by Rick Jones
I’m nearing 20 years of planning and design with Norwich University. Since 2004, we’ve cycled through a 15-year masterplan and are now embarking on another. It’s interesting to note the similarities and the differences between these two efforts which reflect trends we’re seeing on other college campuses.
Occupying a rural campus of 2,350 students in Northfield, Vt., Norwich is the nation’s oldest private military college. Cadets comprise two-thirds of the student body. As of fall 2021, the university has 200,000sf of revitalized or new space designed to fulfill classroom and other academic goals associated with the 30% growth in enrollment anticipated in 2004.
When it comes to today’s planning effort, that expectation of enrollment growth hasn’t changed, nor has the institution’s focus on developing a more diverse and inclusive campus. In their case that means emphasizing female matriculation as well as promoting positive relations between the cadet and civilian populations, whose experiences differ along predictable lines: Cadets bunk, rise, march and eat together in uniform; civilians don’t.
Such divergent lifestyles can cause friction; it can also be an opportunity to deepen learning and foster mutual respect. We look for ways to celebrate the areas where the students’ experiences converge – in classrooms and other common spaces – and provide a backdrop for shared experiences that reflect the school’s values and promote connection. It’s a tall order and we relish the challenge of finding and integrating new perspectives and strategies.
It’s also key to current planning. Whereas the prior plan focused chiefly on creating more and better academic space, this one is about “the student in the round”: all the areas outside the classroom that support student success including physical and mental health, and financial aid. Based on our findings from discovery and analysis, we’ve divided these areas into “the three T’s” of student experience: Takeaway (retail-like activities such as the post office and bookstore), Transactional (financial aid, bursars office, admissions, etc.) and Transformational (counseling, wellness, and travel abroad).
Now begins the exploration of addressing these spaces in the context of physical and social growth. Already, we’ve discovered at least one area that has compelling implications for tackling both issues. In analyzing classroom space and what it will take to accommodate 30% more students in the next 15 years, we’ve found we can improve utilization by about 5%, which may be all that is needed (along with updated furniture and technology) when considering the continuation of asynchronized learning introduced during the pandemic.
As in-person learning has resumed, many professors prefer a hybrid model that, for example, has students in class two days a week with a third-day module to complete on their own. This has obvious effects on classroom use, and also brings up intriguing implications related to time allocation, and thus other spaces. For example, do athletics need to be scheduled after hours if students don’t have class during the day? What possibilities open up on a residential campus when class time is anytime?
Tradition is important, perhaps especially so on college campuses, and even more at one steeped in military culture. It brings security, rhythm, and a sense of identity to daily life, and in so doing, also strengthens the institution over time. But when traditions become sacred, it may be the perfect time to question them. As we plan for growth on college campuses, physical and otherwise, we are best when we remember that any given tradition started as a new idea.
Rick Jones, AIA is the founder and director of Jones Architecture.