We designed and built a library for 21st century students.

But... does it work?

Salisbury University Patricia R. Guerrieri Academic Commons | POST OCCUPANCY STUDY

Two years after the grand opening of the Salisbury University Academic Commons, we surveyed students to find out exactly that. Using our proprietary MyCampus platform, we surveyed over 200 students at Salisbury University. We asked how often they visit the Commons, what aspects provide the most academic benefits, which parts they love, and which parts they could do without.

The results were illuminating. Our design principles worked flawlessly in many cases, yielding the desired impact on the students’ experience. Yet, in other cases, the students’ responses challenged our design intent—revealing that many students interact with elements of the Academic Commons in unexpected ways. Further still, responses to some elements were starkly divided—an important reminder that no matter how much user-testing, trend-forecasting, and professional expertise goes into a design, the end result rarely meets with every users’ preferences.

Scroll on for a brief look at the key principles of the Commons’ design, paired with responses and takeaways from the post-occupancy survey.

The Social and the Solitary

Catering to diverse learning modes

Design Intent

Social learning has never been more important, as universities prepare students for the modern workforce. Still, heads-down study time remains a crucial aspect of the student experience. We designed the Commons to provide a continuum of spaces that celebrate all modes of learning. Likewise, it was important to create an environment in which students rubbed elbows with their instructors, where grad students could create their own community, and where freshmen felt welcome and supported. The Commons’ café, social spaces, and circulation corridors weave together spaces for the campus’ diverse populations.

Specific design strategies included:

Creating large spaces for public study and socializing, classrooms for small-group activities, and quiet spaces for individual study

Placing seats along the atrium’s perimeter for students who need solitude but still like some visual stimulation

Maximizing adjacencies between student, graduate, and faculty support centers to promote a sense of life-long learning

Study Findings

Many respondents identified the sunken core, “the Pit,” of the first floor as “the heart of the Commons”—yet its popularity can at times detract from its success. Some students cited the difficulty of finding a free seat, as well as distracting noise levels.

  • 65% visit the Commons to study in groups
  • 89% say the Commons' public spaces fosters collaboration with other students
  • 32% of students said their favorite thing about the Commons is the variety of study spaces

Respondents demonstrated the importance of quiet, nestled-away study nooks—and regarded several areas of the Commons as ideal for heads-down work. Distractions from the more social areas and limited available seating were consistent comments.

  • 86% of students reported visiting the Commons to study alone
  • 85% of students prefer a "very quiet space" when studying alone
  • 49% of students prefer a "moderately quiet space with others nearby" when studying alone

The Commons’ mix of programs emphasizes the importance of exchanging knowledge and information in a public forum, and the building’s circulation avenues encourages serendipitous encounters

  • 58% of students say the Commons’ public spaces fosters collaboration with faculty
  • 58% and 56% of students listed “proximity to other resources” as a benefit for the Center for Student Achievement and Writing Center being in the Commons, respectively
  • 78% of students stay for two or more hours

At the Heart of it All

Redefining the Commons' role on Campus

Design Intent

The Commons lies at the heart of Salisbury’s campus. How could we ensure that the building itself functioned like a heart— pumping vitality and knowledge into the larger campus community? Windows along the façade dissolve the barrier between “inside” and “out,” while the dramatic stair and multi-story atrium expose the creative inertia of the building and its occupants. At night, the Commons’ lights act like a beacon—drawing attention to this bustling hub for academic discovery.

Specific design strategies included:

Using glass at the ground floor to project the Commons’ vitality outwards to passersby

Siting doors at multiple sides of the building to cater to different points of arrival

Upping the “wow factor” of the space with the multi-story atrium and long sight lines

Study Findings

The bustling success of the Commons, one year after its opening, speaks to the campus’ embracing this new space as the core of the campus. This early success has not been without growing pains, as several respondents indicated the difficulty of finding open seats during peak hours.

  • 50% of respondents visit the Commons once a day or more
  • 15% of students listed its convenient location as what they like best about the Commons
  • 211: the number of responses indicating that having “a view” or “good visibility of another public space” was important to selecting a study space

Meet the New Neighbors

Finding the right balance of programs

Design Intent

Academic enrichment programs and classrooms, graduate student lounge, renowned regional history center, a 400-seat assembly space—the Commons’ robust programming serves the diverse academic and research needs of the whole campus community. How could we blend all these programs to seem less like a cacophony of resources and more like a symphony of support for academic excellence? We carefully planned the location of the building’s programs—placing library staff and administration spaces on the first floor for easy access and support, and situating the academic achievement programs within easy reach on the second floor.

Specific design strategies included:

Creating a ring of services along the bottom floor—promoting easy-access to the resources that students need most often, such as research assistance and tech-support desks

Placing the assembly space on the top floor, to draw people in and up—activating the entire building with foot traffic

Displaying a portion of the Nabb Center's archives in an exhibit-like setting to encourage student engagement and research

Study Findings

The location of librarians and tech support on the ground floor enables students to get fast assistance. While librarian offices were situated alongside the building’s study lounge to promote one-on-one research consultations, fewer students reported visiting the librarians there. Perhaps these interactions will increase with time.

  • 70% of students meet with librarians at the service desk
  • 20% of students have borrowed a laptop from the Commons

Responses illustrate the opportunity to explore additional programming for academic excellence spaces, which are often underutilized during off-hours. Fine-tuning factors, such as the room reservation system or signage on when spaces are open to all students, could increase the utilization of these spaces. The relatively low percentage of students who check out books also supports the decision to selectively reduce of the Commons’ on-site collection—a trend happening in many academic libraries.

  • 40% of respondents said they check out books
  • 39% and 35% of respondents indicated they visit the Center for Student Achievement and the Writing Center, respectively
  • 74% of those who visit the Writing Center schedule appointments to do so

Placing the assembly space on the top floor had the intended effect of drawing people through to the top floor—with the side effect of bringing disruptions to that floor. Usage for the Nabb Center, the regional history archives, is still ramping up, but the data shows that instructors are already including work in their syllabi that necessitate use of this unique resource. Overall, more clarity on the governance of the Commons’ programs not operated by library staff could alleviate student confusion regarding limited access to certain spaces, such as the assembly hall.

  • 21% of students have used the Nabb Center for researching coursework
  • 64% of maker lab visitors use the space for fun
  • 43% of maker lab visitors report using it for class projects

The Essential Intangibles

Sound, natural light, and other spatial qualities

Design Intent

Studying for an exam can be grueling, but the space you study in shouldn’t make it worse! We maximized daylight and views to the outside, connecting students to natural light and the campus’ activity, and acoustically tuned the building to provide a sonic range from silent study nooks to the hum of a café. Clear signage, comfortable furniture, well-placed electrical outlets—these are some of the small yet critical details that round out the Commons’ student-centered experience.

Specific design strategies included:

Designing a playful double-switchback stair to encourage users to skip the elevator when traveling between floors

Boldly announcing each floor’s programs and purpose with wayfinding signage visible throughout the atrium

Bringing in outside light through skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows

Study Findings

Regardless of a project’s larger goals, architects can never lose sight of the core principles that make a space pleasing. We took care to incorporate design elements that provide a warm and welcoming atmosphere for students to spend long hours in, such as maximizing natural light and views to the outside—a rare trait in many older libraries.

  • 78% of respondents stay for 2 hours or more
  • 211: the number of responses indicating that having “a view” or “good visibility of another public space” was important to selecting a study space

If students are not physically comfortable, they will struggle to focus. Overall, respondents illustrated the tensions inherent in a building with so many hybrid programs—with the energy, sounds, and even smells, blending from one area to the next. Some students reported difficulties finding open study spaces during peak hours. This perceived seating shortage could be an opportunity to experiment with flexible furniture systems and layouts. A closer look at the building’s heating and cooling settings could also help more effectively regulate temperatures.

  • 93% of students feel safe studying at the Commons at night
  • “Access to electricity,” “comfortable temperature,” “comfortable furniture,” and “good lighting” were student’s top seat selection criteria

Explore the Data

Use the filters below to investigate the study findings and patterns in more detail.

We human-centered design.

Let’s build something impactful together.

The places in which we live our lives are more than physical spaces; they make up the context and the content of our experience. Our designs place the experience of the end-user at the core, to create healthy and productive environments that people enjoy inhabiting.

We do not believe in one-size-fits-all solutions. Instead, the places and spaces we create respond directly to the needs of the clients and the communities they serve. To do this well, we connect with stakeholders through a multitude of channels to uncover challenges and opportunities. Then, we create, test, and iterate until we get to the right solutions for our clients.

None of this happens without dialogue. If you have questions or comments regarding our approach to this project, to post-occupancy studies, or to our design philosophy, let's talk.

A Note on Post-Occupancy Studies

As designers, we value any and all data that can inform and improve our work. We acknowledge that while this report is a celebration of this building’s successful design elements, and an opportunity to learn from missed opportunities, it is not a comprehensive survey of all of the Commons’ users—such as faculty, staff, and community members.

This survey gives us an honest look at the performance of the Commons from the very people for whom the building was designed: students, at a moment in time. Time plays an outsized role in these results, as juniors and seniors who took this survey are able to compare the new Commons to Salisbury’s previous library, whereas a reissue of this survey five years from now would mostly include students who are only familiar with the Commons. We plan to reissue this survey in the future, to gain a more complete picture of this project’s performance as a building serving student success.