Chapter 8: The Commons Concept: Building Dynamic Living and Learning Environments through Integrated Design

by Santa J. Ono, Ph.D.

Posted on April 03, 2017

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The University of British Columbia's Vancouver (UBC Vancouver) campus has the highest percentage of beds per full-time student in Canada. UBC Vancouver's inventory of on-campus, university-run housing spaces has grown by more than 4,350 beds in the last 10 years. Our Student Housing department currently manages 11,038 beds that both undergraduate and graduate, domestic and international students call home. As we have expanded our bed spaces over the last decade, our international student enrolment has more than doubled to our current enrolment of 13,174. For the first time this year, international students (51%) outnumber domestic students (49%) living in residence.

And the University has a mandate to build even more housing on campus. The Vancouver Campus Plan has set aside land to allow for about 16,000 spaces to be built over time, or up to 50% of the 2010 full-time student count.

But the University wants to do more than just provide beds for students. We see the need to build student residences as an opportunity to animate the campus and engage students, faculty, and staff beyond the classroom or workplace. But on a 1,000-acre campus with almost 53,000 students, 5,000 faculty members and 10,000 staff, this is not an easy task. We needed to find a way to integrate academic programming, student residence, and campus life amenities in a way that worked and felt natural. And we wanted students, staff and faculty to feel they were part of a community.

On a 1,000-acre campus with almost 53,000 students, 5,000 faculty members, and 10,000 staff we needed to find a way to integrate academic programming, student residence, and campus life amenities in a way that worked and felt natural.  

We decided the concept of a university commons was the approach to take, and we have committed to building four of them over the next 20 years.

When deciding what new bed spaces to build, it is important to examine both the desires of students and the needs of the university. Affordability is an important factor to consider, particularly in Vancouver, which is regularly ranked as one of the least affordable housing markets in the world. By embracing the Commons concept – a space for multiple stakeholders – we have been able to reduce costs, maximize utilization, and keep student housing rental rates lower than they may have otherwise been.

The more we know about each other, the richer our work becomes.  

While a "Commons" is not a new idea for post-secondary institutions, it was a new idea at UBC. For our purposes, the Commons would include student residences, food facilities, child care centres, fitness facilities, informal learning spaces, research labs, classrooms, and academic/faculty office space, as well as a surrounding public realm that supports outdoor activities and learning opportunities. The idea was that the spaces would facilitate conversations between faculty and students over lunch or coffee, allow for classrooms to be used by residence students for studying throughout the evenings and weekends when classes were not in session, and promote interdisciplinary learning through exposure to faculties and labs outside of a student's home faculty. The Commons were designed to enrich the educational experiences for all at UBC because the more we know about each other, the richer our work becomes. So far, we have opened two Commons: Ponderosa Commons in 2013 and Orchard Commons in September 2016.

An Overview
Ponderosa Commons is located in the heart of campus and has five residence houses where upper-year and graduate students live. It is home to 1,150 residents and includes:

  • The Faculty of Education classrooms, research facilities, and faculty office space
  • A geo-fluvial lab operated by the Department of Geography
  • The Audian Art Centre (studio spaces and an art gallery)
  • Two commuter student Collegiums: a home away from home for first-year commuter students
  • A UBC Recreation satellite fitness facility
  • Two self-operated food outlets, Mercante and Harvest
  • Multiple hard- and soft-surface outdoor spaces to allow for individual use or group gatherings

Orchard Commons is in the southwest precinct of the campus and is comprised of two high-rise houses and two lower podium buildings. Housing more than 1,000 first-year students, Orchard Commons is a shared facility that features:

  • UBC Vantage College, a first-year entry program that integrates academic English language instruction into each course of study
  • Integrated three-story floor lounges that create smaller communities in the high-rise towers and provide access to social and study spaces on all residential floors
  • A full-service dining room
  • An upscale coffee and dessert food operation
  • Hummingbird daycare facility for children aged six months to three years old
  • Outdoor spaces with conducive activity opportunities for first-year students

Both Orchard and Ponderosa Commons demonstrate how innovative design and construction of student residences have been used to facilitate a campus-wide commitment to wellbeing, academic excellence and sustainability at UBC:

UBC aspires to be a health-promoting institution. Across the University, wellbeing promotion work is flourishing – threaded throughout strategic plans, in research across diverse disciplines, and in a range of programs, services, and initiatives. Research consistently tells us that wellbeing is positively correlated with resiliency, productivity, the ability to engage in deep learning, and a greater likelihood for students, faculty, and staff members to recommend their institution. Through its design, the Commons concept is a healthy learning and living space that purposefully enables wellbeing through its integrated spaces and resources that encourage social interaction and connection and physical activity and the availability of nutritious food, in combination with a dynamic academic environment.

Research consistently tells us that wellbeing is positively correlated with resiliency, productivity, the ability to engage in deep learning.  

Physical activity
Two spaces were built with the aim of mitigating sedentary behavior among staff, faculty, and students. An end-of-trip bicycle facility with showers and lockers reduces barriers for a physically active method of transportation to and from campus. A fitness studio where trained instructors offer exercise classes encourages physical activity throughout the day. Both the end-of-trip facility and fitness studio are available for use by all members of the UBC community.

Food is an essential factor in creating a healthy, dynamic and socially engaging living environment. With Ponderosa Commons and Orchard Commons came four additional food services outlets: Open Kitchen, a traditional dining room for the first-year residents of Orchard Commons; Hero Café, a coffee shop and market; Harvest, a deli for upper-year students living in apartment-style buildings; and Mercante, an authentic Italian-style café with a wood burning oven and a license to serve beer and wine.

These food outlets are located at street level in their respective buildings, thus encouraging not only residents but other members of the campus community to enjoy the diverse and healthy food options and to socialize in the inviting open concept indoor and outdoor seating areas.

Support for Working Families
UBC is proud to provide the largest university-operated childcare program in North America and to be a recognized leader in early childhood education. As a result of both the convenience and quality of care, students, faculty, and staff with children are supported in their mental wellbeing. Having their children nearby allows parents to do more with their day, improves productivity, and eliminates the worry associated with picking up their children before closing time.

Academic Excellence
UBC's Faculty of Education acquired a new home with the completion of Ponderosa Commons. Faculty members, previously located in disparate and temporary portable buildings, now have offices located together in the same building as classrooms, enabling more frequent formal and informal interaction with colleagues and students. Similarly, Orchard Commons is home to UBC Vantage College classrooms and faculty offices.

Design of classroom spaces within Ponderosa Commons and Orchard Commons has moved away from traditional fixed theatre-style seating. Classrooms are now designed and equipped with technology that offers a flexible, team-oriented, collaborative learning environment.

Ponderosa Commons also houses the Audain Art Centre, which includes an art gallery, learning space, studios and labs for visual and digital arts students, and the Department of Geography's Geofluvial Lab, designed to conduct innovative research on the interface between hydrology, geomorphology, ecology, and climate (environmental sciences).

Having classrooms integrated into their living environments offers tremendous academic benefit to the residents of Orchard Commons and Ponderosa Commons.  

Having classrooms integrated into their living environments offers tremendous academic benefit to the residents of Orchard Commons and Ponderosa Commons. Outside of scheduled class times, classrooms in the Commons become informal learning spaces available for residents to use as private study rooms and meeting spaces for group projects. Additionally, the Audain Art Centre and Geofluvial Lab provide residents with access and exposure to intellectual interactions that may be outside of their academic discipline. The idea is to put students closer together with the campus so they can see the kind of research and pursuits that go on here. We want open windows on the University's work.

As part of UBC's commitment to sustainability, all buildings within Ponderosa Commons and Orchard Commons have Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification.
Both Orchard and Ponderosa Commons were built with unique sustainability features designed to reduce waste and energy and water use. The exterior facades of the buildings serve as a barrier from outside temperatures. This keeps heat from escaping the building during winter months and cool air from escaping during the summer months, and it limits solar gain during hot summer weather. Also, in the winter a mechanical system is used to recycle warm air back into the buildings. Residence rooms are equipped with low-flow plumbing fixtures and in-room light and heat sensors to reduce energy consumption. UBC promotes a four-stream waste sorting system to ensure the maximum amount of waste is being diverted from the landfill.

Student Housing and Hospitality Services supplements the infrastructure with a variety of awareness initiatives for residents with the aim of increasing positive behaviour that furthers environmental awareness and sustainability in our community.

Our early experience with the two Commons has not been without its challenges. Although the state-of-the-art nature of all aspects of the multi-functional Commons space has been well received by the UBC community, we have had to grapple with issues of ownership, interest in access, and maintenance of these multi-functional/multi-stakeholder spaces.

For example, the comfortable and accessible classroom space in Orchard Commons is in high demand because of the competing demands of the students from Vantage College, students living in Orchard Commons Residence, and students from neighbouring student residences. Managing the utilization of these classroom spaces in a shared stakeholder arrangement, coupled with the need to clean and maintain these spaces, has resulted in challenges associated with opening and closing times. In a Commons space, it has proven challenging to decide when to compromise and which stakeholder needs take priority.

Early indication from all stakeholders is that the Commons concept is a winner. Given the multipurpose nature of the space, the Commons provides opportunities for students to interact with each other and with their faculty in different ways – in addition to in-class settings, students meet fellow students and their faculty in group study sessions or during office hours held in more open and informal learning spaces, or even in the line for lunch. Such encounters increase the opportunity for students, staff, and faculty to interact with one other.

The Commons offer a place for residents, commuter students, staff and faculty to build connections and engage in interdisciplinary experiences and – most importantly – to become part of a community.  

Not surprisingly, both Ponderosa and Orchard Commons are the residences most desired by students. Unlike our more traditional student residences, Ponderosa Commons and Orchard Commons are residences that serve the whole campus community. Through their commitment to creating and nurturing a vibrant, healthy and thriving community, the Commons offer a place for residents, commuter students, staff and faculty to build connections and engage in interdisciplinary experiences and – most importantly – to become part of a community.

My thanks to Cate Morrison and Tiffany Mintah, Assistant Directors of Residence Life, for their assistance.