When it comes to the built environment, we need communication and collaboration

Jaya Alagar

Although COVID-19 has changed the way that students interact within enclosed, indoor environments at the College, concern for building and space utilization predates pandemic times. The recently published Williams College: The Campus Guide (2018) by Professors Eugene J. Johnson and Michael Lewis begins by relating Ephraim Williams’ 1750 mandate that Williamstown lot owners construct houses of  “eighteen by fifteen feet, with an interior height of no less than seven feet.” The built environment has come a long way since with the advent of accessibility, fire safety, capacity, and sustainability standards.

On one hand, the College’s present-day built environment initiatives deserve a lot of praise. In my three years working with the Zilkha Center and Office of Planning, Design, and Construction (PD&C), I’ve seen firsthand how the College has improved buildings’ material health and operational performance. Alongside PD&C, I am currently developing post-occupancy evaluations to gauge student satisfaction of dormitories. Aside from my involvement, building committees often convene to discuss occupant safety, well-being, and comfort. Recently, central concerns have extended beyond physical buildings to outdoor landscaping. The College is planning renovations of student residences, and the master planning process is underway.

On the other hand, there’s still room for integrating equity, accessibility, sustainability, safety, and health into the College built environment. Students have taken notice of shortcomings. Past opinion pieces published in the Record have pointed out the lack of wheelchair compliant routes as part of a history of Americans with Disabilities Act noncompliance. Interns at the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives have reflected upon student isolation stemming from distantly located dormitories. Anonymous comments on the Williams Student Online (WSO) Dormtrak service have highlighted challenges in residence halls. The push for affinity housing presents an opportunity for the College to rethink its long-standing residential living model, which has been recently reenvisioned to incorporate theme, affinity, program, and special interest (TAPSI) considerations. 

Taken together, there is an ongoing tension between what the College is doing and what the College should be doing for its built environment. The College’s desire to provide a healthy, livable, and safe environment for its students is largely unquestioned. However, the College should reenvision and think critically about the ways in which it is acting upon this sentiment to integrate student viewpoints among non-student ones.

Better communication between students and non-student stakeholders at the College could make the built environment more reflective of student needs. Although PD&C’s project managers for the Davis Center Building Project heavily solicited feedback on current space and building utilization in 2019, they received only 125 responses — 119 students, and six non-students — in a campus-wide survey. Because many MinCo affiliates use the Davis Center, the timing of survey deployment right around the end of the semester, where schedules are littered with final projects and exam preparations may have played a role in the low amount of responses. Past surveys that have been distributed in tandem with obligatory student tasks, including the annual room draw, have seen higher response rates. The 2013 “Residential Sector Plan” survey, which was distributed alongside the room draw that year,  generated 750 student responses, amounting to a 36.5 percent response rate from all class years.

However, discourse about the built environment should not be a one-sided street that sees PD&C incessantly reaching out for student feedback and engagement. With the College’s rising commitment to sustainability reflected in PD&C’s widespread efforts, it is perhaps easier for students to highlight inequities that have not yet been addressed rather than appreciate visible improvements on campus. While these tendencies are understandable, students have seldom devised and implemented solutions in response to their critiques. Because students have demonstrated they care about aspects of the built environment, they should take more actionable steps to improve College surroundings. Student coordinators of the WSO Dormtrak service can add contact information for Facilities staff to spur more rapid modifications to residence hall spaces. Students can advocate for TAPSI staff responsibilities to include routine documentation of dormitory conditions. Students could conduct follow-up reports to sections of the 2020 “Report of the Working Group: the Built Environment” for senior seminars or capstone courses.

From PD&C and strategic planning groups to Williams Libraries and the Campus Environmental Advisory Committee, stakeholders across the College have formulated recommendations for improving the built environment. The large-scale, on-campus implementation of findings from many different reports is commendable. However, the extent to which recent work from offices including the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response has shaped PD&C priorities remains unclear. This information gap may be mitigated through public events such as town halls that aim to gauge the efficacy of recent studies commissioned for the innovating the campus landscape. Campus higher-ups should also consider generating a comprehensive, centralized archive with reports and decisions pertinent to the built environment. For building committees, this collection of data would help identify areas of the campus that would require more attention during planning as well as highlight most pressing needs. Students and the College community at-large could also benefit from this information by gaining knowledge of past and current undertakings.

Intergroup collaboration can also help alleviate communication barriers around the built environment. It is becoming increasingly clear that there needs to be a better working relationship between those tasked with planning, designing, and constructing the built environment and those who have to live in it. Creating a permanent committee with PD&C, Operations & Maintenance, and student representation could provide an opportunity for diverse stakeholder groups to voice their concerns.

COVID-19 has given community members the chance to reflect on how they perceive and use campus buildings. Now, campus constituents need to heighten communication with each other to enable more transparent, participatory decision-making processes and create a more equitable built environment.

Jaya Alagar ’22 is a chemistry and art history major from Pittsburgh, Pa.