University Landscapes Can Enhance Wellbeing

| April 28, 2019

by Becky Nichols

(Above and below) The apartments of Baker Hall at Yale University. Architecture and interiors by Pirie Associates Architects. Photograph by John Muggenborg.

Landscapes for universities have to do a lot of work. Plantings need to be hearty, easy to maintain, and have low irrigation requirements. Stormwater management, especially in urban environments, requires intense planning and infrastructure. Beyond these important practicalities, landscapes offer an opportunity to enhance student and faculty wellbeing. Research tells us that being connected to high-quality landscape environments has stress-reducing impacts and improves cognitive function.


At Yale Law School’s Baker Hall, the design of the exterior environment has an even bigger impact than in typical university environments. In addition to classroom and collaborative space, the building houses 110 residents.

We implemented several strategies to engage landscape in supporting health and wellbeing. Active and passive activities are accommodated with a variety of outdoor spatial character zones. A generous lawn offers a place for students to play frisbee or put out picnic blankets. A sports field drainage system was used to avoid having multiple drains that would make using the lawn in this way unsafe and unpleasant. There are nooks and crannies where someone can quietly study. There are café and picnic tables, and the courtyard was carefully designed to accommodate a tent for events.


Plant selection is critical when designing to support wellbeing. Research shows that landscape material with textural variety has a stronger impact on stress reduction than uniform species. An existing elm was able to be saved and offers the overhead canopy and dappled shade that has particularly stress-reducing effects. Shrubs with smaller textures such as inkberry and cherry laurel are combined with grassy textures like liriope and woodland textures like lady’s mantle. Blooming was planned for year-round interest with particular attention to the beginning of the school year and commencement. The courtyard is also home to sculptures meant to delight and evoke. Rona Pondick’s “Granite Bed” is a 16-foot-long art piece that can be used for lounging as well as for provoking thought about contemporary issues.

A canopy and plinth were added to the exterior of the building. This area allows people to enjoy being outdoors even during inclement weather. It also allows people to experience a sense of “prospect” over their surroundings. The comfort we feel when elevated above our immediate surroundings is biologically rooted in our unconscious from the time people inhabited African savannas: Being able to see predators before they saw us was essential. Now, it provides a sense of unknown comfort. This is why people tend to like terraces or decks on their homes.

A guiding design strategy for the renovation of the building was to connect the interior space to the landscape as much as possible. There are a series of glazed workrooms along the first floor corridor. Windows in these spaces have sills and heads tight to the exterior surfaces to tie together the materials on the inside and out. When walking through the corridor, one can experience a continuous connection to the courtyard. An unexpected delight is that the glazing on the other side of the corridor provides a reverse reflection of the courtyard: translucently layered with views to the townhouses on the other side of the building through the classroom and study spaces. One feels truly surrounded by nature even when indoors.

Landscape architecture has always been part of our practice at Pirie Associates because we do not see the walls of the building as a scope of work boundary. The blurrier the lines, the more we share responsibility as design professionals for the impacts of what we make in the built environment. And when we acknowledge and utilize the potential for the comprehensive built environment to improve health and wellbeing, our work has an even greater impact on the communities we serve.


Becky Nichols

Becky Nichols, NCIDQ, LEED AP, is an associate at Pirie Associates, an active member of The Construction Institute.

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Category: All, contributor, Life Science

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