Learning Commons ‘A Revolution in How Universities Conceptualize Space’
The Learning Commons, the centerpiece of the Boldly Forward Capital Campaign, opens up a world of new opportunities for learning and socializing for Kettering students, faculty and staff. By design. Abundant natural light and wide-open, technology-enriched spaces will encourage collegiality, collaboration and innovation — attributes that are fundamental to our values and our cooperative learning model.
Officials broke ground on the 105,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art facility on Feb. 5, 2020. Construction is expected to be completed this summer with a grand opening ceremony on Sept. 23.
“It’s going to be the best building on campus. The natural light in there is extremely welcoming,” Nathan Tuskan (’22, ME) said after touring the in-progress facility in February. “It’s so open, and some of the studying spaces have incredible views.”
Kettering University President Dr. Robert K. McMahan agrees.
“It’s a wonderfully warm space because the light just infuses all of these areas,” he said.
To learn more about the Learning Commons and its purpose, you have to first “suspend everything you think you know about buildings,” McMahan said.
The building, designed with no offices or classrooms, will be the “centerpiece of social and academic life on campus,” he said. It will function as a single entity with a focus on fostering interaction and collaboration, which shows how space influences behavior.
Philosophy Professor Dr. Levi Tenen said he can already see that.
“It seems to be a really good example of student-centered architecture and student-centered development,” he said. “There are no classrooms, but that’s probably why it’s student-centered rather than instruction-centered. It’s all about these meeting spaces, both social and collaborative working spaces.”
Tenen feels the building is innovative and likes that it’s mostly open but still has places where people can have privacy.
“It’s built to encourage a behavior, not to provide space for a specific function,” McMahan said.
Just as space can energize people and make them excited to work, it can also do the opposite if it is cold or dark.
“It’s more than a building," McMahan said. “It’s a revolution in how universities conceptualize space, how they fashion space to create and support behavior, and a collaborative model.”
McMahan and representatives from Stantec, the architectural firm that designed the building, will give a presentation about the Learning Commons at the 2022 Society for College and University Planners Annual Conference in Long Beach, California, in July.
“It represents a unique building in the United States,” McMahan said. “There’s no building on a college campus like this.”
“As humans, we thrive on outdoor, natural light,” Asperger said. “We wanted to emphasize that.”
The main entrance of the Learning Commons is a two-level connector that provides two ways to access the building. People can enter from the second floor of the Campus Center via an open-air path or from the first floor via a ground-level windowed tunnel that will serve as an art gallery with seating areas throughout.
The connector also splits the former beach into two spaces, with a grassy amphitheater on one side for outdoor seating, activities and performances, and a large patio area on the other with paths to Thompson Hall, the Rec Center and Campus Center.
“There’s an experience as you move through all of these spaces,” said Joe Asperger, Kettering University Director of Physical Plant.
Upon exiting the connector and entering the Learning Commons atrium, you’re greeted with a breathtaking, unobstructed view of the open space from the first to the fourth floor with natural light pouring in.
“As humans, we thrive on outdoor, natural light,” Asperger said. “We wanted to emphasize that.”
Lighting in the building is programmed to work in sync with natural light: Lights will provide increasingly more illumination as the natural light decreases throughout the day.
The building is designed so people can stand on one side and see through to the other side with unobstructed sightlines throughout the whole building.
“Even though it’s this huge space, it feels more intimate,” McMahan said.
The stairways to each floor are not stacked, forcing people to move laterally before they can move vertically. It’s another way the design encourages movement inside the building.
“It forces you to move through it, and every time you move through, you’re going to run into people,” McMahan said. “... It makes people run into each other, and good things come from that.”
The atrium includes another feature that is sure to be popular: A food court. Tuskan is already excited about it.
“I do enjoy the improvements to KDS [Kettering Dining Services],” he said. “It hasn’t even opened yet, and I want to eat lunch there.”
Under the new service model, faculty, staff and students will be able to purchase food throughout the day and evening. Multiple themed stations will provide a range of dining options, including Italian with pasta and pizza; sandwiches and deli items; a salad bar; breakfast all day; and meals catering to those with special allergies. The Learning Commons will also feature Detroit-based The Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company, offering a "Bulldog Blend" as the house specialty.
“Food and socializing and collaboration go together hand in hand,” McMahan said.
Dr. Kathryn Svinarich agrees.
“When people are eating together, I think it forms a bond that you don’t get any other way,” said Svinarich, the Associate Provost for Assessment and Academic Support and Dean of the College of Sciences and Liberal Arts. “Standing at the copier isn’t the same as waiting for coffee together or for your pizza to be done. It just provides a different platform; a more informal, more socially connected, personally connected spot.”
Eating will not be limited to a designated area, as everyone will be able to take food wherever they want, including the Kiva, an informal auditorium space with stepped seating similar to the outdoor amphitheater. Sam Klaskow, Director of the Academic Success Center (ASC), is most excited about this space.
“I think there is a lot of potential for workshops and having small gatherings of students,” she said.
Klaskow already has ideas for the types of workshops the ASC could provide students in the space. She said the Kiva’s proximity to the food court will make it easier for students to drop in on workshops or events they may not have known about but could benefit from attending. Currently, workshops take place on the fourth and fifth floor of the Campus Center, so there’s little chance students would “stumble upon” them, Klaskow said.
“I think that a lot of the areas there have that potential because it is so open, and even the meeting rooms that are closed off, they have glass windows, so students can see inside and see what’s going on, so it could pique that interest,” she said.
With floor-to-ceiling windows in the Kiva and the same type of ceiling treatment inside as the underside of the cantilever outside, it feels as if the space continues to the outside.
The building design promotes connections from indoors to outdoors in the same way it removes barriers for connecting inside, Asperger said.
“These vast areas of having this wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling glass treatments where at night, essentially the glass disappears and you’ll just feel like you’re outside,” he said. “That occurs in several spaces throughout the building.”
While the Kiva is considered one anchor of the building, the formal 200-seat auditorium theater anchors the other end of the building. It features a direct-LED display that can be viewed without covering the windows. It can be used with a single display or create screens of different dimensions for multiple sources.
McMahan described it as a “mini-IMAX” theater.
The first floor also houses a 15,000-square-foot maker’s space, which will feature 3D printers, design stations, electric soldering stations, and other machinery and tools.
On nice days, people can enjoy the third floor’s 1,600-square-feet of rooftop spaces for studying, eating or taking in some sunshine. Three other rooftop areas visible from the inside are topped with a vegetative roof system that will require little maintenance but offer a better view than a plain roof.
Other building features include a digital library; a cantilever conference room; a meditation room; and a fourth-floor suite for speakers, visiting professors and other University guests to stay, allowing them more time to interact with students as they utilize other areas of the building. The building also includes about a dozen d.spaces, each color-coded for size, capacity and function.
Klaskow said having more d.spaces available could keep students on campus longer. The availability of additional d.spaces will appeal to students whose project-based studies require working collaboratively with classmates.
All common areas will be different, with no two areas furnished the same way, becoming less formal as you move up.
“I foresee faculty and staff being just as active in this building as students,” McMahan said. “In fact, that’s the idea, to give them a place where they can all come together.”
Klaskow said she doesn’t think faculty and staff feel empowered to use current student areas such as d.spaces or the Abbey because they might not want to encroach on students’ territory.
“I think this space with the way that it’s designed and set up with different alcoves and different settings where you can determine how laid-back or structured you want your meeting to feel, I think that’s really great,” she said. “I think it will be great to have students, faculty and staff in the same spaces using these spaces for things like meetings or just grabbing coffee or going to lunch with colleagues.”
Svinarich agreed it could bring people together. She said faculty members tend to stick to their buildings, so they might go a while without seeing their colleagues who are based in a building just across the street.
“It feels like there is all of this disconnect, and I do believe the building will provide a much more informal, easy setting for people at a variety of functions at this university — staff, faculty, student, administrator — to really interact on a much more casual, even-platform setting,” she said. “Students don’t have to go into the scary faculty office; they don’t have to go all the way up to the fifth floor of the Campus Center for something. It’s going to provide a more easy meeting space.”
Tenen agreed. He has worked at Kettering for about 18 months and spends most of his time in the Academic Building (AB), so he knows his fellow department faculty but not those in the Mott Building. In the same way, he said he hopes the space could open up more relationships with administration.
“I enjoy seeing the Provost in the halls of the AB, and it would be nice to see the Provost, deans and the President more frequently in that setting,” he said.
Svinarich said she hopes to see the space evolve into territories or areas where specific people routinely gather, such as math tutors or ASC staff, so students know where they can find them.
“I think it will be organic, and I hope that happens,” Svinarich said.
Tenen said he’d like to see the Learning Commons provide a better sense of campus community.
“I get the sense sometimes that some of the students don’t feel like they have as much of a campus community as they would like,” he said. “And I think this really will contribute to that.”
He thinks the building will have a positive impact on the student-to-faculty and student-to-staff relationships in that it will make faculty and staff appear more approachable and personable.
“I think it’s really good for students to see faculty and staff interacting as regular humans,” she said. “... I think there’s a really good opportunity for students to separate how they view some of their faculty or staff support that they work within an environment that is neutral territory.”
That could also foster more mentor relationships because students might have more conversations with faculty as they bump into them.
“That’s critical, developing those relationships on a personal level where you’re not just going to talk to them about your class or your assignment. You’re going to seek knowledge because you know they’re an expert in their field,” Klaskow said.
In the end, the people will define the space.
"This building is built to the highest-quality standard," McMahan said. “This is a Class A+ building in terms of construction quality and not just the materials, but the systems we’re putting in it and its expandability and how it can be modified. It’s going to last 50 to 60 years. How do we know what people will do? The only thing you can do is build something that’s flexible enough to let people redefine the building.”