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How can campuses be repurposed during the COVID-19 pandemic?

by Luke Voiland, AIA

As the corona virus sweeps across our nation, it has emptied campuses and disrupted operations. And as faculty and administrators adapt to a remote learning model, many are asking what can be done with the physical campus buildings that are now vacant. As an architecture firm that designs both campuses and healthcare environments, Shepley Bulfinch virtually convened a cross disciplinary group of practitioners to consider the most pragmatic and effective uses of empty campuses.   

The recommendations from this conversation fall into a few key themes:  

Direct response to Covid-19 – Campuses are not equipped to provide critical or acute care for sick patients. While dormitories may seem like ideal locations for housing patients, any similarity to hospital bedrooms is purely superficial. A dormitory is not equipped with the power, HVAC equipment, or infection control measures of a hospital. In addition, the visibility and access requirements for nursing staff would be difficult to achieve in a dormitory setting. A dormitory would be far more suitable as a place to:  

  • Provide a location for asymptomatic carriers to quarantine  
  • Isolate people exposed, but not tested  

If hospitals become overwhelmed and campuses are sought as places to house Covid-19 patients only a few building types could be used. These include:  

  • Gymnasium or field houses – Large, open-floor areas would allow appropriate separations between patients as well as  high visibility for medical staff. Large spatial volumes would enable better air circulation and reduce transmission.   
  • Classroom – Flat-floor classrooms could be cleared to serve as open wards for patients in recovery who still require observation. With 8-10 patients per room, there would enough visibility for two nurses to monitor and care for patients.  

Indirect response to Covid-19 – We believe that campuses could be best used to provide support for healthy populations. While dormitories are the most obvious candidates, other spaces, such as offices and classrooms, could also be temporarily outfitted with cots to offer temporary accommodations. Populations who might be housed on campuses include:  

  • Healthcare providers – who need a safe environment to rest between shifts, so they do not inadvertently expose their families to the virus.  
  • Traveling healthcare teams – who may be moving from state to state to offer care as the pandemic progresses.  
  • Other support staff – who prepare food and offer materials management support to first responders and medical staff.  

As educational institutions across the country take stock of their resources and consider how they can best support their communities, they can use these recommendations as a starting point for their planning.  Based on how their campus’ real estate aligns with these potential uses or a combination of them, they can adapt their spaces in new and innovative ways to combat the pandemic.   

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