The College's Public Persona

The more ceremonial the space, the bigger the expectations.

That’s why designs for lobbies, welcome centers, reception spaces, common rooms, rotundas, and other significant public spaces present a big challenge for colleges today. The spaces are public in nature, and so they must be attractive and memorable. But because they’re public in nature, they must also be very durable and easy to maintain.

Most important, these public zones should have a celebratory character. Just as they welcome students, visitors, and campus leaders, these locations and interior spaces should also reflect the institution’s spirit and carry deeper meaning about the college’s mission and purpose.

Based on the work of our firm and others, we’ve uncovered some effective ways to integrate architecture, interior furnishings, finishes, artwork, and signage to create impressive spaces that delight visitors and students. The focus is often on devising ways to create opportunities for elevating the institutional brand and personality while also solving basic challenges for interior architecture. Bringing together these challenges, our recent campus projects have included a number of customized, unique interior elements, including:
  • 
Customized lighting fixtures
  • Applied graphics in wall systems
  • 
Terrazzo floors with embedded artwork
  • Acoustical treatments such as tapestries
  • 
Sculptural elements
We have also developed wall, floor, and ceiling materials with custom motifs and applied figurative art. These have helped make flooring, wall coverings, and ceiling treatments more than merely a challenge for acoustics, foot traffic, and maintenance: They become artistic themes and branding opportunities, too.

Consider the Walls
Historically, key public spaces in universities were outfitted with wainscoting, which derived from the practice of lining the walls of stone buildings with wood paneling to insulate the room from the cold stone. Over time, architects continued to use wainscoting, even in wood construction. While no longer serving insulating purposes, in the most grand rooms of a public building it also added a very durable layer to the walls, taking wear and abuse while looking good over years of use. Modern interpretations of wainscoting are paneling or a simple chair rail. Stone or marble has also been selected as a finish material for public spaces: it’s extremely durable, and denotes the strength and longevity of the institution.

Since any additional applied wall material adds expense, selection and use should be considered carefully. There are commercially available products, which provide wood and stain choices, along with options for reveals, such as stainless steel. However, if not integrated well into the interior design they may look commercial, too, rather than adding a warm and inviting sense that makes colleges appealing.

Furnishings Complement the Message
The selection of furniture and equipment is also considered in ways that complement and reinforce the college’s message to visitors and students. This goes well beyond the team colors and appliqué film bearing the official mascot or coat-of-arms.

Think about the meaning behind the historic campus architecture and its ornament. If it’s a young school with modern architecture, that’s just as critical. The founder’s building is still central to the student body’s expression and memory of their alma mater. In some towns, the college is so central to the local history that it can “borrow” the municipal image as part of creating those ceremonial spaces. Other campuses look decidedly to the future.

In all events, key considerations for interior design include color, pattern, texture, and material, as well as the basics of durability and resilience for these high-traffic, high-profile locations. The main message is yes, get the specifications right — but then you can do so much more.

For Norwalk Community College in New Haven, CT, for example, a new Center for Information Technology had to connect two different parts of the campus. The resulting double-height lobby includes an installation, 5,000 Years of Information Technology, consisting of 55 panels of 10 individual portraits in bas relief. Sculpted faces of prominent contributors to the field of communication — from Demosthenes to Alan Turing — sit in conversation across time.

Overhead, four tracery pediments made of painted MDF serves as structural trusses in the atrium. These classically shaped trusses help define the center in the context of a traditional educational environment while expressing the enlivened energy of the new building in an interplay of constantly changing light.

Flooring Finishes the Design

At another school, a double-height lobby design employs a terrazzo floor inlaid with the constellations — a reminder to students of the sciences and heavens, while also alluding to the school’s namesake — Columbus — who traveled using the stars for navigation. Floor finishes take the most abuse of any surface in a room and could look worn out after only a few years, so material quality is especially important in a grand public space. Terrazzo and natural stone are among the most durable and long-lasting floor choices — and also the most expensive — so they are ideal materials for vestibules and lobbies rather than an entire public space.

To achieve the durability and solid look and feel of these high-end flooring materials more economically, alternatives include ceramic tile, which can sometimes deceivingly mimic real stone. Many tiles are also durable enough to be used outside, allowing the design to unify interior and exterior portions of an entry. Mosaic tile patterns or custom engraved tiles can weave in the branding of the institution.

Polished and stained concrete has also become a modern flooring material — but it isn’t necessarily a less expensive option, often rivaling terrazzo in budget. Hardwood flooring is another traditional floor material for public spaces, which provides more warmth but is less durable. Solid wood flooring can last for years with some maintenance, and can be completely sanded and refinished five to seven times over a lifetime of 50 years or more. Engineered wood flooring has a thinner layer of surface wood, allowing only three to four sandings. Engineered flooring has some distinct advantages over solid wood; composed of layers, it is much more stable than solid wood, which expands and contracts due to temperature and humidity to a much greater degree.

Resilient flooring is durable but the surfaces bounce sound around; this can be balanced by wall and ceiling selections. For lounges, common rooms, and other spaces where a more intimate feeling is desired, “softer” materials such as wood or carpet are ideal, and they can also help improve a room’s acoustic properties.

Again, for durability, don’t skimp on the carpet selection. There are three characteristics to consider when choosing carpet: fiber, twist, and density. Fiber specification accounts for the primary difference in cost between carpets: Wool was the original carpet fiber, but today the three most commonly used fibers are nylon, olefin (polypropylene), and polyester. Nylon is by far the most expensive, but also especially wear-resistant, with a wide range of colors and color blends. Nylon offers the look and feel of wool, but with much less maintenance and expense. In general, the tighter the twist and the closer the tufts are to one another, density, the better the carpet will resist changes in appearance and texture with high use.

In every project, the interior design for a celebratory public area must be true to the institution and resonant with a fundamental mission. 

Julia McFadden, AIA, is project architect and interiors leader for Svigals + Partners, New Haven, CT, a full-service architecture and planning firm specializing in educational facilities, laboratories, and the integration of sculpture and artwork.

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