Observations on Campus Planning

Date Posted: 04.01.2010

Historically, there have been two types of campuses: the self contained “ivory tower” model, which is derived from the isolated monasteries of the Middle Ages, and the more complex, integrated campus, which originated in the Renaissance when artisan and merchant guilds assimilated themselves into the vital, increasingly industrial, urban communities. Most urban campuses today are a synergistic combination of both, providing a rich environment for students, faculty, staff and adjoining communities. Many express this concept of “institution” by adopting historically inspired architectural styles or by adhering to a standard palette of materials and roof forms. But today, while supporting designs and plans which respect the historical context of the institution, most are choosing to advance a contemporary expression of their new expertise, research and teaching mission.

Cross-disciplinary Activity

In many professional areas such as healthcare, government, engineering, and other sciences, cross-disciplinary collaboration has traditionally been inherent to process. Historically, the borders within the university community between different, yet often complementary disciplines, have been extremely restrictive. Increasingly, we are seeing a more inclusive and constructive integration, one that will hopefully continue in the future. This emerging concept of a crossover approach provides universities with countless benefits as they engage in new areas of teaching and research, resulting in pioneering programs and state-of-the-art research facilities in disciplines such as genomics, bio-engineering, molecular engineering, and a variety of other environmental and life sciences.

Within campus planning there are several trends resulting from this shift. The first is that the new facilities being planned and realized are often sited outside of real estate traditionally thought to “belong” to an existing school or college. Not only does this lead to the expansion of traditional campus areas, but provides a challenge in bridging the disciplines physically, as well as intellectually. In most cases, it remains important to create and maintain connections within the existing form and structure of the campus.

The second is fostering an interactive community of students, faculty, and staff not only through siting but also by shaping new exterior and interior spaces. Organizing offices, classrooms, laboratories and common spaces in such a way that encourages human circulation and creates physical relationships between the buildings, creates unstructured meeting space and facilitates chance encounters. Where appropriate, this also allows for the same transparency and visibility of activity that is inherent in vital, urban communities. At Pacific Lutheran University, Mithun led the University Center renovation to become a state-of-the-art multipurpose space that is home away from home for students, a gathering place for staff and faculty, and a shared source of pride for the entire university community. The building serves as both a symbolic and physical link between the upper and lower campuses. The University sought to arrange campus functions (which include everything from food service to cultural centers, a convenience store and entertainment spaces) to take full advantage of this potential as a student-friendly campus commons.

During the programming phase of the Northwest University’s New Health and Science Center in Kirkland, Washington, emphasis was placed on creating informal breakout spaces. Our team made corridors wide to accommodate activity and support collaboration/learning spaces with ample natural day lighting, colorful carpeting, areas that open up as “rooms” and a variety of casual seating to encourage students to linger, socialize and study together. The university has noted that this building is being used for more formal and informal activities than it had ever imagined.

Another consideration is the flexibility required in this emerging model, as many of these cross-disciplinary programs are in various stages of development. It is crucial that these new buildings and spaces, especially laboratories and classrooms, be designed to be flexible and adaptable in order to economically and physically respond to changes in program and function. Many classrooms are modified almost hourly in their organization and use of technical resources, and laboratories change with the nature of the research. We had to be sensitive to this need for flexibility when we designed the Health and Science Center, which is home to the university’s growing nursing and science department. With courses in the traditional and environmental sciences and a food production program for developing countries, this facility includes wet and dry research laboratories, as well as computer lab space. The building also houses a large lecture hall used frequently by the department, as well as by other organizations on campus and in the community. The building is located in the academic core of campus and will help form an important and much needed central open space for the campus community.

With attention paid to issues of sustainability, solar orientation and siting are also critical. Within any one building, the extent of environmental control will vary between providing natural ventilation in offices and classrooms and large-scale mechanical ventilation and cooling in laboratories and lecture halls. Responsiveness to differing demands significantly impacts the organization and orientation of the buildings. The University of California Irvine Medical Education Building houses a broad range of functions including state-of-the-art instructional and simulation spaces for surgery, emergency medicine and obstetrics, student testing, research labs, telemedicine facilities, and administrative offices. The faculty and research offices are housed in a naturally ventilated block connected to the teaching and research space by an open breezeway. This concept generates an operational energy efficiency that surpasses CA Title 24 requirements by nearly 28%, with a goal of LEED Gold certification.

Campus Master Plan Updating

Most often, campus master planning consists of updating plans for existing university campuses. This process includes the analysis and conservation of the structures, open spaces, and buildings, all of which represent the history, the present and the future of the institution. However, an equally important part of this process is identifying opportunities for new sites, which are often on the periphery of the existing campus. Thus, the relationship of the campus to an adjoining community becomes a critical consideration in the campus master plan exercise.

University of Washington Tacoma opened in 1992 as an upper level 2-year institution. The University is in the process of transitioning to a 4-year, full-service campus. Because of this change in structure, an update to the 2003 Campus Master Plan was necessary to reflect the addition of student housing and student life elements, including a student center and outdoor recreation space. Mithun worked closely with a Master Plan Core Committee to quantify space needs based on projected enrollment growth, and developed alternatives to test the capacity of the full build-out of the campus that were presented to and refined through input by the campus community, neighbors, and city representatives. Specific projects were identified in a 10-year capital plan to guide the campus master plan’s initial implementation.

In every instance, the goal is to have a constructive, positive impact on the neighboring community. A new campus development that is integrated into its adjoining neighborhood with sensitivity can make a significant contribution to the economic vitality and social, residential or educational activity in the community. In other instances, a clear “threshold” separating the campus and surrounding community may be appropriate.

The layout of an existing campus frequently contrasts with the orthogonal structure of a neighboring urban community. New development at the edges of a campus may reflect the existing street plan, particularly if there are streets which must remain, while enhancing the existing grid with new open spaces or connections. Often these existing streets, if assimilated into the campus, will be improved to support the pedestrian and bicycle circulation that is integral to the academic setting. This symbiosis can be enriching to both the campus environment and the neighboring community.

Ultimately, certain considerations remain constant, whether designing a cross-disciplinary building or developing a campus master plan: creating and maintaining identity, anticipating evolving program needs, and advocating proactive collaboration.


Any institution in a busy urban setting or with multiple campuses faces the obstacle of maintaining identity and remaining connected as one college. Our job is to help create a united vision by building upon the strengths of each campus to serve the college as a whole. Each institution faces the challenge of the need for flexibility to support changing programs while satisfying jurisdictional requirements and an extended funding cycle. Lastly, every campus master plan involves some collaboration with a wide range of client groups and local jurisdictions. With multiple jurisdictions, stakeholders and interest groups, design leadership and facilitation abilities are key in accomplishing our clients’ goals and integrating the campus into the fabric of the local community.

Our approach is tailored to the unique needs and characteristics of each institution to support its mission, promote excellence in education delivery, strengthen a sense of community and, when applicable, make the case for capital funding. In the end, our work demonstrates a passion to create innovative learning and research environments, sustainable campus strategies, and a high sense of quality and social responsibility.