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Cutting calories and carbon: Rethinking residence life to promote a healthier campus

June 11, 2019

By Blake Jackson

How residence halls can merge evidence-based design and sustainability best practices to promote campus well-being

If you lived in a college dormitory, you’ll recall the cramped conditions, lack of privacy, squeaky furniture, and the mounds of ramen that contributed to your “Freshman 15.” Whether it’s nostalgic to you or not, the college residence-life experience for most is lackluster compared with the impressions left by the main quad or central library—spaces that have traditionally gotten more attention in recruitment brochures or from wealthy benefactors.

A wave of new projects is reversing this trend, putting residence halls center stage as students—and parents—are demanding better services, memorable experiences, and, above all, socialization and safety while on campus.

Blurring the boundaries between indoor and outdoor spaces becomes crucial within a campus setting to promote a sense of connection and proximity while also providing much needed privacy and refuge, like this example at University Hall at Westfield State University.

Workplace theory applies to campuses, too

The impact a campus plays on occupant health and wellness is profound. Considering residence halls are where students spend most of their time studying, relaxing, and sleeping (we hope), their renewed importance offers a key health and sustainability opportunity.

In quantifying the value of time spent indoors by students in the same way that office workers are measured, there is an opportunity to disrupt campus planning and operations for the better. Currently, schools look at metrics such as endowments, enrollment, and retention rates to assess success. Similarly, student performance is measured by GPA; however, none of these metrics address mental wellness, which is of increasing importance on campuses. What if institutions also applied, measured, and made annual improvement commitments around student socialization, engagement, productivity, and happiness?

Evidence-based approaches attest there is a direct correlation between current metrics for “success” and the amount of green space, fresh air delivered, access to lighting that changes throughout the day and night to promote acuity and sleep, as well as steps taken per day. One can argue that quantifying student success this way will impact their academic and personal performance on campus and beyond.

So, what if residence halls were completely rethought through this lens of health and wellness?

Informal shared spaces within residence halls become major destinations that not only encourage socialization among neighbors but also reinforce a sense of branding and place on campus. Pictured: MassArt Tree House Student Residence.

How much “there” is there?

A challenge, particularly when designing workplaces for the WELL Building Standard and Fitwel systems, which present criteria for various building typologies, is their insistence on incorporating programming like mothers’ rooms, gyms, cafeterias, meditation spaces, and even sleep pods. While desirable amenities, they are expensive, require space, and can be perceived as questionably necessary.

This is not an issue on most campuses because they typically have all the amenities like gyms and cafeterias within walking distance from the residence halls. Still, one must apply evidence-based approaches to comply with these certifications. For example, an area where programming may be added is a mindful eating space with filtered drinking water and healthy, seasonal snacks and vending where 25% or more of the student population within the building or floor could congregate. Such a space would promote socialization and healthy eating habits without creating redundancy in a full cafeteria.

Green spaces within the building can provide semi-private outdoor connection and respite. The grounds can be designed to promote recreation and even food production, so students can contribute to overall campus health.

Biodiversity is another opportunity. In the illustration below, we see the rooftop, with reduced HVAC&R equipment through electrification and heat/energy recovery systems, can be fit with a large photovoltaic array atop a green roof to provide shelter for migratory birds, an apiary, and other wildlife. It can also contribute toward the project becoming net-positive for energy.

This visualization illustrates how campuses can rethink their residence halls’ potential for teaching and promoting healthy, sustainable lifestyles.

From spartan to spa

Private quarters can take a page from healthcare, where natural elements and colors, views onto nature and daylight, and private rooms—rather than “wards”—is the norm. These promote energy savings, quicker healing, mental wellness, and, most importantly, greater acoustic privacy and noise isolation for better sleep, all of which contribute toward well-being.

The diagram below shows a single-, or potentially double-, occupancy room with an en suite bath and large storage closet. The unit features a polished concrete radiant slab floor to promote thermal comfort and energy savings while reducing the overall building volume to save materials.

The envelope is built to Passive House standards, providing optimal indoor air quality, acoustics, and thermal comfort, while substantially reducing campus energy consumption.

All furniture and furnishings are compliant with ergonomics, transparency labels, and off-gassing requirements within WELL—a byproduct of a campus-wide environmentally preferred purchasing (EPP) policy (discussed in the next section).

Each suite features a double bed with storage beneath, a round table for eating, and a large built-in desk looking outward through a large tilt-turn operable window. The view out this window is ideally onto nature, enhanced by an external planter that doubles as a shading device.

Operations crucial for ongoing well-being

Occupant health is not realized when the building is completed; rather, it is an ongoing engagement between the commissioner, owner, and tenants—equally important as the design and construction strategies employed.

Residence halls offer a major opportunity for campuses to promote health and wellness, teach sustainable and healthy lifestyles, and “walk the talk” of greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

For example, a campus should maintain a high quality of air and potable water delivered to the spaces through ongoing, quarterly filtration maintenance and monitoring. While tedious, monitoring, coupled with seasonal post-occupancy evaluations, becomes a learning opportunity that keeps the students and staff accountable and engaged around health, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Tracking this data can be made fun through incentives that encourage competition between floors or other halls, like providing healthy food and vending discounts for participation. If tied to campus-subsidized personal monitoring devices or mobile apps, students can continually monitor everything from their sleep and steps to their caloric intake.

Such synchronicity could be instrumental in supporting carbon reduction targets on campuses because administrators can then fully quantify the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with their campus in a dynamic, granular way. This level of granularity has yet been attempted, but since most schools are targeting aggressive GHG reductions (many being ACUPCC signatories) this can be a means to do so, while accommodating transient student populations.

Beyond physical buildings, policy is another instrument for promoting health and sustainability. A smoke-free campus, for example, is the best way to discourage the use of tobacco and e-cigarettes. Additionally, a policy promoting the use of third-party rating systems for all capital projects can ensure continual progress.

Campuses can do more to promote biodiversity and indoor air quality (IAQ) through initiating an integrative pest management plan, which reduces the need for harmful pesticides and herbicides, opting for passive controls through using “green” products, plant selection, and spatial design that eliminates potential food sources.

Furthermore, a green cleaning plan can promote IAQ standards. Current cleaning practices encourage a great deal of waste, are expensive, and they harm IAQ. Campuses can build bulk, compliant cleaning products into the price for room and board, whereby students rent cleaning supplies instead of owning them. Residence halls can offer them in reusable containers to educate students about waste, saving time and money and promoting education. Lastly, an EPP policy maintains that everything from electronics to paper, furnishings, and even grounds vehicles contribute toward environmental stewardship on campus.

Mindful eating spaces become important campus “third spaces” that can help encourage socialization among peers, as well as healthy eating behaviors.

Residence halls and health

Residence halls offer a major opportunity for campuses to promote health and wellness, teach sustainable and healthy lifestyles, and “walk the talk” of greenhouse gas emissions reductions while stoking innovation and attracting and retaining the best students.

Colleges are no different than any other business in the sense that they must remain relevant to remain successful. In an era of uncertainty and increasing costs to deliver education, students are more scrutinizing than ever about their investment dollars, time, and experience. There simply is no way to lose if campuses not only go green but go healthy too.

  • Blake Jackson

    Blake is a passionate architect who specializes in designing and implementing stewardship (sustainability, wellness, and resiliency) for a variety of projects and industries.

    Contact Blake
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