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Done Right, Design by Committee Can Work (Really)

  • Integrating student and stakeholder voices into Ontario Tech University

When was the last time someone celebrated a project designed by committee? The prevailing feeling is too many opinions can dilute good ideas until they’re barely recognizable. But when designing today’s higher education buildings, stakeholder participation is a must – what’s more, if done right, it will advance forward-thinking design concepts, making a good idea, great.

Brad MacIsaac is the associate vice president of planning for Ontario Tech University in Durham Region, Ontario. As head of operations and space planning, he’s spent much of his career participating in consultations that have led to successful outcomes.

On a recent project for the university, his challenge was to create a hub that met the needs of all stakeholders – from students to faculty, staff, and the local community. “We didn’t want a top-down approach, where we just opened the building and said, here it is, enjoy!” he says. “We set some parameters about features needed, but we made sure we created a climate where we listened to all relevant opinions.”

Creating a Climate for Authentic Discussions

The new student hub* at Ontario Tech University was designed by Architecture Counsel (ACi) in joint venture with Montgomery Sisam Architects. As recognized experts in the design of higher education spaces, ACi understood the importance of gaining buy-in from the stakeholders and championing how to incorporate the stakeholder voice into the design.

The hub is a purpose-built space and an exciting, mixed-use gateway to the north Oshawa campus of Ontario Tech. Intended as a “sticky building,” its program and design encourage the university community to linger and use the building’s many amenities, to study, and to enjoy the social spaces in a communal like atmosphere. The building sets the framework for a well-connected, walkable campus and contributes to a more robust student community.

The new gateway building to the Ontario Tech’s north Oshawa campus completes the university’s quad – Polonsky Commons

Stakeholder involvement was multi-faceted on this project. Several town halls showed drawings of the space as it evolved – before, during and at final stages – allowing for student, staff, and faculty comments to be heard. Instead of the normal lecture-like town halls, pop-up sessions were held in common areas to get greater participation. The interactive nature encouraged members to answer questions like, ‘what are some aspects of space and furniture that would keep you on campus; or make you reconsider leaving once your formal classes are done for the day?’ Sessions were held with the local business community, who would provide off campus rental housing, restaurants, stores, and community services.

“The university was woefully deficient in all space categories – teaching, learning, research and student supports,“ says MacIsaac. “We weren’t able to go into this project and definitively say we want a research facility or student facility. We had to have serious, authentic conversations on ‘how do we make all of the areas that needed representation, a little better?’”

Early concept rendering of the hub’s exterior shown at stakeholder presentations: Setting the framework for a well-connected, walkable campus and contributing to a more robust student community.

The Changing Nature of the Student Experience

Students played a key role in the discovery phase of the building design, reflecting how much the nature of educational spaces has changed from 20 years ago. “Students are not just consumers of information today,” says MacIsaac. “It’s no longer how many tiered seats can you get into a building. We had to design a space that was massively flexible, because we know that learning does not just take place in a classroom.”

ACi was chosen to lead the project because of its proven record in designing more than 45 educational spaces. In particular, they challenged the university to think of the future, by looking at industry trends, to see how hub spaces like this one can work long term.

“We don’t design a building based on what’s happening today, but rather where our faculties see education 10 years from now,” says MacIsaac. “The ACi team was able to bring a number of real-life experiences to show research about where educational spaces are moving. That was a major benefit because we didn’t have to outsource that component to an educational consultant.”

Comfortable seating arrangements create opportunities for relaxation, conversation, informal study

The hub is a study of student life in motion. More than 10,000 students might come into this space and expect it will fulfil different functions for them, at different times of the day. Some spaces may be convertible – in one day, they offer a place for quiet study, a student union meeting or a counselling session. Other spaces may need to accommodate a team design project. Later in the day, a space may need to transform into a 75-seat gathering space for a podium-style event. The spaces in the hub are not owned by any one administrative or academic unit. Groups within the university (and in some cases outside stakeholders) come in and use many of these spaces for activities from study to events and formal or informal research presentations. 

Concept rendering of the lower level and feature staircase

Being able to create the functional space program – the blueprint for space use in a building – is an ACI strength that MacIsaac relied on. The final building includes a large open hall, or dynamic community hub, with lounges, break-out study areas, food services, the University Student Union and an Indigenous education room. A feature staircase connects to the lower-level Conference Centre and Student Centre. The upper levels, which are quieter, include offices, administration, classrooms, labs and collaborative learning spaces. There are tranquil study areas on these upper levels.

These more flexible and informal spaces will be key in a post-COVID-19 world. Activities previously held in large undergraduate classroom settings will begin to morph into hybrid learning opportunities; a combination of online learning for the formal delivery of content, accompanied by smaller lab-type physical sessions focused on problem solving and experiential learning to complement the online theoretical content. The flexibility of this new building will accommodate this recent shift in the way teaching and learning will happen. For many students, it will offer the ability to retreat to a place that functions as a safe third space to access the online learning component of their course work.

Flexible learning spaces include writeable surfaces for ease of collaborative activities; natural light fills and energizes the space

Stakeholder Takeaways that Influenced Design

“We are a technology-infused institution,” says MacIsaac. “Many students asked that enough charging stations be incorporated into the design for laptops, but that challenged us to think: is it outlets we really need more of, or do we maybe want tables that are purpose-built as charging stations?” A table as recharger is just one outcome of stakeholder discussions and is now being invented by researchers and students on campus. 

As a central gathering point for the campus, all stakeholders wanted to be sure that the design wasn’t so rigid that it couldn’t morph to different requirements. This is where MacIsaac points out it’s more productive to ask people what issue they want solved, versus asking them for the solution.

ACI suggested that collision spaces become a key component of the design. A kitchen area for mingling over food prep, that felt like home, was important during the day. But at night, the kitchen space would need to be easily convertible so a different activity could be accommodated. People needed to be able to spill out into the area, safely distanced, to have a larger gathering.

In addition, classrooms took on a new look. The formal podium was removed – suggesting a teaching and learning space that would move away from formal lecture delivery towards a more transactional, collaborative, and active model of information transfer and problem-solving. The final design ensured teaching spaces had the capacity to be wireless so a teacher could present from any spot in a room.

Delivering a “sticky campus” – where students, faculty and staff are encouraged to ‘stick’ around the campus

The Result?

Design by committee worked on this project – because people could see the vision early on and contributed to the process.

“I really think by respecting stakeholder ideas, we’ve delivered on a sticky campus,” says MacIsaac. “We’re a commuter institution. This space will help our students, faculty and staff stick around, and stay on campus more, and that can lead to really deep discussions and engaging events.”

He also points out that consultation is a long-term process that didn’t start with this building. In fact, MacIsaac says they’d been gathering input and ideas for years dating back to previous buildings and annual resource discussions.

Students at Ontario Tech will reap the rewards of a hub that will enhance their studies and their lives. But MacIsaac says the success of the building design will also be in the recruitment results and its role as a marketing asset. Potential students who visit the campus, and see the building, will no doubt be impressed and based on our internal research more likely to convert into future enrollees.

“In many ways, we’ve created a dynamic little city here on campus,” he says. “One that reflects all our shareholders’ needs – the ideas of our students, but also the input of surrounding businesses, our educators, and the staff that run the building.”

*Since named Shawenjigewining Hall