Design of Student Unions

Student Unions have evolved with ever changing student body demographics, technology and individual campus needs. One aspect that has remained key is the Student Union representing the gateway and the public face for the school. These facilities act in many of the same regards as a community center – by being the Heart of the campus community, providing a place for social interaction, providing support services to the users and being an identity place marker. Student Unions also function as a hub to unite the physical spaces on campuses as well as providing accidental collaboration and community spaces.

Through good design, Student Unions can maximize the competitive edge of a college or university assisting in the recruitment of new students, staff and faculty through the quality of their facilities. Schools also capitalize on the Social Network established in Student Unions by promoting professional environments, fostering relationships and promoting the energy of the spaces. Some additional key design and programming elements and considerations are highlighted below.student-union-trends-projects-from-perkinswill-6-638

Heart/Hearth of the Campus or Community

Even if the Student Union is not located precisely at the center of campus, it functions as the center or heart of the campus. It should be a focal point for students/faculty to interact in acomfortable environment. It should be central so that all students have to walk by or through it to get for one side of campus to the other. The building itself should have a central “Hearth,” similar to the “Wrightian” theory that the fireplace and hearth, are the center of the building. This can be a figurative “Hearth” and expressed as a water feature, sculpture or other place marker.

P5_Bergmeyer_01_McGauvran_Student_Center_INTERIOR_DESIGNVisual Impact

The physical appearance of the Student Center should be welcoming, open and inviting with transparency and views from the outside to highlight activity in the building. The architecture should evoke a “wow” to entice students to enter and use the space. Let’s face it – its college – it needs to be cool. Vertical elements (towers, etc.) can provide visibility from different points on campus and provide visual reference points on campus. Maximizing transparency encourages collaboration among the building users and enhances the awareness of the activities taking place within the building. It can also highlight specialty areas available within the centers and be a “see and be seen” atmosphere. Environments that are fully glazed to the spaces beyond, allow daylight deep into the building and a visual discovery of what is happening within these spaces to passersby. The interior layout should not be a labyrinth of rooms connected by corridors, but rather open continuous spaces with easy wayfinding. It shouldn’t look like a typical classroom building. It needs to be a respite from normal academic spaces.

18c23387383011572697e3a165464227Information Dissemination

A major component of Student Unions (and in Community Centers) is the gathering and dissemination of information. Campus announcements, class or curriculum schedules and extracurricular activities are promoted with electronic displays, personal interaction and even a physical bulletin board. Personal interaction with something as simple as a manned information desk can set the tone for personal engagement and interaction within the facility. With student activities and social interactions happening constantly in the building there is the potential for a nonstop exchange of information by the students through conversation amongst themselves and through social media on-line.

Adaptable Technology

Technology should be used to augment, complement and enhance – not automate, substitute or replace – social interaction, teaching and learning processes. Personal and group digital technologies should be universal, seamless and mobile in a 21st century student environment to facilitate learning and interactions at any time and in any place. Social media, ubiquitous computing, tablets and personal digital devices are integral to learning and communication inside and outside the classroom/lab, across the country and around the world. Wifi throughout is the current must have along with lots of power. Power is not limited to outlets every 15 feet along the wall, outlets can be in furniture, seating areas and tables.

Multi-Purpose Environments01

Academic institutions are promoting diverse cultures that reflect increasingly multidimensional, global, distributed, social, experiential, and interactive lifestyles of students. New spaces must support this fluid environment where interacting, technology, and new ideas are continually evolving and blurring traditional boundaries. These spaces enable groups of students or students and teachers to collaborate and range from a small meeting room to larger public spaces. “The only constant is change” mantra applies to the students and their needs. Shared spaces, like circulation space and dining spaces, provides additional functional opportunities where corridors become open pocket lounges and dining areas become informal group study areas at different times. These spaces must enable students to be productive through access to technology, writing surfaces and furniture groupings. The Student Center’s rooms may change function by the time of day – a conference center turns into a group study room, a cafeteria space turns into a performance space, an office turns into an interview room, a dining area turns into a collaboration area.

Enhancing Students’ Experience


Student Services are essential in enhancing the student experience and is critical to the long-term success of a school. The most recent and largest growth in space relates to how spaces are being planned in support of the student experience. There are a wide variety of spaces that support students including: multiple spaces for interaction and study (team study rooms, huddle areas, lounge type space), career services/ placement administrative, interviewing rooms, recruitment areas and offices for academic advising, internships, student organizations and student business endeavors. There is also an increased emphasis on related support services such as retail, dining venues, entertainment and health related activities. It is good to put time into the process of seeing what is important to the students of the campus. While a bike shop may be a success on a commuter oriented campus in a temperate climate it may be a bust on a campus covered with snow for the majority of the school term. Commuter based schools have a wide variety of services that could elevate the student experience by having them on campus. Day care, dry cleaners, bank, convenience store and copy centers may appeal to late night commuter campuses that have students that work and go to school. These services can also generate revenue to support the building and operating costs of the Student Union. The Student Union must also be designed to be all-inclusive – to serve disabled, multi-generational, multi-cultural and multi-lingual.

10000-03Dynamic Flexibility and Sustainability

All spaces must be highly adaptable to address a variety of uses and anticipate deeper changes over the life of the building. Of course, there is no way to accurately predict the future and undiscovered technologies. This is especially true as disciplinary barriers dissolve and spaces must increasingly adapt for a wider range of shared disciplines and uses. Each new building must be a “living environment for learning.” The building must also address the social issues prevalent to today’s students. Sustainability and stewardship of the environment combined with a reduction in operating costs provides a strong community story that adds to the richness of the school. Daylighting enhances the experience of the building and it also offsets energy costs. Recycled and sustainable materials provide healthier environments for users.

Evolving ElementsWhats-happening

Technology has drastically altered some physical spaces in buildings. Computer labs have been replaced by mobile technology that can be used in any space. Any place there is an outlet and WIFI can be a computer lab. Brick and mortar bookstores are losing space to online retailers. Dedicated rooms that function for one use create underutilized space and hamper adaptability for future uses – such as “Game rooms” that have been replaced with mobile game consoles. Color trends evolve in cycles that can quickly date a building because of over emphasis on the current trend. Color is still and important aspect of the atmosphere of the building and it can be leveraged by using trending colors on replaceable features (carpet, upholstery, paint) that can change with trends and by keeping background areas neutral. The real pulse on the evolving elements of a student center is going to come from the users. The student body must be a major stakeholder in the process of developing the facility. They will think of uses, spaces, and requirements that facility planners and academia will overlook because they don’t use it.

KSU043I went to college at a school that had a state of the art 1972 era student center – which for that time was state of the art. However, it pretty much epitomized what not to do today. It is a low-slung (heavylooking) brick building with deeply recessed windows arranged like a classroom building and no real defined entry. The interior plan is basically a double loaded corridor with compartmentalized rooms for cafeteria, student services offices, conferencing areas and administrative offices. Definitely no “wow-factor.” The most active portions of the building – the game room and the Rathskeller – are located underground in the basement. The original furniture was the height of trendiness for the seventies and upholstered in hot pink, fuchsia, orange and red (and the school colors were blue and gold). The heavy brick façade and lack of transparency makes it impossible to see any activity inside the facility. I was recently back on campus and it was apparent they tried to remedy/improve the facility with some quick fixes. The enormous bookstore was subdivided into multiple users – a cell phone vendor, mini Apple genius bar, and some other smaller vendors. Some of the enclosed office areas had been opened up to allow for quick grab and go food service/coffee bar. But the cafeteria was still enclosed behind wood doors, the game room, bar and additional student services offices were still in the basement. The classic seventies furniture has been replaced with more lounge friendly arrangements upholstered in shades of blue and gold.


Curt Carlson

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