In Dialogue: Holistic Student Health & Wellness

As part of our “In Dialogue” series celebrating Women’s History Month, we sat down with Dana Reed and Judy Chang to discuss designing for health and wellness in higher education and independent schools, mentorship, and the importance of community.

Dana, you were Project Manager on New College House, which opened to Penn students last fall. Obviously, there are a lot of stories to tell about the building, but the way the design supports student health and wellbeing is an important one. How did student health and wellness considerations in a living/learning environment like Penn influence your design decisions?

Dana: I’ve always loved working on college campuses because there is a holistic approach to landscape and architecture and it is a given that it’s about community. It’s a fun playground to work in because the objectives of the clients who hire us are very similar to the things that are near and dear to our hearts. What we’re learning is that there is actual proof that places that connect people to different scales of community, vistas, urban and green spaces — they truly do build a sense of cognitive, psychological, and sociological well-being. You can improve your heart rate, sleeping, and breathing, and these patterns make you better. We want to enhance that by how we design spaces and by the connections we make.

University of Pennsylvania, New College House © Jeffrey Totaro

Judy, you’ve done a good deal of work for independent schools — what do you consider when you think about student health and wellness on a day school campus, for younger students? How is it different from the higher education projects?

Judy: I think a lot of what Dana mentioned applies to younger students. There’s a holistic approach and a large sense of community — staff, teachers, students, family — we all strive for the same goals in how we want to enrich the lives of the next generation. One thing I’ve noticed between designing for college or graduate students and K-12 students is the difference in scale. Principals and teachers will often say, “That’s great for college students, but we have little kids, they prefer little spaces,” so it needs to be more home-like. So the difference, perhaps, is just that K-12 is an extension of the home, and our design beliefs remain the same.

Dana: Projects that Judy has worked on, she’s been sensitive to that home-like scale of the body, so that you can enable new programs without losing that sense of the family of the independent school. That’s something I admire in what she’s been doing.

What do you think are some of the more exciting trends in education — both K-12 and higher-ed — when it comes to nurturing the entire student — mind, body, and spirit?

Judy: A few interesting trends that I’ve experienced on Woodlynde and Greenhill — there seems to be an interest from parents and teachers for alternative types of learning spaces. One parent who was a donor for Woodlynde shared that she had a labyrinth at home — her children have learning differences and the labyrinth has helped them with focusing and concentrating on the task at hand — so we incorporated a labyrinth into the landscape and that has brought a lot of positive feedback from the students. There also seems to be an interest in incorporating what we design in the landscape into the learning space. So we’re not just plopping in plants here and there because it looks pretty — we want to learn how we can incorporate that into math or science classrooms at Greenhill. It goes beyond just what looks good, but how it can be incorporated into learning.

Greenhill School, Valdes STEM + Innovation Center © Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Dana: It’s so impactful. The labyrinth is kind of solitary endeavor, but it’s a common experience that welcomes introverts, as well as the common spaces where extroverts shine. It’s wonderful to make architecture that connects everybody in different modes.

Dana, you’ve served in leadership roles on several large higher-ed projects, including New College House and Lauder College House at Penn. These are complex, long-term efforts. For emerging designers and architects working on these project teams, how do you weave mentorship into the design process?

Dana: I’ve had the blessing of working on projects that are a bit of a marathon — long-haul, complicated designs — which I find extremely rewarding since I see them from beginning to end. But for younger architects, to engage them in the process and give them a feedback loop, I like to bring people into the conversations with the clients as much as possible. It’s great to have all the different voices at the table — you never know what someone is going to take hold of something and run with it. I try to elevate all the components that go into a project — not just the things that people think are the most exciting to do — and let people find their voice. It’s an iterative process and designs have to evolve and layer. I want people to feel safe during the evolution of their design and the criticism they receive so they can benefit the overall project and stay in their voice and not conform to what other people expect them to be. I recognize that some people need to be called on to speak up — some people are just quieter and we need their voices, too.

Judy: I am one of those people on the quieter side, I won’t run to the line first and declare my feelings. I find mentors who volunteer to ask questions, who reach out, to be extremely helpful in how I carve out my path in the future. Dana and I are actually going to be working together on a new residence hall for Syracuse University, and Dana reached out and sent me a Teams message: “Hey Judy, think about what you’re interested in and what you might want to work on,” and that is such a simple question, but I’ve only been asked that a few times — and that’s a great mentor. Someone who sees the bigger picture and wants to look out for younger staff and make sure they feel fulfilled, too.

And speaking of the new residence hall project at Syracuse University — what health and wellness strategies will BCJ be bringing to the table?

Dana: We had our first in-person meeting this week, so we’re still listening deeply and we want to reflect on everything we hear. But what we’re hearing is very exciting. Excellence in the classroom is a given, but Syracuse really values experience outside the classroom as well. Plucky, entrepreneurial, not ivory tower students. Our early conversations have been about building a full student: food, nutrition, wellness, and guiding independence through interactive elements. We’re going to keep talking with them and figure out what that means architecturally. They are hungry to do something special and we can’t wait to make it happen. We’re excited about all the possibilities and doing what’s right for that place and that group.

Dana: Intentional, well-designed campuses are really important. Great campus architecture can express the spirit of the people in that community. It’s amazing that you can come to a campus for just a few years and that memory is imprinted on you, and a similar meaning can be imprinted on someone who attends that campus years later, so you both share a bond over time That’s an important responsibility that we carry as architects — understanding what the institution is about and making something of that place and for that people.

Further Reading

In Dialogue: Designing with Mass Timber
In Dialogue: Resilience and Mentorship
Bohlin Cywinski Jackson Academic Projects

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Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

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

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