resiliency.

Developing a detailed plan for future investment allows for carbon performance to be integrated as a top priority. For instance, for a building that is being constructed in phases, an institution can not only adhere to changing guidelines but plan to keep upgrading systems to the highest performance. See the Duke University School of Nursing for how this works in action.

Renovations can breathe new life into existing assets while reducing both embodied and operational carbon emissions. Renovating can retain sense of place on campus as buildings become indelible parts of an institution’s identity. See the Hayden Library Reinvention as an example.


These comparisons build on a 20-year legacy of Comparing Campuses posters that support higher education in finding their common ground and celebrating their unique differences. See how this poster has evolved and compare our collection of campuses side-by-side.

Forward-Looking Space Metrics

July 16, 2020
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As colleges and universities think through back-to-campus scenarios and their path forward as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it is important to consider just what metrics inform the space analytics that are foundational to understanding a campus.

We have asked experts from across our firm to share their thoughts on:

  • Learning Environments
  • Student Housing
  • Higher Education Workplace Environments
  • Schools of Nursing

Q: What factors should be considered when developing forward-looking space metrics?

Three major trends have driven instructional space metrics over the past decade as higher education has shifted toward student-centered learning.

Autonomy: Information is now instant and mobile. Now that content can be acquired fast, free, and digitally, the new purpose of the classroom experience is to explore knowledge. This type of learning environment requires an increase of net assignable square foot per student. An instructional space that meets these guidelines will provide greater agility in adjusting to 6-foot social distance requirements, as well. Flexible furniture also allows institutions to rearrange or de-densify rooms.

Experience: The customization of the educational experience has led students to prioritize experience and hands-on learning. This type of learning often occurs in class laboratories, open laboratories, maker spaces, and research labs. Laboratory environments are rich with learning experiences that cannot easily be duplicated via online courses even prior to COVID-19, and we often recommended that institutions increase the amount of laboratory and maker space on campus.

Porosity: If you strip away the curriculum and the credits, a campus exists for serendipitous encounters between students and scholars where creativity happens, ideas are explored, and learning experiences are created. Porous learning environments allow learning to take place inside and outside the classroom and at multiple scales and comfort levels to create an equitable and adaptable learning environment for all learners. Post-COVID, experiential campus experiences may allow universities to differentiate themselves and offer an alternative to online lecture-based learning. Universities should consider dedicated space for student-centered study, group learning, and gathering space to represent approximately 15-20% of the instructional space found on campus.

Q: How is this affecting students?

Physical distancing in the classroom limits an instructor’s ability to “reach and teach” every student. By distancing students in the classroom and limiting instructor/student and peer-to-peer interactions, the learning environment favors students closest to the instructor. In this situation, a virtual synchronous environment may offer a better learning environment. In the virtual environment, the distribution of students on each screen is random, students appear the same size, and multiple modes of interaction are available via microphones, chat features, and interactive whiteboard exercises. Moreover, asynchronous virtual opportunities give students the flexibility to learn on their schedule. Learning does not compete with other priorities, such as jobs or families. Students can watch material multiple times to take notes and absorb information.

Q: Are there any fundamental differences for student housing during the pandemic?

Schools are exploring how to move forward, and it’s easy to imagine certain scenarios: relying more on single units, including converting traditional doubles to singles, for instance. Many schools, however, have planned and built in swing space for special accommodations that develop during the academic year. The pandemic adds another layer to this complexity and highlights the need for a flexible framework from which to work.

Many colleges and universities plan to start the fall semester at full occupancy, while leaving a certain number of beds or residence halls vacant as COVID-bed surge space. Other institutions are relying on the off-campus market to relieve pressure on their housing stock to best align their bed capacity with social distancing goals. Regardless, many are considering significant operational, policy, and infrastructure measures, such as reducing the occupancy capacity of their residence hall common spaces, more restrictive visitation privileges, providing much more frequent cleaning, or putting locks on common bathrooms to limit the number of students sharing each one.

As students return to living on-campus, schools will have a plan in place in case there are resurgences. Institutions with medical schools and requisite facilities may opt to provide their own testing and care, while others are partnering with their local medical community. While hopefully anything of that nature is only momentary, these measures may need to be in place for some time. When it comes to what makes a successful residence hall, though, the recipe remains the same: community leads to better student outcomes, so it remains crucial to provide the proper balance of outside-the-unit space and manage them responsibly in these trying times.



Q: Beyond physical distancing guidelines, how do we create workplace environments for the campus community that promote a sense of safety, inclusion, and collaboration for both in-person and remote participants?

On average 25% of a campus’ non-residential space inventory is devoted to office space and are part of most buildings’ programs. Small changes to office space metrics can have widespread impact, so it is critical that decision-making be grounded in data. An analysis of the anticipated needs of the workforce and the past utilization of existing space is a good starting point. Employee data and room-by-room space inventories can provide great insight and help identify opportunities to build a program that provides appropriate space per person for individual work, storage, circulation, and collaboration.

Also, consider how remote work, social distancing, and staggered or flexible schedules may impact space needs. Campuses should still be sprinkled with spaces that foster collaboration—both informal, spontaneous encounters, and more formally scheduled meetings. They should, however, anticipate increased virtual participation, both from those working remotely and those on-campus not ready for face-to-face interaction. Technology should be ubiquitous, and capacities and furniture layouts should be reviewed to ensure adequate space per person and good camera sightlines.

Q : What could this mean for offices moving forward?

Faculty-student interaction, which is critical for student success, will require a different setting. Looking forward, I anticipate increased demand for spaces that can safely accommodate one-on-one or small group interactions. In-office meetings already have made some uncomfortable and will likely now make many feel unsafe. I recommend identifying underutilized spaces in academic buildings (ideally in highly visible areas frequented by students) and repurposing them as dedicated, reservable faculty-student spaces.

Q: How are the skills lab and simulation spaces for nursing being altered by COVID-19?

Many schools have taken a detailed look at how to effectively prioritize and use specialized spaces safely while keeping the importance of a rigorous education front and center. After March 2020, nursing programs lost their clinical placements, and as a supplement to clinical practicum, nurse educators shifted to virtual and screen-based simulation through a variety of resourceful methods to supply all of their students remaining clinical learning hours. Immersive simulation using VR and projection is one way to transform any space into a simulation environment offering more utility from existing spaces and facilitating endless simulation scenarios.

For in-person lab courses in Fall 2020, nursing programs must calculate the useable area of their labs, less fixed equipment such as hospital beds and exam tables, to determine the reduced space allowance per student. Students can continue to work within their clinical groups that are normally 8-10 people, except they are spread out into different spaces. Flexibility and adaptability have long been key to designing success health science education spaces, and the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting this importance.    

Q: What kind of methods are being implemented?

Some things are now common in the broader world–smaller groups, temperature monitoring, face masks, daily sanitization of space and equipment—but there are some creative new ideas and methods. Skills and health assessment can be supplemented with customized lab packs sent to students to use at home. The expense of the lab kit can be offset with invention—one schools is discussing 3D printing their own objects and anatomical models for students to use at home. Some programs deferred skills training from spring to fall in hopes to have more hands-on opportunities. Virtually, students have been able to demonstrate skills competency through Zoom break out rooms, after viewing instructor demonstrations. Objective structured clinical examinations, key measures of a student’s competency, can be reimagined virtually as telehealth appointments with simulated patients. Telehealth has seen expanded use during the pandemic, so this has an additional benefit to train students in the way in which they may be working. Overall, some of the new teaching methodologies were found to be more successful than originally thought, and will continue in the fall semester.

Q: What about Nursing, Multidisciplinary Research, and Public Health?

Community based research in nursing has evolved since the onset of COVID-19. Here are some examples of how Duke University School of Nursing is providing outreach and creating partnerships with social work and public health organizations during this pandemic.

  • Homelessness: With the same goal to improve community health, partnerships such as the DCHIPP (Duke Community Health Improvement Partnership Program) is connecting the school of nursing and the community. Students transitioned from their traditional clinical setting of screening patients to working with the Durham Homeless Care Transitions (DHCT) organization that offers temporary housing, a case manager, and access to rapid testing for those who are homeless.
  • Spanish Speaking Populations: Multidisciplinary teams lead by the school of nursing have been established to work with the county health department to inform public service announcements by developing culturally and linguistically appropriate educational materials to the Spanish speaking population.
  • Aging Populations: To assist seniors and the geriatric population, the school of nursing research team is facilitating virtual teaching sessions on effective communication with seniors so that volunteers can effectively communicate and provide reassurance during telephone encounters with seniors.
  • Global Healthcare Initiatives: With global clinical placement trips cancelled, nursing students partnered with Cureamericas contacting hundreds of Guatemalan residents and speaking to them informally about COVID. They are developing a database, referring them to local resources and creating an evaluation plan.

All of these efforts showcase really important work and the power of research and multidisciplinary teams.

Student Housing: What’s Next?

June 10, 2020
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Principal Dennis Lynch offers his insights about the value of a housing master plan in Talking Stick, the premier publication of the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International (ACUHO-i) with the feature story “Questioning Why.” In the piece, Dennis discusses how a housing master plan can be a strategic roadmap to help colleges and universities make decisions about the development and renewal of student housing to align with short-term and long-term priorities, which is especially important in the environment of uncertainty brought on by COVID-19. 

“As students left campuses earlier this year to return to their families or other locations under the cloud of a pandemic, many may have seen this as a blow to the relevance of physical campuses. However, thoughtful planning that reconsiders the value of current housing and future needs can, indeed, provide a sense of optimism that, once on the other side of this crisis, students can appreciate more than ever before the value of being physically together on campus.”

Read the full article here.

Is Your Master Plan This Flexible?

May 28, 2020
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As a result of COVID-19, colleges and universities have experienced an unprecedented mass move off campus. It is unlikely this was a scenario explored in your master plan. During this moment of crisis, a master plan developed before the COVID-19 outbreak can provide valuable information about how to maintain vibrancy while keeping people safe. Here are four places to look:

  • Analytics as a foundation
  • Applying planning principles in new ways
  • Upholding a sense of place
  • Finding a path forward

Analytics as a Foundation

A clear-eyed, data-driven analysis of the campus forms a strong foundation for a master plan and a back-to-campus strategy. Master plan analytics collect, synthesize, and visualize key data sets to show what assets exist and how they are used. Having a robust understanding of a pre-COVID starting point allows a quick pivot to modeling new scenarios.

Will any longstanding space standards be applicable in the future? To be flexible and forward-looking, space metrics must carefully consider the individual human experience in physical space. Planning to distance students in the classroom illustrates why modular thinking is important. The reality on many campuses is that large swaths of the classroom inventory are quite dense. Space analysis often reveals large lecture halls with about the same square footage per student as a passenger on an airplane – widely agreed upon as a high-risk environment during a pandemic. To hold classes in person, more space must be provided for each student. To determine precisely how much more space, planners and designers must consider each individual rather than work in averages. These sorts of changes to the planning module create ripple effects across campus that can be understood using a data-rich master plan.

Master plans set target metrics, and they also explain why the metrics matter. For many years, higher education classroom design has trended toward more square footage per student and flexible furniture to support student success: research demonstrates that more space per student supports better learning outcomes. While physical distancing and active learning suggest increasing space per student, the goals of each shift are quite different. We can’t lose sight of student success objectives during this time. Will students be spaced so far apart that they can’t reap the benefits of learning from their instructors and peers?

Applying Planning Principles in New Ways

Master plan participants look at the campus using a telescope and a microscope. Detailed “microscope” thinking is fueled by current priorities and assumptions and is subject to change. “Telescope” thinking generates planning principles, enduring values that inform future decision making about the campus, including a COVID-19 back-to-campus strategy.

For example, institutions often choose a principle like “welcome” because it speaks to inclusivity, openness, and partnerships. There is an inherent tension between increased engagement and safety, and never has that tension been more apparent. Visitor experience planning creates carefully choreographed moments that welcome users and clearly describe how they should use a space. With this guidance, many people will comply. As campuses reopen, the community – and visitors to the extent that they’re allowed on campus – may be greeted each day by a temperature check or other screening. The vision of being a welcoming environment suggests that the experience of that new daily ritual matters. In addition to serving an important public health purpose, it is a community building and communication opportunity.

The idea of welcome also reminds us that a campus community is diverse, and the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacts underprivileged communities. Campus facilities are safe places to live and work for many individuals who have few other options. We see clearly in this time the mission-critical nature of that role. How can institutions pursue those aims in a welcoming manner?  

Though they may need to be reinterpreted, planning principles apply in times of crisis.

Upholding a Sense of Place

A master plan identifies unique features of an institution and its campus. Safety is the top priority, but there are many ways to execute a back-to-campus strategy. The master plan can spark creative thinking about safe and appropriate ways to maintain the magic of being on campus as part of a holistic approach.

Leaders are working to identify essential in-person activities and strategies to conduct them safely. Fundamentally, there must be fewer people on campus. Is it possible for the campus to feel alive without a rush of students across the quad at class change?  Even from a distance and with fewer people, a long view of your fellow community members going about their daily lives is poetic and impactful – especially after months in quarantine. 

A master plan celebrates sacred spaces. They may include historic buildings that are harder to maintain and adapt, but making use of these facilities – if practical – ensures vitality in these incredible places and reinforces for students that their education is place-based: the experience they have on campus is distinctive, if different from the experience offered before. It also connects the campus community to previous generations, who endured wars and other global crises. Campus life was radically different during those eras as well; this reminds us that change is constant.

Master plans look both backward and forward. Forward thinking pushes us to establish new sacred spaces. Landscape enhancements can have a powerful impact with modest investment. Outdoor spaces provide a therapeutic and calming escape, and gathering outdoors with appropriate distancing practices may offer reduced risk. Establishing an outdoor classroom or other landscape enhancement envisioned in the master plan might serve the campus well now and become a sacred space in years to come.

Many campuses will have a rare opportunity during the transitional period: lower parking demand. This might be an opportunity to experiment with pilot projects suggested in the master plan, like closing a parking lot or road to vehicles and repurposing it for recreational uses like cycling, fitness classes, or outdoor seating for dining.

Finding a Path Forward

While this crisis will impact each individual and institution differently, the need to adapt is universal. This experience will catalyze rapid shifts in growth aspirations, priorities, and access to resources. Demographic trends suggest increased competition for students will persist beyond the COVID-19 threat. Many institutions will need to plan for smaller overall enrollment and decreased revenue. A fundamental long-term physical planning challenge will be scaling down, whether in targeted areas or across the board. This will present different challenges than scaling up. Hard decisions and new ways of thinking and operating will be needed.

Many of the master plan elements that inform back-to-campus strategies will fuel long-term flexibility as well: forward-looking space metrics, principles that speak to small and large investments, a commitment to place. Master plan ideas that optimize current assets will be critical in the long-term: a smaller footprint works best when we embrace what we have and use it well. While distancing requirements will cause low utilization of space in the near-term, comprehensive renovations can enable transformative increases in utilization over time.

As institutions prioritize their areas of strength and respond to market realities, they may realize that some important, specialized spaces cannot be effectively provided through retrofit and renovation. Strategic new construction may still play a role in a plan that shrinks the overall footprint. A limited new construction strategy means new facilities will need to serve the institution holistically in a way that moves beyond silos. Master plan proposals for new interdisciplinary, interdepartmental facilities with shared spaces and strong connections to existing assets are the best candidates to prioritize moving forward. Moreover, plans for new construction will need to be coupled with serious consideration of demolition rather than backfill. There are sustainability implications of abandoning the embodied carbon of an existing facility, but there are resource consumption implications – both environmental and economic – of continuing to maintain and operate an over-scaled portfolio.

Lastly, the master planning process can be more important than the product. Investments in process build consensus and a coalition that supports implementation. The COVID-19 era emphasizes that process also builds flexibility. More engagement in the master planning process means that participants understand the relationships between different elements of the plan as well as the final recommendations. They are more likely to see how adjustments to specific recommendations and priorities are consistent with the vision and values for your campus. Master plan participants may be key contributors to the back-to-campus strategy. Ultimately, master plan investments in your planning community enhance your flexibility to adapt.

Sharing and Learning at Tradeline

November 14, 2019
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Recently, Alyson Goff and I presented at the Tradeline Conference in Austin alongside University of Virginia Assistant Campus Planner, Elisa Langille. Themed: “University Facilities for the Sciences and Advanced Technologies,” Tradeline focuses on highly technical facilities for corporate, university, and government campuses. Topics span engineering, health sciences, robotics, artificial intelligence, data sciences, biological and physical sciences, maker spaces, and innovation hubs. These conferences are intimate in scale and feature deep-dive presentations from institutional representatives and sessions from owner-consultant teams.

Conferences of this nature are great opportunities to catch up with clients, share expertise, and stay apprised on the challenges facing institutions. Our presentation, “Translating data and strategic vision into a physical space plan for engineering and applied sciences,” focused on the Integrated Space Plan for UVA Engineering. Together, we demonstrated a process for incremental, strategic renovations that unleash the academic potential of underutilized and outdated buildings; we detailed the shakeup of traditional departmental structures, and illustrated UVA’s road map to align the School’s academic plan and strategic goals with its existing space inventory; and we demonstrated large-scale building opportunities to satisfy goals and provide adequate space to create pedagogical change within UVA Engineering. The concept of “engineering on display” remains a popular driver, but accomplishing it is difficult. We were happy to share the lessons of this great project — a fantastic project team, an excited client, and a powerful story is a great combination.

Beyond our presentation, the Tradeline Conference, as a whole, offered an incredible learning experience from other sessions and through casual conversations. Some of our key takeaways include the importance of developing guiding principles to inform priorities and decision-making. Goals such as flexibility, diversity, adaptability, and connectivity, are particularly important, as learning spaces translate those qualities into the built environment. STEM education remains a priority, but we are now seeing an increasing number of institutions seeking to integrate the arts and sciences into engineering. As interdisciplinary education becomes more widespread, this ensures ethics is part of the STEM curriculum.

Other new concepts include further evolution of active learning environments featuring open, flexible spaces to accommodate a variety of uses such as a math cave or interprofessional education (IPE) simulation and the fusion of physical, digital, and biology technologies.

Good design creates purposeful interaction, and collaboration and engagement makes it possible. Given the importance of data in decision making, visualization and accessibility of data are key pieces to the puzzle in today’s world. We are happy to be on the forefront of this and eager to learn more and help shape the future.

Dana Perzynski and Alyson Goff are associate principals in the Planning and space analytics discipline groups, respectively.

Contact Dana
Contact Alyson

The 2019 AIA Women’s Leadership Summit

November 5, 2019
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Equity, diversity, and inclusion are core values at Ayers Saint Gross and are vital to increasing the representation and advancement of women in architecture and design. This September, the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit was held in Minneapolis. Spanning three days and featuring dozens of workshops and speakers, more than 750 women architects and design professionals gathered at this important event, themed “Reframe. Rethink. Refresh.”

I have attended the past Women’s Leadership Summit programs with fellow colleague Elizabeth McLean, AIA; Seattle in 2015, Washington, DC in 2017 (I was fortunate to be on the Mid-Atlantic strategic planning committee) and this recent summit. Reflecting on this year (the largest attendance on record), it was interesting to see a diverse range of attendees in Minneapolis – in age, geographical representation, and many first-time attendees. For me, the summits provide both challenge and encouragement — replenishing my well year after year. The women pioneers around these issues in our industry come; Beverly Willis and Rosa Sheng, among others. And so do the local chapter committees, sole proprietors from rural practices, and the mid-level architect struggling with what’s next for her career. They each have an impactful story, a welcoming spirit, and a wave of commitment to our practice.

The summit was spent unpacking leadership styles, practicing active listening, and uncovering intentional impact areas. The benefits are not only personal but bring into focus the strengths needed to continue to support Ayers Saint Gross’s diverse clients and projects.

The metrics still show small growth for women as they progress through our profession and into leadership or more prominent design roles. The 2019 AIA Women’s Leadership Summit demonstrated a record number of women and firms committed to accelerating progress. It is this level of conversation that our profession deserves and requires to continue the hard work to bring about more equitable architecture. In addition to myself, Ayers Saint Gross was proudly represented by multiple attendees from across our offices. I am happy to share their thoughts and impressions.

Elizabeth McLean, AIA:

The AIA Women’s Leadership Summit strives to raise the profile of leadership in architecture, share and promote the design work of women, explore paths to leadership, and provide women the opportunity to learn from each other. This format crosses boundaries and allows for both strength and humility to shine. Our participation is important, with it we recognize individuals at different levels and support them to engage, learn, and extend the conversation when they each return to their offices and communities. The summit offered a space to share and grow; to reconnect.

This year’s gathering supported the conversation around moving forward and regrouping. I appreciated reframing the conversation. The public acknowledgement that every woman in architecture is a leader is powerful, and it provided the opportunity to be more inclusive and allow the numbers to increase the inspiration and potential for impact. It shifted focus beyond the individual and promoted empathy and generosity, acknowledging that leadership is empathetic and comes with accountability.

There is still a lack of women in leadership positions. We are urged and inspired to be on the forefront of confronting the issue and not only aware of it. The summit operated as a laboratory to test the potential for change across scales. There is an action-based emphasis on commitment and accountability. Considering formal and informal power, and large and small commitments, we challenged – What’s the stance, goal, commitment, and change? With this, there is meaningful purpose to gathering together.

Anya Grant, AIA:

As a first time attendee to the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit, I expected to be impressed by prominent women architects whose experiences paved the way and continue to clear a path for practicing architects like me. I was. What I didn’t expect was to also have the time and space to meaningfully engage with other women at various stages in the profession who are making their own mark as leaders. 

Through the medium of storytelling, we were guided through the personal accounts of women practicing in and reshaping the profession around the issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. As we grapple with how to maintain a sense of inclusion in our profession, several presenters made a case for how it is not only relevant in our workplace, but also in engaging our clients. They raised the following question – whose voices are considered when design decisions are being made and how can we elevate the voices that are often unheard? One speaker, Malaz Elgemiabby described her efforts to meet community members on an individual basis when designing a community center. She not only learned about global needs that informed the design, but also points of neighborhood pride that were highlighted in murals. Pascale Sablan, in highlighting initiatives that promote diverse representation in architecture, described a community fellow position where a community member impacted by a design project is selected for a paid position to have a voice in regular design meetings. These accounts, among others, challenged us to think of the architect’s ability to engage and empower.

After days of stimulating conversations, we were invited by Pascale at the conclusion of her seminar, to turn to our neighbors and tell our own stories of leadership. This moment, where each woman spoke confidently of her ongoing work to shape our profession, highlighted the collective power of the hundreds of architects in attendance.

Nicole Ostrander, AIA:

Priya Parker, the keynote speaker, immediately set the tone of the summit as a supportive, collaborative, and empowering gathering of women, focused on storytelling. For the first several minutes of her session, we were encouraged to get up from our tables and step from our sphere of comfort to connect with new individuals by sharing a piece of own story with each other. Through this activity, Parker, author of The Art of Gathering:  How We Meet and Why it Matters was creating what she defines in her book as a transformational gathering. The AIA Women’s Leadership Summit was a created space in which attendees could open themselves to each other and forge connections. Parker provides excellent insight on how to give your gatherings purpose – whether a meeting, workshop, or dinner party – to create meaningful encounters.

Many of the sessions at the conference were focused on the topics of leadership, professional and personal development, and time management. With a range of women, all driven individuals at various points in their careers, there was a common narrative of navigating our own professional and personal responsibilities through shared experiences.

Teri Graham, AIA:

This was my first AIA Women’s Leadership Summit. It was powerful experience both in self-discovery and connection with other women with similar journey. We are not alone. The session “How To Set Your Career Path And Lead Authentically” presented by Jill Bergman, Katie Fricke, and Sandy Tkacz focused on self-discovery and connecting with others to advance in our careers. Emphasizing the importance of investing in yourself, the first step is to know thyself. Accomplished by growing your soft skills, assessing your skill gaps, and being resilient and proactive, you can be your own change maker. The next step discussed networking by both giving and receiving through finding an advocate and advocating. Career reflection points combined both know thyself and connecting through discussion on coaching, listening, taking ownership, understanding purpose, leading, and believing you are worth it. The big takeaway was we need to be a BRAT: Being Bold, Being Resourceful, Take Action, Have Tenacity.

Alice Brooks, AIA is an associate principal based out of the Baltimore office. Contact Alice.

The Value of Engagement

September 27, 2019
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This post is a collaboration between Amber Wendland and Corey Rothermel.

Engagement is at the core of Ayers Saint Gross’s mission and our planning practice. We strongly believe in the collective wisdom of a facilitated, inclusive planning and design process. In our rapidly changing world, communication, knowledge sharing, and connections are vital to generating consensus around shared visions. We work with varied and diverse groups of stakeholders to generate creative ideas that respect local culture, climate, and setting.

Our planning process involves overlapping activities that bring together the people and information needed to create a plan for the future. Effective implementation of planning visions is only possible through a carefully designed and executed process that engages stakeholders to reflect the mission and values of each institution, organization, or municipality.

Project success is more easily achieved through better knowledge, understanding, and buy-in. Engagement achieves all three of these things. Engagement not only allows us to be better designers by coalescing more input, but it is also an opportunity to generate excitement and harmony among stakeholders around a shared vision.

Engaging On Campus

In a higher education setting, in addition to the senior leadership that typically makes up a steering committee, broader public engagement is a way to bring students, faculty, technical staff, operational staff, and community members to the table. These stakeholders are the experts on how the campus is working and what is needed to best support student experience, student success, and operations.

Higher education clients also bring unique challenges; a significant one is finding the right time to engage stakeholders. Students, staff, and faculty have different schedules and are on campus at different times throughout the day. Identifying the best time (or times) to engage with stakeholders is the first hurdle.

It is critical to market the event through multiple avenues (email blasts, posters, web postings, adverts, etc.) and convey why it is important. Support from the client helps in this arena. They are critical in spreading the word, providing space to host an event or activity, and supplying incentives. Perhaps even more important, the client is the one that can best identify who should be in the room. This entails not only bringing in the right stakeholders to provide input, but also making sure that they are comfortable sharing their thoughts in a safe setting.

Stakeholders can tell when planners and designers are not genuinely interested in hearing their thoughts. At Ayers Saint Gross, we emphasize the value of bringing a broad and diverse set of stakeholders into our process and incorporating their valuable insight and input into our projects. Ultimately, this is the best way to produce dynamic projects that have wide-spread support, clear implementation, and create great experiences for all.

Ayers Saint Gross helped assist Tarrant County College (TCC) in creating a vision that would help to transform their traditional format libraries into Learning Commons to better meet the needs of today’s students and faculty. Building off our previous work with TCC that identified a college-wide need to increase pedagogical connectivity between learning inside and outside the classroom, we knew that the existing libraries were less than ideal for educators and students alike. Our team lead an engagement-heavy planning process for all five physical TCC campuses that included parallel in-person and online efforts for students, staff, and faculty.

Each group was asked a unique and comprehensive set of questions that collectively helped formulate the vision and scope for what the new Learning Commons could be. Responses highlighted the opportunities that existed to capitalize on the transformation of libraries into Learning Commons by incorporating spaces, programs, and resources that would help redefine the relationship between pedagogy, teaching, and the library space. Ayers Saint Gross then took this feedback to college leadership and used it to guide and facilitate the decision making that led to final designs.

At each student open house, we brought 40 pizzas anticipating that we would be well covered. Thanks to fantastic event marketing by the client, students showed up and participated en masse leading to the pizzas quickly disappearing. In all, we went through 200 pizzas over a 48-hour period.

Engaging in the Community

In urban planning, the most important stakeholders are community members. To produce an ethical, sustainable plan, it is vital that we begin by openly listening to the needs of the residents, business owners, elected officials, city government, and other stakeholders. Engagement must continue throughout the development of the plan to ensure the vision accurately depicts the desires of the community. This requires listening and a thoughtful exchange of knowledge; the community educates us on their needs and we educate them on components of the planning process. Engagement strategies include addressing individual questions in breakout sessions, polling, design stations, or boards where people can deliver comments and have conversations more intimately. This makes engagement more personal and is the kind of one-on-one interaction required to build rapport and consensus.

For the East Baltimore Revitalization Plan, the community had been the unfortunate recipient of decades of underinvestment, discriminatory practices, and neglect. There was an understandable skepticism of planners. The residents remembered decades of urban renewal when whole neighborhoods were razed and communities were torn apart. The team needed to develop trust to create a Master Plan that captured the community’s fundamental needs and served as a vision for them to champion moving forward.

When designing exercises, it is critical to make a strong effort to minimize implicit bias and design activities that accommodate variety of perspectives and abilities. This covers everything from the selection of images and wording of questions to the actual physical layout of exercises to enable stakeholders of differing backgrounds and experiences to participate. It is vital that everyone feel and be included.

Our carefully crafted engagement strategy was founded on these principles and we were able deliver a vision and plan for the community while building relationships, trust, and confidence within the community to carry the plan forward into implementation.

Transferring planning knowledge to community members should not be approached didactically, but instead as a two-way conversation to help inform and empower community residents. Speaking personally, during a final community meeting for the Southwest Neighborhood Plan, while reviewing final recommendations, I carefully walked one woman through a recommendation for increased zoning capacity, as it was a crucial move in order to be able to provide adequate affordable housing in the future. About 15 minutes later her friend arrived and had the same concern, I watched her explain to her friend exactly what I had walked her through. Not only allaying someone’s concerns, but giving them the tools to share with their fellow community members is incredibly rewarding and a great reminder of the real-life impacts of our work.

Ayers Saint Gross at SCUP 2019

July 11, 2019
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The SCUP 2019 Annual Conference is being held in Seattle this year, and we are pleased to have an abundance of good news to share in the Emerald City.

Ayers Saint Gross has won the SCUP Excellence Award in Landscape Architecture for General Design for the San Martin Drive Pedestrian Improvements at Johns Hopkins University. The project highlights a natural asset while improving the safety and well-being of students. The landscape design incorporates four major elements: defining a continuous pedestrian connection the length of the corridor, developing clear and safe crossings of the roadway, creatively resolving the need for pedestrian connections in an environmentally sensitive area, and establishing clear entry gates to the University. We are happy to announce the honor and proud of this project and our design team for their incredible and life-changing work.


A new year at SCUP also means a new Comparing Campuses poster. Since 1998, Ayers Saint Gross has annually published this poster featuring campus plans from leading institutions around the world. After a number of years focusing on specific themes, this year’s poster is a recall to our original style and features eleven new additions to our collection. Featuring a mix of large and small campuses and punctuated with sustainability facts, we’ve assembled this collection as a tool for institutional planners in the belief that understanding campus organization and data will lead to the creation of even better spaces in which to live, learn, and teach.

We look forward to seeing everyone at the conference. Come and visit us at booth 401.