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

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


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How Do You Redefine and Create a New Rhythm of Life?

An evidenced-based approach to elevate workplace experience, health and performance.

August 13, 2020

Design Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Edwin Beltran, Andy Snyder and Suzanne Carlson.

Workplace stress has a significant impact on health and productivity in normal times — but it has become a larger challenge in the current climate as people grapple with high unemployment, social distancing and general uncertainty. As organizations evolve new models for remote and in-office work, the wellbeing and engagement of their employees remains critical to their sustained success. This moment presents a unique opportunity to reimagine a better workplace — not just safer, but also less stressful and more productive, supporting a more purposeful rhythm of the day.

Neuroscience research provides crucial insights into stress, engagement and productivity. Humans are social creatures that find safety in relationships and nature, and are impacted by their environments in ways both large and small. This has important implications for how to design workplaces in an era of stress and uncertainty, suggesting new approaches that better respond to fundamental human needs.

Grounded in neuroscience research from Dr. John Medina as part of the NBBJ Fellowship Program, this post explores ideas on how to elevate workplace experience. Three of these concepts —Paths, Hubs and Nooks— provide people with opportunities to recharge and engage, promoting a new, more uplifting workday experience.



Paths serve as spaces to escape from daily routines, providing opportunities to exercise, find respite and refuge or connect with nature. They can be created out of utilitarian indoor spaces like stairs or hallways, and incorporate several elements shown to reduce stress and improve productivity. Paths can also be created in outdoor settings, creating intentional journeys through curated landscapes with points of interest that encourage people to pause and slow down.




Nooks are calming oases distributed throughout the workplace, particularly in underutilized spaces, that incorporate circadian lighting, natural sounds and moments of delight. Nooks promote mental and physical restoration through mindful slowdowns and positive distractions, which have been shown to reduce stress. They can be programmed to provide immersive experiences, or a supportive environment for a restorative nap, conversation or meditation.




Hubs are larger-scale restorative amenities that promote social connection, connection to nature or restorative breaks.  Intended for groups of people, hubs can be created within repurposed indoor spaces or outdoors, and can be programmed with engaging activities like exercise or meditation. Hubs can range from immersive audiovisual experiences, to lounges and chill-out rooms, to indoor gardens that could double as meeting and conference spaces.



These ideas are part of a comprehensive report by the NBBJ Fellowship Program which outlines how to create new work rhythms, ways to mitigate stress for frontline healthcare workers and how to remain human in a hybrid virtual-physical world.  To learn more about these concepts and the supporting research, please email to receive a downloadable PDF of the full report.


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