HMFH Architects

Growing a Vision for a Student Commons

As part of the schematic design phase for the Bristol County Agricultural High School project in Dighton, MA, our design team met with a group of 15 students to envision the design of the school’s new student commons.

We start by talking about how different types of architecture make them feel. The students study the assortment of images we have pinned up on the wall, describing them with a range of phrases from “open and comforting” to “too cold.” One student imagines how they would personally feel in the space: “I would be happy here.”

As we discuss their reactions to a range of spaces and design components, a pattern emerges: most of the students are drawn to the images that have natural materials and strong connections to the outdoors. “We are here at Bristol Aggie because we love being outdoors,” one student states. “We wanted to be connected to the natural environment as much as possible.” On any given day students in the group will find themselves working with horses, dairy cows, and sheep, caring for their on-campus arboretum or studying turtles for the Natural Resources Management program. The sentiment makes perfect sense.

The students build their vision for the design of the school’s new student commons, first in words and then in 3-dimensional form. Pairs of students transform a collection of fabrics, card stock, rubber, and plastic laminate samples into models of learning environments. There is a soft hum in the room as partners share ideas and test their building techniques. An iterative design process is evident: if one technique doesn’t work, the students quickly try another approach with encouragement and guidance from the design team.

After an hour of intensive, creative efforts, students use the models they’ve developed to discuss their ideas. A team of two students show how their student commons has places for quiet study and for socializing. Other teams articulate the importance of adjacencies: designs show trees and seating areas that are easily accessible to the indoor spaces.

By the end of the session, the students are not only proud of their work but also of their contribution to shaping their future student commons building. They’ve gained a new perspective on the built environment and learned the potential of design thinking in the process.