Mahlum endeavors to revisit our completed projects with the specific intent to learn and adapt our design solutions to support users’ needs. Alma Clark Glass Hall (ACGH) at Western Washington University (WWU) was designed using an inclusionary process with a specific focus on learning through student listening sessions. In honor of Alma Clark Glass (whom the building is named after and was the first Black female student to attend WWU), the creation of the first Black Affinity Housing community on WWU’s campus found its home in ACGH, providing the opportunity for Black students to live together in a safe and welcoming environment. After being operational for three years, we looked forward to discovering how the building was functioning for its residents, specifically the Black Affinity Housing community.
CONNECTING WITH RESIDENTS
Kurt Haapala and I reached out to Leonard Jones, Director of University Residences, and Vicki Vanderwerf, (former) Associate Director of University Residences, to schedule a discussion with Black Affinity Housing residents to see if the design of the residence hall is supporting their specific needs. Hosting a dinner, we broke bread with students who volunteered to participate, sharing with them our objectives for the evening and giving a short presentation to provide insight into the original design intent. We then invited an open dialogue around student experiences living in ACGH. Through these discussions, a handful of themes stood out as valuable feedback for consideration when designing for affinity-based communities in the future.
Open and Transparent
A theme that surfaced numerous times (in numerous ways) was the openness and transparency of the building which students associated with a sense of safety because, “…there are no blind corners where someone can hide.” Students also appreciated that transparency allows for more daylight and views of nature, which was one of the design team’s intended original goals.
Not surprising was the students’ appreciation of Alma Clark Glass Hall’s centralized location, with convenient access to the Viking Union building, Red Square, and other academic and support services. Site and proximity matter and are significant in supporting inclusion, sending a strong signal to the campus at large that their community is viewed as important.
An area we will seek to improve upon in the future after hearing student feedback is to better enhance community visibility. Currently, Black Affinity Housing occupies one half of a floor in ACGH’s south wing, but some Black Affinity members live in the north wing. This disconnect happened due to unit type distribution and housing affordability, resulting in a weakened sense of connection and Black identity.
Students also shared how we might better celebrate community identity in public spaces in the future. While flags, banners, and artwork are being posted by residents along corridor walls, a specifically designed location at community entries would feel more intentional. (Our team received the same feedback from the Pride Housing community located just one level below.)
The Shared Journey
Students clearly understand and appreciate the concept of the Shared Journey accessible pathway (learn more here) in promoting access not only to Alma Clark Glass Hall but to the greater Ridgeway housing neighborhood. But after dinner, during a walking tour of the residence hall, Kurt and I had an incredible and impromptu conversation with a student who identified as a wheelchair user. They noted that while the ability to partake in the Shared Journey is appreciated, the initial ramp from the city sidewalk is challenging to navigate. This person’s lived experience informed us that the design solution, while ADA compliant, could have better accommodated moments of respite along the steeper ramp sections.
The Basics Matter
While trying to provide a truly equitable living environment for all, basic items still need to work as intended. The elevators generated a lot of comments including sudden movements, various noises, concern of getting stuck, etc. Even though elevators are complex, engineered transportation systems, these small impressions leave some students feeling an uneasiness in using them. And students will share their feelings and impressions with others – so much so it can become legend!
Another basic building element presenting a challenge to students is the door closing mechanism to one of the accessible shower rooms. Residents of this floor have begun propping the door open to support their community members who use mobility devices. This may be a very simple fix, but it is a “small” detail that can make a daily, negative impact on someone’s living experience.
Kurt and I were humbled by the opportunity to spend an evening meeting and talking with the ACGH students. We are especially grateful to the Black Affinity Housing residents who took time out of their day and graciously shared their living experience with us, as we recognize this can entail an emotional commitment and openness to vulnerability. We came away from this experience with a better understanding how to lean into design strategies that have proven successful at Alma Clark Glass Hall and where we can improve. In addition, we were able to compose a list of maintenance and improvement items that WWU facilities can address to further improve day-to-day operations that support their commitment to Accessibility, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.
Reflecting on what we learned, we look forward to improving our process and outcomes, sharing our experience with our colleagues, and elevating equitable experiences for all students as we continue to design for inclusion on WWU and other campuses.