Presenting to the Association of University Architects


I’d intended to quickly write this post to reflect on the session, but it’s stayed in my drafts pile for a couple of weeks now so I’m going to share what I can remember. I’ll likely be misremembering some of the details of the session, but this should hit the highlights at least.

Recently, I had the absolute pleasure to be invited to co-present at the 67th Annual Association of University Architects Conference, conveniently hosted this year in Calgary, and even more conveniently having one day’s sessions housed within the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. Our Vice Provost Teaching and Learning, Dr. Leslie Reid, was invited to share her experience in leading the Taylor Institute, and she brought in Dr. Natasha Kenny and myself to round out the session.

In planning for the session, we decided early on that we didn’t want to do A Presentation™. There would not be slides and slides of text, and no bullet points. We wanted to tell stories, and to learn from the ~100 expert university architects from across North America about how they approach the challenges we’ve faced in the last few years.

We broke the storytelling portion of the session into 3 parts:

  1. Universality: Building for all or building for some (Leslie)
  2. Planning: Tension between form and function (Natasha)
  3. Flexibility: How to be flexible about flexibility (D’Arcy)

Universality: Building for all or building for some

At first blush, we were going to tell the stories of the Taylor Institute building and what we’ve experienced and learned in the 7 years since it opened. But the stories are bigger, and older, than that. Leslie started with the University of Calgary’s shift toward prioritizing teaching, and the leadership that involves - from the President(s), to the Provost(s), to the newly-formed Vice Provost(s) Teaching & Learning. And how the development of the Integrated Framework for Teaching and Learning allowed this work to continue and even become amplified through several changes of leadership - through 3 presidents, 3 provosts, and 2 vice provosts teaching and learning.

The group discussions were rich, and the consensus was essentially “if you build something for every purpose, it serves none.” (paraphrased). There was talk of the design of the Forum room in the Taylor Institute, where the session was being held. It was initially designed to be The Most Flexible Learning Space On Campus™, with theatre-seating that can be retracted to convert the room into flat-floor configuration with tables for groups and active learning.

The TI Forum, during our session at the 2023 Association of University Architects conference.

Photo by D'Arcy Norman

The lived experience of the room so far has been leaving it in “flat-floor” configuration for 98% of the time, and only bringing out the theatre seating for special occasions. This means the retracted seating looms ominously over the people in the room - “is it going to fall on us?” and “well, that wall is dead space for active learning - you can’t put anything on it so it’s useless.” And, because the rest of the room had to be designed to accommodate the seats in theatre mode, you can’t install things at normal-human-height-level along the side walls, and cameras need to be installed above the point where the theatre seating would be extended. Which means using the cameras for things like hybrid classroom sessions is difficult because the cameras are basically pointing straight down from an awkward angle. I’ve written about some of our work to hybrid-enable the learning spaces at the Taylor Institute, if you’d like specifics of what we’ve tried so far.

So, to enable 2% of potential uses of the space, we’ve made it difficult to use the space really well for the other 98% of the uses. Having the best intentions - maximal flexibility! - resulted in non-maximal design and experiences in the space.

By not being explicit in our design of the room - what is it that we really need the space to be able to do in order to support our pedagogical goals for it? - we wound up with a space that almost served our needs, but had severe limitations. Striving for ultimate flexibility left us with a space that was, in practice, not as flexible as we’d intended, and not as useful for our primary goals for the space. Retractable theatre seating sounds like a wonderful idea, but brings a whole suite of complex and interconnected issues that limit what can be done with the space, and how we can support its use.

Planning: Tension between form and function

Natasha talked about how the building was designed to be open and spacious, and how beautiful the space is. And how she was sharing that with one of our campus leaders from the Office of Indigenous Engagement - and their reply was “yes, but it looks cold and sterile.” Which, of course. The glass and the metal and the high-end finishings are beautiful and magnificent. And cold. And sterile. There’s no “life” in the building. There was no art, nothing that showed that people inhabit the space. No sense of humanity behind the stark (but beautiful) designs of spaces.

She talked about how she had to work to figure out how to make the spaces more appropriate for various uses. What needs to be done in order to enable smudging in these spaces? (without causing a panic about having smoke in the building, and without tripping the state-of-the-art laser smoke detection system, and without causing issues with the LEED-certificed HVAC system, and without having to apply for a Hot Work Permit, and and and). After a lot of work (thanks to Sue Miller for leading that!), the main floor classrooms have all been approved as being safe for smudging at any time. It’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference in how the spaces are used, and in the experience of participants within the spaces.

Taken during the 2022 University of Calgary Conference on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching, hosted by the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning.

Cold and sterile, and adapting to incorporate indigenous perpectives

Taken during the 2022 University of Calgary Conference on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching, hosted by the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning.Photo by D'Arcy Norman

She also talked about the work to continue to integrate indigenous perspectives, including the addition of Dr. Jennifer Leason’s ‘Lifelong Learning Lessons’ series that was installed in the Taylor Institute’s atrium in February of 2023. The work will continue, with some exciting potential plans starting to come together that may reimagine the use of one of the spaces in the building.

Dr. Jennifer Leason's artwork 'Lifelong Learning Lessons', installed in the Taylor Institute's atrium

Photo by D'Arcy Norman

Flexibility: How to be flexible about flexibility

I talked about how our approach to flexibility has changed in the 7 years since the Taylor Institute has opened. I described flexibilty at 3 levels:

  1. Macro: how the organization of our work in the Learning Technologies and Design Team has shifted from being isolated (physically and organizationally, before the TI opened) to more of a community-integrated model (now that the TI has opened in the geometric centre of campus, and we try to work more closely with people from across campus).
  2. Meso: how instructors have adapted their courses to the spaces in the TI, and how our team has been able to support their explorations. I talked about the first English course - “Shakespeare and the Screen” and how the instructor was able to teach the course in the Forum, using the theatre system to share various cinematic interpretations of Shakespeare’s works. And then students created their own short films - many of which were filmed within the TI - culiminating in a film festival at the end of the semester.
  3. Micro: within the classrooms, and how the spaces enabled interesting cross-disciplinary collaborations between computer science and business courses, including designing the classroom activities to incorporate physically joining classes by raising the Skyfold walls. And what we learned about the significant resources involved with effectively supporting this kind of flexibility in the building’s infrastructure.

I also shared some of our experience with designing and operating audiovisual systems that were designed by a consultancy to be as flexible as possible. Which is what we asked them to do. Because we didn’t know any better, so of course we wanted maximal flexibity because who wouldn’t want that? Except that maximal flexibilty requires a pretty high-end audiovisual system that fully integrates with the building’s infrastructure. Which is great when it works, but if something fails the entire building can do dark. I’ve posted more about Lessons learned: AV systems design in the Taylor Institute, if you want more details on this.

Flexibly combined learning spaces, with the SkyFold™ wall retracted and furniture and displays configured for a digital poster session.

Photo by D'Arcy Norman

And if you want to switch out technologies - say, hypothetically, because one of the key vendors went under and their tech doesn’t work any more, or another vendor needs to comply to new privacy legislation in California so they pull out key functionality that we rely on in order to identify where the movable displays have been set up - changing the tech becomes difficult without being really, really careful. So, we’ve started a multi-year project to replace the audiovisual infrastructure with something that will be maybe less maximally-flexible, but will enable us to be able to continue to operate and upgrade the tech going forward.

Table discussions and sharing

Despite my description of the session so far coming to several pages, we only talked for less than half of the 90-minute session and planned for the rest of the time to be used to foster discussions among conference participants. The session was held in our Forum large active classroom, so we wanted to show what active learning can look like so the architects could experience it first-hand. We framed the table discussions with several guiding questions:

  • How do we design and build inclusive and welcoming learning spaces?
  • How can we foster inclusivity, diversity, and a sense of belonging once the space is open?
  • How do we ensure that the design vision evolves once we are using the space?
  • How can we design for evolving educational practices and technologies?

Each of the 12 tables had extremely rich and fruitful discussions, and it was hard to pull everyone back at the end of the session. We had a quick round of sharing a highlight from each table (which was also challenging - we were surprised to learn that architects may have a tendency toward talking enthusiastically…), and captured those highlights in a document that was shared with all participants afterward.

One of the whiteboards from the group discussion portion of the session.

Photo by D'Arcy Norman

We had an absolute blast sharing what we’ve learned, and leading the discussions and sharings with all of the 100+ participants. I’m hoping I get to bump into many of them again at the SCUP 2023 conference at the beginning of August.

Blog posts don’t really have appendices, but here’s an appendix-like section to wrap it up - the notes from all 12 table groups’ discussions, combined…

Table discussion notes

The notes from all 12 tables were combined into:

  • Post-COVID evaluations
    • “back to 2019”
    • Did we ever really embrace remote?
  • Next phase
    • All flat-floor (faculty-preferred)
    • Shared double-row
    • Now many new “300s”
  • Conversations heard/lived
    • ADAAG vs. Inclusivity
    • What IS an inclusive learning space?
      • How is the build “presented” to the campus? A room?
    • Feedback Loop…?
      • Physical unit / surveys / letters / social media / app-based solutions
  • Andrew Del Banco (Columbia faculty)
    • “Academic experience allows for the ‘third force’, one made possible by curiosity and humility, which is a grace between teacher and student”
    • We seek this space of grace in facilitation of learning
  • Programmatic priorities
    • Find a way to involve and engage students in classroom planning & design.
    • Teaching to enable students to think
    • Program : Professor
    • Multi-purpose == No-purpose
    • Don’t HARDEN the campus
    • Balancing budget between multipurpose / innovation versus tried-and-true
    • Build & learn from it ONCE (and then try something else and learn from that…)
    • Need a diverse set of spaces
    • No locked doors / contemporary design
  • “Day Two Funding”
    • set aside dedicated funding as part of the project budget to allow “tweaks” and adjustments 1 year after occupancy.
    • “User commissioning”
    • (we know we will have gaps, omissions, errors in planning - need to integrate a process to revise the plans and spaces based on initial learnings)
  • Spice Girls & Jerry Maguire
    • Tell me what you want, what you really-really want
    • SHOW ME THE MONEY!
  • Flexibility != Adaptability
  • Fads of Now vs. Timelessness
  • Commodity, Firmness, & Delight = Great Place (Vitruvius)
  • Design by Committee vs. Singular Vision
  • Don’t expect to get it right on day one
    • design spaces that INVITE CHANGE
      • Art
      • Furniture
      • Finishes
  • “Eyes High”
    • Highly visible
    • High traffic flow
    • High use
    • ∴ cannot be ignored or mothballed
  • Keep it simple
    • trade technology for space and warmth (“feel”)
    • Nooks are the favourite (acoustic & visual)
    • Asking too much of spaces
      • how many floor boxes to you REALLY need?
    • Over-flexible?
  • Loud AND Quiet? Variety.
    • Over-stimulated spaces PLUS Quiet and “soft” spaces
    • Culturally versatile
  • Return to natural… Holding our sticks too hard? (DN: is this a hockey line?)
  • Texture, warmth, light… universal!
  • Abstract familiar things?
  • I S $
    • Design
      • Hire
  • 🔲 Process
  • 🔲 Design
  • 🔲 Use
  • 🔲 Pedagogy
  • 🔲 Investment
  • P → P → F
    1. Process/structure
    2. Opt
    3. Destination
  • KEEP IT SIMPLE
  • “Front”
    • Get rid of A front
    • Multiple fronts
    • That the built-in “flexibility” = $$$
    • Thwarts the ideal eg: acoustics
    • JK: Did not know I sat in the front
    • “Colombarium”?
  • Flexible heights of tables
    • inclusivity
  • Teach the teachers & vice versa (A/V / Class Design)
  • Multiple options within the same room
    • heights, sizes, tables, etc.
    • Broaden definitions for comfort
    • Universal: Acoustics
    • Comfort
    • More whiteboards
  • WE DON’T KNOW! (what has changed on us will change faster)
    • This room (the Forum) is evidence (what is good flexibility?)
  • We live in an introverted community/world
    • made more so by COVID
    • Mental health is a growing concern/need
  • Technology has changed and is changing everything
    • Students and young faculty are choosing other than “standard” classrooms/classes
    • An “in-humane” environment is growing (connected to the growing need re: mental health)
  • The time NOT-IN-CLASS is becoming more important
    • nature ~ peace & comfort
    • Social / Teaming / Fellowship / Informal learning
    • Like “the paths in the landscape” (Boris’ intro), let/have student guide how spaces can/should be used… Engage the young! (then adjust to make it work for them - don’t over-design!)
  • Space usage times? Actual?
  • Past, Present, & Future (push-pull)
  • What are your space standards?
  • Ideas:
    • Talk to the future students
    • Balance flexibility & budget
    • Define what constitutes “real feedback”
    • Accommodate for mental health (post-COVID)
    • Design for neuro-divergence
    • Data collection - new models of measurements
    • ADAPTABILITY, not FLEXIBILITY
      • The Swiss Knife example (24 blades and nothing on…)
  • Being in partnership to achieve TRUE flexibility!
  • Right people at the table - Diversifying viewpoints
    • Not just the person at the centre of things
    • Expanding the group to be INCLUSIVE
    • Acknowledging yourself
  • Post-occupancy evaluation
    • Feedback loop
    • Connections
  • Summer (Downtime) classroom walkthrough
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