Our department is raising money for a new, or upgraded building. There’s no question we can improve on what we have. Lowry Hall was originally constructed in the mid 1900’s at a time when the trend was to bolt desks and chairs to the floor and, judging from the size of these desks, when most college students were about 5’ tall. The windows are drafty and asbestos abounds. Still, the structure seems fine with a functional layout and lots of natural light. I see the building as a perfect candidate for a renovation.
My bigger question is whether we need to add space. We have far more students than we used to, but they also have different needs (there weren’t online courses in the 1950’s, for example). As I questioned whether we really need more space, I realized I could use my office as a case study to try to match student needs with the space we already have. My office is long and narrow, so there is quite a bit of wasted space around my desk. Thinking more about my office, I realized that most of the time it just sits there unused because I’m only there for about 6 hours each week1. The real waste is not how my office is being used, but when.
So, today is the end of my office. Gone are the big desk, extra monitor, printer, files, and any books I had just to show how many books I had. Enter a small café table and two barstools, better than a desk for student meetings, which is what I mostly use my office for now. The rest of the space is a blank canvas for new uses.
I’m most excited about the change to let students who do research with me to use my office when I’m not there. We’ll see how this works out. For now, a few students have a new place to do collaborative work. As they spend more time there, I hope they will figure out what they can best use the space for and set it up accordingly2. Maybe they will add lower cushioned seating for more reflective individual work. Maybe they will take advantage of the high ceilings and unused vertical space. Maybe they will add a coffee maker. Maybe a barista. Maybe the whole experiment will be a complete disaster and I’ll go back to being the only one allowed in the office. I definitely can’t wait to see what happens and will post an update after the holidays.
The broader lesson is that, before building, we should question whether we can be smarter with the space we already have. While we are conditioned to think of our spaces in terms of what they have been historically used for, by looking deeper we might find cases where multi-use, flexible spaces better meet our real needs and are more enjoyable and cheaper. I hope you are inspired to apply this thinking to your spaces. I think you’ll find it fun.