Extending the Life of Outdoor Campus Spaces

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
5 min readAug 13, 2020


CoorsTek Center for Applied Science and Engineering © Nic Lehoux

As colleges and universities around the world prepare to welcome their students back to campus this fall, there are more questions than answers given the unprecedented challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To provide a range of possible solutions to these challenges, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson assembled a panel of diverse professionals for our fourth virtual Year of Gathering event. On Tuesday, August 11th, we gathered to discuss how colleges and universities might assess outdoor campus spaces, rethink their potential, and adapt them for outdoor learning, studying, and meeting — both immediately and in the future.

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s Lee Clark, AIA, was joined by Julie Bush, ASLA, a principal landscape architect at Ground Reconsidered, Andrew J. Milne, Ph.D., principal audiovisual consultant at The Sextant Group, Derek Steketee, PE, LEED AP, Engineering Principal at Vanderweil Engineers, and Rachel D. Switzky, Director of the Siebel Center for Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Realistic Space Planning

Julie kicked off the discussion by describing just how much space it takes to socially distance when planning for a classroom setting. Groups of 10 or 15 students with an instructor, seated six feet apart, can occupy upwards of twenty feet of space in even the most inventive configurations. As the class size increases, so does the footprint, bringing in a host of environmental, audio/visual, and personal comfort considerations.

Derek from Vanderweil Engineers noted that a variety of smaller spaces — located throughout campus — are surprisingly more desirable than large, open spaces. Different areas offer different “micro-climates,” and will be warmer or cooler depending on the time of day, level of cover, and wind conditions, providing more options in terms of viable space planning.

Julie Bush discussing socially distanced classroom layouts.

Back to the Future

When we think of 21st-century learning, we think of smart classrooms that are optimized for advanced technologies. Andrew from The Sextant Group suggests that if we are trying to take that model and bring it outdoors, we are looking at the design challenge the wrong way. People have been teaching and learning outside for centuries; we should focus on the benefits that come from that kind of interaction.

In his view, we need to focus on why we’re bringing people together on campus — for the human interaction and one-on-one connection — and take outdoor teaching back to basics. We can lean on advanced technology for virtual learning and think of new ways to leverage personal technology (laptops, tablets, cell phones, headphones) when meeting in larger groups at a distance.

Andrew Milne discussing the technological challenges of outdoor classrooms.

Taking Design Thinking Outside

Rachel, the Director of the Siebel Center for Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is already back on campus. She noted that she and her colleagues will be practicing what they preach when using design thinking about the interior and exterior spaces of their new building.

“I’m interested to see what new pedagogies emerge and how we take them and build them into new experiences that encourage socially distance collaboration. What does that mean now in this new environment?”

— Rachel D. Switzky, Director of the Siebel Center for Design

Julie referenced the popular “pop-up” concept that parks and restaurants have been using to provide short-term, seasonal offerings. Schools could follow this model to test different spaces’ viability, then pivot as necessary. She noted that even inexpensive outdoor furnishings can last through a few seasons, and that sectioning off outdoor classrooms with temporary fencing doesn’t have to be extravagant or expensive. If an institution chooses to maximize their investment, more durable outdoor furniture can be used indoors when campus needs change.

Pop-up Park Examples © Courtesy of Ground Reconsidered

The Bigger Picture

We also discussed balancing the need for quick solutions with overall institution sustainability goals and how this challenge presents new ways of moving sustainability efforts forward. Accessibility and mobility are also crucial considerations — how can we create outdoor spaces that support all members of the campus community?

“This is an opportunity to shift how we think about campuses and buildings — how can we build these outdoor spaces in a way that can be used after the crisis?”

— Derek Steketee, PE, LEED AP, Vanderweil Engineers

Colorado School of Mines Marquez Hall © Nic Lehoux

There are substantial psychological benefits in physically coming together, and meeting outside is the safest place to do that right now. Instead of thinking only of the challenges, it’s important also to consider the unexpected benefits of our new reality. As we rethink campus spaces, there are opportunities for enhanced visibility and connection (even if at a distance). Students may see an outdoor classroom across the quad and become curious about the subject matter. If work is displayed outside, people who wouldn’t have otherwise had access to it may walk by and become inspired. We don’t yet know what this new paradigm will bring, but we hope that alongside the uncertainty will be innovative and exciting opportunities for teaching, learning, and human connection.

“This is a paradigm shift — we can pause a lot of aspects of academic design and reconsider as we move forward in human-centric design.”

— Lee Clark, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

What’s Next?

Watch the webinar recording in full. You can also read short biographies about each speaker to learn more about their backgrounds. Tune into the past Year of Gathering event recordings and follow us to learn about upcoming conversations. You can also purchase Gathering for a deeper dive into the design of public architecture.

Watch the Recording

Further Reading:
Year of Gathering
Making Being Here Enough — Art and Architecture during a pandemic
Year of Gathering: Citizens First, Designers Second



Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Designing buildings that inspire connection and wonder in every person who experiences them.