Residence Halls: A Fertile Fusion of Sustainability and Spaces for Informal Learning

In Blog by Morgan Dix

Along with the rest of culture and society, the missions and modus operandi of schools are changing in response to the online revolution.

How students learn. Where they learn. With whom they learn. All of these things are quickly changing the character if not the core of the college and university experience. Perhaps more than at any other time in history.

As with all big change, this poses both challenges and opportunities.

The Proliferation of Sustainable Informal Learning Spaces

sustainable informal learning spaceFor one thing, residence halls are more central to the learning process.

These days students are mobile. They’re less likely to learn lessons in a 100-300 seat auditorium as they are clustered in collaboration around ad-hoc study nooks with peers and professors.

This makes residence halls the sweet spot for designing niche environments of impromptu learning. The name for these knowledge nurturing nooks is informal learning spaces.

Learning from Sustainable Residence Halls

Residence halls are the junction of another key trend: sustainability.

In addition to designing green buildings that capture LEED Gold certifications through ecologically sensitive construction, residence halls themselves serve as compelling subjects of environmental study for students.

As such, in residence halls across the country, informal learning and sustainability fuse into one thing.

In this article, we explore a few examples of this emerging trend across the higher education landscape.

In the Business of Sustainability

And let me say upfront, this is all pretty interesting to me. Why?

Because our business is committed to the practice and principles of sustainability, and we’re also interested in building flexible and sustainable upholstered furniture—a hallmark of informal learning spaces.

That’s why some recent examples of this fusion of sustainable living and learning captured my attention.

But first, let’s step back and explore these trends on their own terms before we look at how they work together.

The Rapid (R)Evolution of the Residence Hall

In 2016, the Gensler Research Institute, a leading collaborative design firm, wrote an illuminating series of articles exploring the shifting role of residence halls in student learning.

In one article, they focused on the relatively untapped potential of the residence hall as a more central space for learning.

Our research suggests that the residence hall is an overlooked and underutilized asset in an integrated campus network, one that could bridge common gaps in student needs. The academic potential of the student residence is too often overshadowed by its real estate efficiency and social amenities. Residence halls should transform living spaces into something more academically productive, socially dynamic, and culturally rich. Great dorms have the potential to make the student experience more successful, memorable, meaningful, and satisfying.

These insights are especially true now. The context for student learning is changing quickly. Digital natives and online learning have reshaped the concept of the classroom in higher education.

That has corresponding and fundamental impacts on how we design learning environments, including the residence hall.

Specifically, we must innovate to account for changes in how students learn, socialize, collaborate, create, and engage with their peers.

The Innovation Campus

The New York Times, featured a compelling example of this innovation in their article The Innovation Campus: Building Better Ideas.

The University of Utah built a live-learn-work environment geared toward aspiring entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, and environmentalists. It integrated a residence hall with a diverse range of learning environments.

Different floors have different themes, based on Utah’s existing strengths: one for games and digital media, one for adventure and gear, one for design and the arts, one for global impact and sustainability. The ground-floor “garage” has workshops equipped with 3-D printers, laser cutters and other prototyping tools, available to anyone at the university and staffed by work-study students.

“One thing about the building is it has no formal classrooms, and no faculty or staff offices,” said Troy D’Ambrosio, executive director of the institute. “We didn’t want to have a classroom because that says, ‘In this room you learn, out here you don’t learn.’”

Because student learning now happens as much in residence hall lounges and common rooms as it does in traditional classrooms, schools have had to adapt.

The takeaway? Increased flexibility in learning spaces is crucial.

Designing Campus Communities

According to Gensleron in their article on Designing Campus Communities for Living and Learning:

We must plan buildings that can be easily adapted over their life span to meet changing program and technology needs that will come with this group. Many institutions expect their new buildings to last 40-50 years, yet programming requirements typically shift after less than a decade. Consider the impact on the bottom line if a building designed today could be cost effectively modified every 10 to 20 years.

Fortunately, some of the same solutions that help facilitate informal learning spaces in residence halls also help deal with some of the other issues—think social isolation—that accompany online culture and learning.

For example, well designed residence halls create community-building environments and salubrious social spaces.

New Communities, New Experiences, New Frontiers

As any college grad will tell you, a huge part of the higher education experience is a social one. Students seek out new communities, new experiences, and new frontiers of both learning and being.

Today, that also means that students want more hands-on education. They aren’t only seeking intellectual experience. As the University of Utah building demonstrates, they want pragmatic training that will help position and prepare them better for the job market.

Enter the modern residence hall.

In her article Residence Halls: The Key to Creating Community on College Campuses, Gensleron’s Heidi Hampton makes the following points.

It is clear that Residence halls need to provide flexible and interactive environments, academic and personal support programs and integrate education into the residential experience. Vibrant communities create thriving networks within college campuses. The future residence hall will connect all students – commuter and resident alike – and provide diverse spaces for student interaction and academic success.

As we’ve written about previously, creating this kind of community by designing sticky and attractive technology-rich spaces on campus and in the residence hall can improve overall student retention and therefore your bottom line.

So how does this need for innovation and flexibility in the live and learn model of residence halls dovetail with sustainability?

Sustainable Residence Halls: The Subject And Setting of Learning

The folks over Building Design & Construction provide great examples of two schools—St. Mary’s University and Eastern Mennonite University—that are capitalizing on the educational potential of residence halls by turning them into sustainability learning centers.

Among the common traits that bind these two examples together is the use of a dashboard interface that allows students to monitor the overall sustainability of their residence hall.

Remember, buildings in general are responsible for a huge amount of energy use and carbon emissions. That’s why a dashboard like this is so impactful on learning during our age of global warming and climate change.

The monitoring tool is developed by QA Graphics and they call it The Energy Efficiency Education Dashboard. It maps current usage to historical usage, tabulates savings, and gives you environmental tips and quizzes.

QA Graphics’ HTML5 Energy Efficiency Education Dashboard® v6 (EEED) is a web application that educates building occupants with real-time energy data and green building features.

Eastern Mennonite University

Eastern Mennonite University’s Cedarwood residence hall is one of these green laboratories.

In 2010, Cedarwood achieved LEED Gold certification from the USGBC. Among other sustainable attributes, including a solar hot water system, Cedarwood uses:

…extensive natural lighting; flooring made of recycled and natural materials; a bioretention filtration system to manage rainwater runoff; a bike shed with a “green” landscaped roof; native landscaping around the building itself; and low-flow water fixtures.

According to the article in Building Design and Construction,

Eastern Mennonite went a step further with the installation of a video dashboard in the Cedarwood lobby that delivers real-time data on the building’s energy and water usage as well as background information on its environmental characteristics.

The dashboard provides a way for visitors and students to learn about the building and to be aware of how their lifestyles impact the environment,” says EMU’s communications director, Andrea Wenger. “This is a living and learning community, and telling the story of Cedarwood’s construction and building use fits in with our mission as a university committed to sustainability.”

St. Mary’s University

They also highlight the work of another school, St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

St. Mary’s University has renovated much of its student housing with low-flow showers, toilets, and faucets, and automated lighting controls, but there’s still room for improving efficiency, says Shelley Price Finn, the university’s sustainability program coordinator.

St. Mary’s has adapted the QA Graphics’ software as the front end of a centralized energy management system that allows students, faculty, and staff to access environmental data over the Web. The university sponsors energy-conservation contests in which its residence halls vie against others in the Canadian Atlantic provinces. The winner is determined by the highest percentage reduction compared to its baseline week usage.

What Changes Will You Make?

These are inspired examples of how residence halls are using their own green metrics, in real time, to educate students about their impact on the earth. It also engages them with math, science, statistics, meteorology, environmental science, urban planning, and more.

We live in exciting times. The winds of change are blowing across all aspects of our lives, and the residential higher education environment is a rich zone of adaptation, evolution, and innovation.

At DCI, we’re thrilled to contribute to this evolution and develop flexible sustainable furniture to support student learning. If you have any questions or want to learn more, please reach out to us at akober@dcifurn.com.