DON’T build it before you break it in

Break it in before you build it. In multiple presentations over the course of the week, participants heard that even after soliciting as much feedback from faculty and students as possible, it is still crucial to use every opportunity to test new space, create mock-ups, learn from existing space, and create the opportunity for continuous feedback.

Elizabeth Sisam (Harvard Office of Planning & Project Management) emphasized that the evaluation of the quality of a current space is frequently overlooked, and that observing their use (or lack of) can yield insights important for moving forward on renovations or new construction. HPPM has often discovered that classrooms may be underutilized due to faculty scheduling preferences, travel/proximity, accessibility, sightlines, etc. She gave one specific example where the listed capacity of a room might be misleading - what if there are structural columns that obscure the view of the front of the lecture? Because it does not consider utilization. Participants heard from folks who have built mock-ups of their designs: at the Divinity School, staff recommended spending a lot of time testing the comfort level of the seats (they conducted a number of tests to solicit feedback, and made sure that there subjects sat in the chair for up to an hour).

At the Graduate School of Education, Jason Carlson said that they built a flat floor classroom mockup in Longfellow Hall for focus group feedback - it wasn’t perfect, but they built it with flexibility in mind so that testers could use it to provide feedback and what’s working and what is not; Stephen Baker added that mocking up a new space in an older classroom can give ideas new life. The Harvard Kennedy School is an example of a staff who has systematically and progressively experimented and used feedback to improve spaces, first with an existing lecture hall footprint, then with a new flat classroom, and are now informing a complete building renovation with the lessons learned.