Healthy Building, Healthy Landscape, Healthy Student, Part I

A three-part series on architecture supporting student wellbeing at the University of Pennsylvania

© Jeffrey Totaro

Centering wellness in the design process helps us create spaces that meet diverse occupant needs, including physical, environmental, social, emotional, and spiritual health. Consideration for these needs in academic housing is important for students given the rigorous nature of higher education and adjustment to a new environment.

At the recently completed New College House, the second purpose-built college house designed by our practice for Penn, we worked with the University to weave strategies for health and wellbeing into a dynamic environment for students to live, study, and gather. A critical part of this process was integrating the building with its surroundings to maximize green space, put sustainable design on display, foster a healthy setting for community engagement, and help students feel connected to both city and campus.

The project looks onto South 4th and Walnut streets on the northwestern edge of campus, wrapping around the 1906 Walnut Street West library and maintaining views of its signature bay window and façade. © Jeffrey Totaro

The outdoor areas at New College House serve multiple functions within a constrained site, eliminating marginal or unused space while responding to neighborhood context. Entry terraces, integrated outdoor seating areas and planters reinforce pedestrian scale and provide opportunities for gathering, contributing to an active and engaging urban experience.

© Jeffrey Totaro

The project’s central green faces onto the Locust Walk, a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, providing an expansive area for relaxation, recreation, and events. The lawn is an important social space that encourages interaction between students as well as with the broader campus community and neighborhood. Sheltered between residential wings to the east and west, the lawn also offers a sense of refuge and tranquility.

Pathways along the outer edge of the lawn lead to building entry points, flanked by raingardens with native plantings designed in collaboration with Michael Vergason Landscape Architects and Meliora Design — a visible component of the project’s stormwater management system. Together with green roofs and permeable pavers, strategically located raingardens throughout the project help students discover and learn more about responsible local water management techniques embedded within the design. These planting and irrigation systems reduce the landscape water requirement to 73% below calculated baseline for the site’s peak watering month.

While the project added 250,000 GSF of new construction, it restored nearly 60% of the previously developed site with native vegetation, prioritizing green space for students and the community. © Jeffrey Totaro

In the Building Healthy Places Toolkit, The Urban Land Institute and the Center for Active Design note the importance of access to the outdoors and our fundamental human desire for a connection to nature while indoors. The notion of prospect in biophilic design is important for creating connections beyond our immediate surroundings. While diverse outdoor spaces — from the lawn to sheltered interior courtyard — offer a sense of refuge, residential and common areas in New College House provide unimpeded views out to trees and planted roofs, as well as the cityscape beyond. These strategies help ground students within the campus community and surrounding environment.

The next post in our series will share more about how the design of New College House contributes to a healthy environment for building occupants.

Further Reading
University of Pennsylvania, Lauder College House and New College House
Wellness Elevating Design Excellence

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