T&L Spaces

Designing connections in higher education

Teaching Support and Learning Commons drawing

Educational developers are, in my opinion, the root system of higher education. This is because they keep teaching and learning alive and healthy. They do this by creating connections between people, places, and ideas. My name is Amanda Gatto, and I graduated from the University of Windsor in 2018 as a part of the Visual Arts and the Built Environment (VABE) program. While attending and working towards a B.A., I had the opportunity to do research with Dr. Veronika Mogyorody. Together, we completed a Space Audit for the Centre for Teaching and Learning. After I graduated, I continued my education at University of Detroit Mercy studying architecture. For my master’s thesis in architecture I continued studying educational developers at the University of Windsor. My goal was to design a building that could be a new home for their work on campus. Through my research process, I developed 3 key concepts that were implemented in the design of the Teaching Support and Learning Commons. These 3 concepts were:

  1. The Campfire, the Watering Hole, and the Cave
  2. Roots and Connections
  3. Learner Central

The Campfire, Watering Hole, and Cave design concept challenged staff to think about clustering program based on if it was a teaching space, collaborative space, or private space, and to place these on the site according to where they felt the most public or private spaces should be. The Roots and Connections design concept focused which programs needed to be closely connected, or how they could be placed to allow for more spontaneous connections to occur. The Learner Central design concept focused on keeping learning spaces at the heart of each level or area, and supporting spaces surrounding them.

Using these three concepts, a world café workshop was hosted. To use this style of workshop, tables are set up around a room with seats at each table. A presenter presents a set of ideas to the attendees and presents a question or problem based on the ideas. Each table has a specific idea that they use to answer the question. At the table there is also a host, who is prepared beforehand with additional knowledge about the idea that their table has and remains at the table. For a set amount of time, the attendees work to answer the question or problem with their host. When time is up, the attendees would rotate to the next table. They would then repeat the same process but focusing on a different idea that was presented. This continues until attendees have been at each table. The workshop was set up as 3 tables, with groups of 3 staff members at each table. Each table had an overview page, stating the assigned design concept, precedent imagery and a bubble diagram to inspire their process, and colored paper squares representing program. Each different program was determined by a square footage spreadsheet created to list all necessary spaces in the building. Each program was represented by a different colour and was cut to scale of a typical square footage. The tables also had site plans to scale, trace paper, and markers. To begin, findings from the research were presented. Then the three design concepts were presented. After that, teams had 15 minutes to lay out a floor plan based on their concept and trace it. They then moved onto the next table.

This process helped me to begin understanding how spaces would best be laid out and grouped together. I created a collage of the designs they had produced, and began to map out where overlapping areas were, producing a rough floor plan that started my spatial planning of the building. This continued to grow through the project until the final building was developed and named the Teaching Support and Learning Commons.

Concept and planning drawings
Site location and inspiration drawings

The Teaching Support and Learning Commons building is a synthesis of the preliminary design and site analysis work, as well as a result of the workshop with educational developers. The site, located on the corner of Sunset Ave. and Wyandotte St., is divided into 4 quadrants, representative of the campfire, the watering hole, and the cave. The Spine, a N-S axis in the building, uses the design concept of roots and connections to connect these quadrants. From the main northern entry of the Spine, the activity of the building is visible. With bridges running E-W on the second and third floors, and many gathering spaces incorporated throughout, it represents the idea of keeping learners central and in view throughout the building.

Exterior drawing of Teaching Support and Learning Commons building

The Northern section of the site on the ground level is the campfire, the primarily public entry to the site, along with the largest classroom space. The Northern quadrant of the site creates a connection to campus, and an outdoor courtyard to allow students to mingle and enjoy the outdoors. The atrium allows students, staff, and faculty to enter the interior flexible work area that includes a café and green corner.  As users move South, they encounter the 500-person lecture hall that is inserted into the spine. Further South is additional classrooms and workspaces, including a workshop, presentation stairs, and a variety of meeting rooms. The Western portion of the building is primarily the 200-person lecture hall and the double height space of the media and editing rooms in the lower level.

Drawing of first level

The second level of the building keeps the spine portion open to below, allowing for views into the atrium. Bridges connect the Eastern program to the Western program. In the North, the upper level of the 500-person lecture hall dominates. Exits from the top of the lecture hall extend and bridge to the Western portion of the building, which features a range of small to large meeting rooms, a small classroom, and a faculty lounge that also has kitchen amenities. The faculty lounge opens to a collaborative space. In the South of the building, offices for the Centre for Teaching and Learning are located. Offices are clustered in a U shape and surround a central collaborative space that is flexible and offers more informal space for colleagues to share ideas and communicate with one another. Due to the number of offices required, not everyone could receive a window. In response to the questionnaire, in which majority of staff said they would prefer to have natural light in their office, a large window was placed in the collaborative area, with frosted glass and blinds implemented on each office. With this strategy, each office receives natural light from the glazing, but can remain private and even fully close off if there is a confidential meeting occurring. Each collaborative zone connects to the next and to the main reception area of the offices, which prevents isolation of staff members from occurring. A communicating stair is at the center of the reception area, allowing access to the third level.

Drawing of second level

The third level of the Teaching Support and Learning Commons offers offices in the South for the Office of Open Learning. Again, using clusters, the offices allow for collaborative zones, as well as media and editing rooms in the South end of the offices. In the hallways connecting the clusters, open-to-below areas offer the opportunity to look down into the office level below, allowing for communication between colleagues, despite the physical boundary of the floor. To the West, there is a patio that is accessible to staff, faculty, and students. The patio offers a variety of covered and uncovered space, and a view out to campus and the Detroit River. The bridge connecting the patio to the offices includes ‘bump-out’ spaces where the path is widened to allow for a few people to sit and overlook the expansive atrium below.

Drawing of third level

The lower level highlights the E-W axis of the building. This level provides program such as media rooms, editing rooms, a 200-person lecture hall, and a flexible collaborative zone. The collaborative zone offers enclosed rooms for small meetings or study areas that can be booked by staff, students, or faculty. Small and medium rooms allow for groups of different sizes to gather. Outside of the enclosed rooms are open areas that are developed with problem solving in mind. Near the Southern wall there are private study pods for those choosing to work individually. In the centre there is lounge seating. The Northern areas are open workspaces with movable furniture. Each area includes whiteboards, flip charts, and movable furniture to optimize functionality and flexibility of the space. Users are encouraged to adapt the space to their needs in order to learn efficiently. 

Drawing of lower level

The design of the Teaching Support and Learning Commons building focuses on creating opportunities for collaboration, connection, and communication. Each of the 4 levels offers a variety of learning spaces that engage faculty, staff, and students at the University. The creation of collaborative zones is implemented with flexible furniture to allow for learners to react and adapt the space to their unique preferences.

Drawings of human use of interior and overlapped levels

The site plan intended to connect to campus located North of Wyandotte St. To do so, a textured brick crosswalk was designed. The crosswalk follows the skewed angle of the building’s spine and carries that angle across the street to the pedestrian thoroughfare. In the Northern courtyard, rain gardens are implemented to deal with onsite rainwater management. In the gardens, seating is embedded. Offering shaded and unshaded areas, concrete tables and seats offer outdoor workstations. To the East of the courtyard, circular seating occurs as an outdoor extension to the interior cafe. On the Western edge, trees buffer noise, sound, and sight from the neighbouring convenience store.

A rooftop patio was designed atop the second level of the Western quadrant. Shaded areas were used as an extension of the wooden atrium structure and offer areas for classes to take place. Planter boxes begin to define space in the Southwest corner to offer a more private space for reflection and study. The collaborative space on the Northwest provides the best view of campus and the Ambassador bridge. A green roof was added atop the Southernmost third level to manage additional rainwater on site.

The design of the Sunset and Wyandotte site strives to extend onto campus and create a connection that is safe for all users to cross. Seating and workspaces are used to highlight the educational intention of the building, and offer use of the courtyard in summer months.

Drawing of site design

In conclusion, this building was designed to connect people to one another, offer collaboration throughout, and to offer various types of learning spaces. My goal was to design a building that would support the work that educational developers do each day on campus, and I knew I would not be able to do that without their input throughout the process. It was a pleasure working with them through this design process and I truly hope that it was as much fun for them as it was for me.

Drawing of Lecture Hall section
Drawings of office and spine section

Amanda Gatto is a recent graduate of the Masters of Architecture program from the University of Detroit Mercy. She also received a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Detroit Mercy and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Windsor as a part of the VABE program. She is interested in studying how pedagogy can influence architecture and its impact on design. She is also a recipient of the Medal of Excellence from the National Architectural Accrediting Board.

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