Richard Barnes

If you had walked through the residential Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges at Yale University in 1962—past the poured-in-place concrete-and-stone-aggregate exterior designed by Eero Saarinen, FAIA—you’d find a dark fortress, with dimly lit common spaces, and four stories of standalone single rooms flanked by one 10-story tower and another 14-story tower. A grassy, crescent-shaped courtyard unites the two colleges, which are mirror images of each other in plan.

The buildings made for stunning photographs, but administrators soon grew tired of the number of students requesting transfers to other dormitories.

If you walk into Morse and Stiles today, after KieranTimberlake’s 2011 renovation and addition, you’ll find a very different environment—with daylight streaming in. A 25,000-square-foot subterranean addition provides common spaces that host a variety of activities: art studios (including a weaving studio), fitness and weightlifting rooms, a dance studio, music practice rooms, and computer and game rooms. The colleges are now part of Yale’s suite-based culture, despite the nearly surgical method required to insert suites into the otherwise inflexible concrete structure. After meals, people gather outside the dining hall at “the beach,” where a water feature trickles reclaimed stormwater, and small groups form in the sunken courtyard after productions in the 80-seat theater.

Students tend to flock to the Morse and Stiles Colleges now, rather than requesting transfers.

“How people learn drives the design of physical learning environments,” which include residential spaces, says Bukky Akinsanmi Oyedeji, AIA, a member of the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education (CAE). The 21st-century constructivism theory of learning, she points out, “emphasizes the role social interaction and reflection plays in the learning process.” The 2012 CAE Educational Facility Design Awards jury recognized Morse and Stiles with an award of merit.

By developing areas for students to congregate, places can facilitate learning. “The dorm, as we used to know it, was a bed space, and that’s ceasing to exist,” says Stephen Kieran, FAIA, the partner-in-charge of KieranTimberlake’s renovation and addition.

Over the last 20 years, student housing has gradually seen a richer mix of programmed areas. With a variety of spaces for private reflection, small informal groups, active play, and collaboration, the different ways that students learn—in 21st-century constructivism parlance (based partly on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences)—is being addressed, and even cultivated. “Learning isn’t about reciting information,” says Peter Lippman, Assoc. AIA, an associate director for Perth, Australia–based EIW Architects, who chaired the CAE 2011 awards program. “The whole campus is a place where learning can occur.”

There’s no doubt that theories of cohousing are behind the shift to communal spaces and suite-based living at U.S. colleges and universities. But it can also be read as a response to how personal technology tends to isolate users and, less acutely, how for-profit universities (which take greater advantage of technology and distance learning) purloin students who would normally seek an education with a residential option at a conventional nonprofit institution. Technology, Lippman suggests, may create a deeper awareness of our need for social interaction. By investing in housing and physical spaces such as Morse and Stiles, brick-and-mortar universities may prevail over distance-learning programs in the next 20 years.

American colleges and universities are recognizing the importance of designing facilities that encourage social interaction at an economically challenging time. Many of them are suffering from budget cuts and diminishing endowments. In spite of these circumstances, building-use optimization, as the Morse and Stiles retrofit demonstrates, may be the perfect solution to shifting student needs. “It’s the process by which college campuses take stock of their available facilities, assess them, and determine how to get more use out of them, either by layering multiple uses or by retrofitting so that they are more responsive to immediate facility needs,” Oyedeji says. She predicts the CAE awards program will see more of these types of projects because of the economic restraints most colleges are facing.

The economic forecast has a silver lining, however. “Sustainability is a true generator of new design,” Kieran says. “You can’t go to student meetings without hearing environmental questions, [and the prospect of] saving money drives sustainability as well.” Colleges and universities typically own their buildings, so there is a large incentive for administrators to request life cycle analyses and manage down utility costs for future generations.

“A decade ago, architects were just looking at space programming before design,” Kieran says. “Now we must also look at environmental opportunities before design.”