Empathic Design Elements Promote Student Feelings of Safety, Inclusion, and Community


The July-August 2019 issue of Talking Stick is out and it features a great article by KWK Principal Javier Esteban on empathic design in student housing. Special thanks to Alma Sealine, Executive Director of University Housing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Michael Schultz, Director of University Housing at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, for their much-appreciated and insightful contributions to the article. Click on the link to see the article in Talking Stick - http://read.nxtbook.com/acuho/talking_stick/july_august_2019/environmental_controls.html#

Environmental Controls

Empathic design elements promote student feelings of safety, inclusion, and community.

By Javier Esteban

Empathy is one of those terms that can have different meanings to different people. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as an “understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, the feelings of another” without having these feelings explicitly communicated. Daniel Coleman, co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, associates “empathy” with “attention,” which comes from the Latin word attendere, meaning “to reach to others” or having the ability to understand other people’s feelings in an objective manner. Regardless of the specific definition, empathy is one of the main factors that define emotional intelligence and is broadly considered one of the most human of conditions: which raises the question, how can a building – those monuments of stone, metal, plumbing, and wires – be empathetic?  Actually, empathy has been a consideration in industrial and software design for several years. According to a paper about the challenges of empathic design, the approach combines “observations of what people do with interpretations of what people think, feel and dream.” In his article about empathic product design, Jon Kolko (founder of the Austin Center for Design and developer of MyEdu software, a series of academic planning tools) notes that there is a correlation between empathic product design and empathic architectural design for campus residence halls. In this application, the concept is a means of identifying through direct interaction with the students what values and core issues facilitate their life and then incorporating features that support those values. In that way empathic design focuses more on students’ feelings than on their spaces; it’s an introspective approach to the environments in which students live.

An understanding of these conditions can be translated into actual spaces that respond better to students’ needs. For example, identifying the basic elements that make it possible for a student to feel comfortable studying in a particular space, understanding their learning style, and focusing on the qualitative aspects will help designers create environments that better fit student needs. Understanding how students feel when they are studying and responding to those feelings will create the most responsive space. A similar approach has been used in designing research-based institutions, healthcare facilities, and theme parks.

Alma Sealine, executive director of university housing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says her department is using the experiences of building their last three residence halls since 2010 to inform their work moving forward. “We have talked to students about their experiences, held focus groups, and have had furniture feedback sessions. We are continuing to find ways to meet the needs of our students while also embedding in our design our commitment to the living and learning environment.”   

One benefit of empathetic design is increased student safety and security. There are multiple approaches that keep residence halls and students safe and secure, such as lighting, landscaping, security personnel, cameras, access control systems, and other technologies. But beyond these tools, another important aspect of safety and security design is the feeling of being secure. Regardless of the level of security, if students don’t feel secure their experience will be a negative one. Similarly, regardless of how much money an institution spends on safety and security, if the perpetrator does not feel like they are being watched, the technology fails as an actual deterrent. An empathic hall design makes students feel safe and repels would-be perpetrators.

Promoting an empathic atmosphere can also help identify those factors that make students feel comfortable enough to open up to new friendships. “There cannot be too much community, as long as students feel safe and respected within the residential experience,” says Sealine. “Some students may experience burnout, but I believe it has a lot more to do with managing conflicting priorities and stress. A supportive and educational community will provide the resources for students to navigate the strategies they need to be successful.” 

It’s well accepted that the lighting, colors, and shapes found in a residence will affect the mood and psyche of its inhabitants. While such choices may seem like minor details in the scope of a multimillion dollar construction project – literally window dressing – designers and housing professionals would be remiss to not give them the proper attention and thus risk negatively affecting how students interact and how they feel about belonging to a particular residence hall. As one example, in Corbin Hall at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, a large, light blue, comfortable couch sits in the center of the main lounge, almost creating a room within a room. This purposeful design element creates a special place where long conversations happen and friendships are formed between students. This empathic couch evokes feelings of community and encourages students to remain in the living room area longer, therefore affecting their behavior in a positive way.

Michael Schultz, director of university housing at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), says that his campus stresses incorporating flexible space into their residence hall designs in order to create community and fulfill students’ desire for spaces that meet their needs. “At SIUE, we look at flexible space as space where you can move the furniture around into different configurations. For example, a computer lab or classroom would need to remain in the same configuration, but a multi-function room can be configured into many different spaces.”

According to Schultz, there can never be too much community within a residence hall, if the community is respectful of each student’s right to study, sleep, exercise, and practice their religion. “At SIUE, we have reduced the size of our residence hall computer labs and converted them into small hotel-sized fitness rooms,” he explains. “This allows students who do not have the confidence to go to the student fitness center a place to exercise in a more comfortable setting for them. We are also looking to convert a space into an e-sports arena and are also in need of feet-washing spaces adjoined to prayer and meditation rooms.”             

One of the most dramatic examples of empathic design choices – as well as one of the clearest, most recent examples of the evolution of residence hall design – is the integration of private bathrooms into the community building. According to Paul Wuennenberg, a principal at KWK Architects, “the private bathroom in residence halls has become the Civil Rights issue of the 21st century.” Integrating private bathrooms into the design of the residential community started as a solution to a very personal issue. After analyzing students’ personal feelings and issues of privacy and respect, designers recognized that the common denominator addressing all of their concerns was having a private bathroom. Current designs incorporate a cluster of private bathrooms, each with a door, floor-to-ceiling partitions, toilet, shower, sink, and changing area. This design element, which has a deep and personal impact on students’ feelings, also allows the residential community the flexibility to adapt to new student demographics from year to year.  Many of these decisions are also connected to the principles of accessible and universal design. While campuses obviously have to follow established rules and guidelines from the Fair Housing Act, American National Standards Institute, ADA Standards for Accessible Design, and others, empathic design goes beyond that and can literally change the perception of a space. For example, a typical table corner is likely perceived very differently by an individual who is 5’ 6” tall and standing as compared to someone sitting in a wheelchair at a height of 3’ 6”. Given that the corner of the table is at eye level for the person in the wheelchair, designing one with a rounded edge is a far friendlier approach.

Finally, empathic design can even have an influence at the level of deciding what to name a residence hall. At the University of Illinois, housing staff have found that understanding the social justice impacts of residence hall design has had a significant effect on the student experience. As Sealine explains, “We have three newer residence halls on campus that are named after alumni who have made significant impacts on the University of Illinois. One of these halls, Bousfield Hall, is named after the first female African American graduate in 1906. Students have shared with administrators across campus that naming the hall after an African American graduate shows our students that we value our students of color and their respective experiences on campus,” she explains. “While the name of the building was not determined before the building was designed, the flexibility of the design to meet many different student needs allowed us to tell Maudelle Tanner Brown Bousfield’s story, which has a significant impact on our students and the community.”            

Empathic design is not a set of rules; instead, it embodies the desire to better understand students in their communities. While almost all the examples mentioned here are common in today’s residence halls, it is important to remember that, in one way or another, they are all grounded in understanding the deep needs of the students. If architects and campus housing professionals continue to apply empathy to the design of their residence halls, the result will be halls that are increasingly relatable and comfortable for the students – a result that everyone can feel good about. ■

Javier Esteban is a principal with KWK Architects in St. Louis, Missouri.


READ ON . . .

Jon Kolko, “A Process for Empathetic Product Design” in Harvard Business Review (April 23, 2015).

Carolien Postma, Elly Zwartkruis- Pelgrim, Elke Daemen, and Jia Du,

“Challenges of Doing Empathic Design: Experiences from Industry” in International Journal of Design (2012).


Empathic Design Elements Promote Student Feelings of Safety, Inclusion, and Community
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