Designing for Student Well-being: Research Outcomes from a Live-Learn Lab

Challenged to create a new on-campus community that could house more than 2,000 students and provide space for academic, administration, retail and amenity activities, HKS designed the North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood (NTPLLN) for UC San Diego’s Sixth College.

Living and learning in a dense mixed-use environment offers many advantages but may come with stresses as well. According to the latest National College Health Assessment, anxiety, depression, loneliness, physical inactivity and poor eating habits are all common among college students. Designed with an understanding that college years are formative for building healthy habits, NTPLLN incorporates holistic, evidence-based strategies to improve physical, mental, and social well-being.

Leveraging Point of Decision Design, a framework by the Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation (CADRE, 2017) that encourages well-planned ecological schemes and cues to influence how individuals decide on how to participate in activities, the design team sought to make healthy choices accessible, affordable, and appealing.

Each building at NTPLLN features healthy materials selections, extensive daylighting, scenic coastal views, and connections to the Southern California climate, which facilitate mental and physical well-being. Communal areas, such as a rooftop vegetable garden and community kitchens on each residence hall floor, encourage healthy eating, physical activity and socializing.

To investigate the impact design has on end users — students, faculty, staff and local community members — the Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation (CADRE) formed a coalition with HKS, UC San Diego and the Association of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA). The coalition created a live-learn lab that mobilized the capital project as a test-vehicle for design hypotheses around student health and well-being.

What We Found

Student fellows conducted behavior mapping, focus groups, surveys and data analysis before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data were collected one year apart, before and after students moved to NTPLLN, to assess any changes with health and well-being, social connection, and environmental health. To ensure that design decisions are accountable, we linked design strategies across multiple scales of the built environment to metrics that matter.

Here are some key findings from the pre-post study:

  • 8.2% reduction in self-reported depression scores even amid unprecedented circumstances for isolation and health concerns on college campuses worldwide.
  • In terms of physical well-being, the research team observed an 11% increase in satisfaction with healthy food amenities and an 8.4% increase in mobility satisfaction.
  • Environmental health improved across several metrics, namely a 12.85% increase in satisfaction with overall campus social spaces and 27.96% increase in satisfaction with overall residential spaces.
  • We also found that students who reported higher satisfaction with their environment reported higher life satisfaction and lower depression scores.

This illustrates, yet again, the importance of the physical environment in improving student and campus life. The report also revealed key insights from the qualitative data on what students were looking for in their living and learning neighborhood.

What the Findings Mean

Living and learning neighborhoods on college campuses are dynamic, lively spaces where social activity and learning thrive. As one of the rare longitudinal studies done during the height of the pandemic, the insights are timely. Some key takeaways are:

  • COVID-19 came at a cost to campus friendships: Students started connecting more with friends and family back home than on campus — digital connectivity made who was next to you in physical space less relevant than who was with you in digital space.
  • Group dynamics are changing: For a while only groups of three were allowed to be outside together. More than a year of socializing in small groups has taken its toll and how large groups can interact safely is a challenge.
  • Social signaling emerged in unexpected ways: Moving into a new campus in the middle of a pandemic, during political unrest and in the thick of the Black Lives Matter movement, students found ways of signaling socially that were unprecedented.
  • Social connection has become a tiered experience: Some students like to be in the thick of social activity, while others feel a sense of connection by simply “witnessing” it from the comfort of their rooms.
  • Programming is essential for face-to-face interactions: In a time where physical presence became non-essential for most, our research found that what made people interact was often intentional programming.
  • Hybrid (digital/physical) learning and hybrid life are here to stay: While the shift from all in-person learning to all remote was extreme, the change revealed many benefits like enhanced connectivity and different modes of study.

From a built environment standpoint, we found that popular design elements were open quad and central green spaces, visible stairs, communal kitchens, dining hall, market, exterior rooftop terraces, central gathering spaces/living rooms, double-height connectivity of suites and study rooms. Opportunities for improvement were also identified through focus group and participant observation data, including transparency of blinds, lack of color in interior spaces, more personalization opportunities, availability and location of hydration stations, and hard surfaces and noise transfer. These observations were taken into consideration for the next neighborhood design project at UC San Diego.

What’s Next

Four big ideas emerged from the findings and takeaways from this study that can serve as guiding principles for future integrated student housing projects on university campuses.

  1. Integrating Life in the Micro by emphasizing the design of students’ immediate surroundings (physical and virtual) that connect them to their larger community.
  2. Creating Diverse Affordances by providing spaces that are versatile and capable of flexing to diverse user needs — social, physical, cognitive and sensory.
  3. Enabling Phy-gital Community by converging digital and physical environments to ensure a seamless social experience.
  4. Fostering Agency + Activation by ensuring spaces are activated to entice engagement that gives students choice and agency.

In summary, to make college campuses a nexus for meaningful social connection, designers and administrators must embrace the micro, connect it to the macro, integrate the digital and physical realms, and activate spaces in a manner that gives students agency and choice in diverse and flexible ways.