All Together: Summoning Ideals During a Period of Crisis

November 23, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published by Alex Krieger for the Harvard Graduate School of Design here

 

Optimism in America can be in short supply. A fearsome pandemic has taken an intolerable number of lives, with many more people succumbing daily. Livelihoods are at stake as millions remain out of work, and the economy is suffering. The particularly shocking murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of white police officers—and shootings since—have awakened wide-ranging cognizance of persistent racism, a much longer national crisis than the pandemic. And some political leaders shamelessly stoke divisiveness rather than speak out for tolerance and unity.

In truth, national unease was present prior to the arrival of COVID-19. Among a gathering of worries was climate change inaction, growing environmental harm, housing unaffordability, health care insecurities, and accelerating economic and social inequalities. Unlike prior generations—who trusted in a better future for their kids — today’s parents believe that the prospects for their children’s lives seem not as promising as were their own.

Along with optimism, expressions of ideals are in remission. Yet even amidst individual anxieties and the anger of the multitudes, one can sense a desire to reassert certain ideals. Let’s look again to the ones embodied in the opening sentence of the Constitution, “to form a more perfect Union,” and in our oldest motto, e pluribus unum. Would not the desire for equality, well-being, respect and acceptance of others, shared prosperity, valuing those who serve, caring for the environment, and access to health care be embodied in such aspirations? Add happiness, too, as in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Ah, but you are thinking that such hallowed statements — voiced by the privileged — were not actually intended for all, despite the phrase “All men are created equal.” No, we have never fully met the challenge of America’s lofty aspirations. But should we not continue to try, especially now? That oft-repeated phrase — We are all in this together — heard both in relationship to fighting the pandemic and among the marchers for justice, is not unrelated to an intention to form a more perfect union.

Can we all together transition from marching in protest to overcoming racism and other inequalities? And while we’re at it, can we all insist that fresher air remains over our cities once the pandemic is conquered? Can we collectively distribute less carbon into the atmosphere? Continue to enjoy congestion-free, pedestrian-friendly streets throughout urban America? Keep a healthier balance of work and life? Prolong that respite from incessant travel demands? Continue spending more time with family? Maintain daily walks with a loved one when social distancing mandates abate? Why not commit to keeping those Himalayan peaks visible from broader regions of India? Such shifts have been, pardon the expression, breaths of fresh air, illuminated by a crisis.

Throughout American history, a reconfiguring of society following a crisis often catapulted the nation forward. Shouldn’t today’s interrelated crises do so as well? For inspiration, recall the earliest colonists, finding not the Eden they imagined while sailing to a new world, but confronting a harsh wilderness instead. They persisted to fashion a version of Eden in which to prosper. Against odds, their descendants defeated a mighty empire standing in the way of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now remember the establishment of a Homestead Act in 1863, enabling any citizen to acquire a quarter-section of America—160 acres—at minimal cost, simply by occupying it and providing minimal improvements. Talk about affordable housing! Or, recall the Morrill Act, also passed in the midst of the Civil War. It required states to establish a public university with the proceeds from the sale of land granted by the federal government. Sixty-nine such land-grant institutions were founded, greatly expanding access to education and the “useful” skills necessary for a modernizing society. Among these were Texas A&M, the University of California, Cornell University, and MIT.

Now consider the determination to overcome distance: Construction of a transcontinental rail system was completed within a couple of decades during the second half of the 19th century. Concurrently, thousands of acres of parks and greenswards were “planted” in rapidly industrializing and increasingly harsh cities, in order to make them more humane for all those arriving from subsistence farms and across oceans. Remarkable environments such as New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace were the result.

And we haven’t yet gotten to the 20th century, during which America prevailed in two world wars; invented a social security system and Medicare for the elderly; reconnected the country with roads, telephones, and the internet; increased the percentage of families attaining their measure of the American dream; and finally established civil rights in law (if not always in reality). We even landed a person on the moon, and even more remarkably returned him safely to Earth—a catalyst for major public commitment to scientific research in multiple fields.

To summon either aspirations or accomplishments of American culture is not to ignore, much less excuse, the many dystopic aspects of American history: the near total destruction of Indigenous cultures; the horrors of slavery and systemic racism; the conceits of Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism; the continued corporate and political restraints on economic parity; the despoiling of the environment in the name of progress. Mere voicing of ideals have not led to their attainment. But to live and flourish in company with others — in more perfect union — requires shared ideals.

Summoning ideals during a period of crisis is hardly naive. Re-read John Lewis’s letter written right before his passing, imploring us to pursue “the next chapter of the great American story.” A lifetime of struggle against racism and for civil rights did not lead Lewis to abandon America’s ideals. And back in 1859, at an event in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, scene of revolutionary foment a century earlier, Carl Schurz — senator from Missouri, 13th secretary of the interior, and an immigrant appreciative of his adopted country — spoke to the value of following national ideals. “Ideals are like stars,” he said. “You will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but… you choose them as guides, and following them will enable you to reach your destiny.” Sound advice.

The pandemic will be conquered, vaccines are on the horizon and the economy will gradually rebound. An incoming administration promises to address partisanship and social discord. Many are hopeful for that effort’s success. Still, rather than pining for a return to a prior normal, lets commit, all together, to a destiny that enjoys the necessities of clean air, justice and equality for all.

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Helping Universities Adapt and Respond

Three Ways to Leverage Campus Real Estate in Support of Mission and Longevity

September 16, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Megha Sinha, Kim Way and Britni Stone.

 

As universities evolve strategies for reopening amidst the pandemic, many are also faced with major financial and logistical challenges. The combined impact of the loss of international students, financial strains that predate COVID, and the millions in losses caused by shutting down in-person classes leave many institutions in a serious bind. The space needs of universities are also changing rapidly, with the evolution of teaching models, the need for socially distanced learning environments and hybrid classrooms that support online and in-person learning. Given this context, there is a compelling need for universities to take a deeper look at their real estate assets and be creative with how they leverage their campus.

Real estate can be a valuable and untapped tool for universities seeking flexibility and additional resources to support their academic mission and financial stability. There are three key strategies which can support universities in this effort—scenario planning, partnerships, and creating flexible campus environments and spaces.

1. Scenario Planning

Scenario planning is a strategic planning method that universities can use to create flexible long-term campus plans, which can be particularly valuable in this era of uncertainty. Rather than creating a prescriptive master plan that lays out a single vision for the distant future, scenario planning helps institutions to envision multiple scenarios, each of which triggers a different planning approach. This ensures that the campus plan evolves with the changing landscape, and enables a more creative, flexible use of available space.

Each plan is unique as each institution is unique, but there are four key steps for institutions to consider as they develop a scenario plan:

  • Identify the key space needs drivers, both internal and external. This may encompass factors like enrollment trends, technology, areas of academic and research emphasis, evolving teaching models and student life and support facility needs. It is also important at this stage to start with the institution’s academic mission and vision, and consider how real estate can support this.
  • Assess existing facilities. This step involves understanding how space is currently being utilized and the condition of existing facilities. The challenge of addressing deferred maintenance may loom large on the horizon for many universities, though careful consideration should also be given to how facilities in need of renovation can be modified and used to accommodate pandemic related space needs in the immediate term.
  • Explore plausible scenarios. Universities should map out how programs, enrollment levels, and delivery models may evolve and change over the planning horizon, and use these projections to create a range of plausible scenarios. For instance, a university may anticipate steady on-campus enrollment growth, but should also consider the possibility that enrollment levels plateau or decline.
  • Provide a range of near and long-term recommendations. The last step is developing multiple or alternative near and long-term recommendations based upon the scenarios. This allows an institution to pivot to the recommendation that most closely reflects the scenario that plays out. For instance, if on-campus enrollment grows, then the university can adopt the recommendation that helps meet growing academic and student life space needs on campus. If the growth takes place in the online cohort, then the university can adopt the recommendation that enables a smaller real estate footprint, or reinvestment in technology within facilities, if hybrid learning models evolve.

2. Partnerships

Institutions can create more flexibility by partnering with other academic institutions, businesses, developers and allied organizations, utilizing their real estate to further their academic priorities. This approach can include:

  • Raising capital. Universities frequently have valuable real estate which is often unused, including parking lots and ageing or vacant buildings which they can’t afford to renovate. This real estate can be leased or sold to developers to raise capital that can sustain and enhance the institution’s strategic and academic mission.
  • Campus expansion. Universities frequently have facility needs that cannot be met through the traditional capital budgeting process. By partnering with developers through joint ventures or other arrangements, universities can still realize important projects like town/gown commercial districts, research parks, student housing, recreation amenities or other facilities. Some universities, like UC Davis Sacramento, have gone further by seeking out developers to finance, develop, own and manage significant parts of a new campus.
  • Partner with mission-aligned organizations. Universities can also raise capital and further their academic priorities by partnering with mission-aligned organizations, such as industry partners. For instance, co-locating with and renting campus space to companies allied with an academic research program or incubator space could bring financial benefits to the university while strengthening its research capabilities or commercialization efforts.

3. Create Flexibility in Existing Campus and Facilities

The pandemic demonstrates the importance of flexibility, as universities scramble to repurpose athletic facilities, outdoor space and other unconventional settings for socially distanced learning, dining or other functions. As part of a more long-term strategy to enhance adaptability and resilience, universities should consider flexibility as a central premise for the design of their campuses and spaces. But in the more immediate term, there are a number of strategies which can enhance flexibility within existing spaces to promote social distancing.

A fair degree of flexibility has been built into classrooms over the last decade, and this can be leveraged to make learning environments safer. For example, movable partitions in seminar rooms can be used to create smaller hybrid classes, and reconfigurable furniture can be spaced out to support social distancing. Similarly, shared common areas can be repurposed and zoned for lower density, serving as secondary spaces for learning, with the existing technology potentially used for virtual learners in a hybrid classroom. With an increase in remote work, some institutions may even rethink the design of staff space, adopting hoteling or shared hub strategies that provide the same choices offered in classroom environments and third spaces to faculty.

Technology is another enabler which may create new flexibility within existing spaces. With classroom technology becoming increasingly mobile, a number of areas, such as outdoor open spaces, building terraces and indoor atriums with good ventilation can potentially be used as temporary classrooms. Some universities are also deploying mobile hotspots to students in remote locations and boosting parking lot wifi to facilitate online learning.

While the immediate challenges of the pandemic will eventually recede, universities will need to continue to adapt and evolve in response to changing teaching models, enrollment trends and financial dynamics. Scenario planning, partnerships and designing for flexibility will be important tools for universities as they undertake this vital work.

 

How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at socialmedia@nbbj.com.

Banner image courtesy Matthew Carbone.

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How to Feel Together While We’re Apart

Where Work and Collaboration Meet in the Era of COVID-19

August 19, 2020

Principal, ESI Design, an NBBJ Studio

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Emily Webster and Andrea Vanecko.

 

In the traditional workplace during “normal” times, an employee’s presence is felt as soon as they step foot into the office. Yet in the era of COVID-19, where some are in the workplace and some are remote, employees risk feeling increasingly disconnected from each other. While some tech companies and startups have worked with a distributed workforce for a while, many more organizations now have to consider how to effectively adapt to this unique way of working.

Now is the time to experiment. After months of working remotely, our perspective about our work and our office experience has changed. As new work styles and environments evolve, it’s important to continually test how people truly use their space and connect with one another. Changes to process, policy and the physical design of a workplace can mitigate this sense of disconnection, of which we list a few ideas to consider below. But the first step is to consider company culture:

  • How do employees, teams, departments and your organization work and meet? What are the daily patterns and rituals that make your company unique?
  • How do collaboration rhythms impact roles and departments that are more independent, versus others that are more team-based?
  • Does your company provide services to clients or produce internal products? Is your work on display or private?
  • How do you share exciting moments?

Answering these questions will highlight habits and perspectives that are central to an organization and reveal ways to carry these cultural benefits forward through the coronavirus and beyond. With these questions answered, the following design strategies can be integrated to create an environment of social cohesion, productivity and collaboration.

Humanize the Workplace

Employees who work remotely still want to chat, connect, and share ideas with their colleagues, even if they can’t share the same space. To build staff’s presence in the workplace, incorporate digital platforms to enable them to communicate in real time and customize their environment. Employees could push photos of themselves, share their work or send messages to colleagues on various-sized digital frames that can be used in the office or at home — and placed on a desktop or a shelf, or hung on a wall. Rather than computer monitors, empty desks could also feature dynamic computer wallpaper with digital greetings, documents and notes for in-office teammates.

Offer Dedicated Team Areas

Work stations may partially transition away from individually-assigned desks. Instead, staff could be assigned to dedicated team huddle areas. These rooms — located in or near the work zone — could feature tactile digital walls for collaboration sessions, brainstorming, project updates and idea-sharing. Teams could also leave analogue components, like sticky notes and posters, as well as other leave-behinds. Built-in cameras would allow remote team members to video conference in, and could also take photos and videos of the collaboration wall to share real-time progress with distributed teams. These areas could also feature more lounge-like furniture, such as couches, lounge chairs and ottomans to create a more comfortable environment for in-office employees. This would also allow remote staff to feel more connected as they could see more than just their team members’ faces, as body language is a crucial part of effective communication. In addition, these huddle rooms could have three walls or panels for a more porous feel, yet still provide an intimate space to build closer collaboration between virtual and in-person team members.

Create a Shared Dialogue in Communal Spaces

When colleagues are separated, how do you recreate the impromptu chat at the water cooler or the catch-up over coffee? To help connect staff in the office and those working from home on a more casual level, a “sharing space” that is physically present in the office but also tethered to the online world could help decrease isolation. Interactive space, simulation environments and sharing platforms could be created to allow staff to engage with their colleagues in a more personal way. Staff could leave artifacts — such as virtual messages, videos, social media feeds and other work or personal updates for remote and in-office employees. These could sync with the displays in conference rooms as well, or even augmented reality collaboration spaces. Finding ways for distributed team members’ personalities to come through, even if the entire work force isn’t physically present in the same space, maintains a sense of comradery. To strengthen a community connection, these solutions should not only be digital. In-person staff could leave friendly handwritten notes, community event flyers and team photos on these social sharing walls to be seen by colleagues the next day.

Maximize Nature Outside-In

The positive effects of viewing green plants — whether real, simulated via digital displays— are proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure. Offer novel opportunities for distributed employees to connect with green spaces to create a more invigorating and nourishing environment. Outdoor cabanas or “offices in a box” could provide a refreshing and meditative change of scenery as well as natural ventilation, to offer staff unique ways to collaborate in person and virtually, as well as decrease stress. Outfitted with conference tables and chairs, or even lounge-style couches — and equipped with lush planter boxes and the latest teleconferencing technology — these spaces for one to six people could powerfully leverage indoor-outdoor connections for distributed teams. Rooftops with shaded tables, seating and wifi could also provide ways for in-person and remote staff to collaborate outside, even in drizzly weather.

Yet nature isn’t limited to the outdoors of course. The interior environment can be landscaped too, to help better connect a distributed workforce. Donut- or triangle-shaped multi-desk configurations with trees and green plants placed at the center can bring the positive effects of nature into the workplace to both profound and breathtaking effects — and create more engaging spaces for video calls. Other areas around the office can create peaceful, nature-filled nooks for remote touch-bases, such as booth banquets with planting screens. When true natural views aren’t possible, offering bucolic digital views for both in-person and remote staff could still bring benefits.

Change is inevitable. How do we embrace the new structures of the workplace and the work day? To flex to this new era and the “next normal,” it’s critical to rethink how and where we work. As our work environments evolve, it’s important to continually test new collaboration modes. With this unchartered territory, success lies in transforming this disruption into positive opportunities to reconnect with colleagues on new levels.

How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at socialmedia@nbbj.com.

 

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