The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹›


How to Build a Residential College

2. Buildings and Grounds

It is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld, all the days of their life.

—John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture

This is the second of six pages of recommendations for the establishment of residential colleges within large universities, and it examines college buildings and grounds. The other pages discuss: (1) membership and administrative structure, (3) college life and the annual cycle, (4) pastoral care, and (5) academic life, and a supplementary page presents (6) a brief “generative sequence” for assembling the components. For a summary of all these recommendations please visit the main “How To Build a Residential College” page, and for more general information about residential colleges please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

In developing these recommendations on buildings and grounds, I have assumed that my readers are interested in establishing residential colleges in existing university buildings, and that these buildings are open to at least some modification. I am not an architect and so do not present comprehensive strategies for new construction. What I do present is an account of the environmental elements that should be present in a residential college—what planners call the “program” for a construction project—along with an account of the social and educational objectives that those environmental elements should support. I recognize that the particular arrangement of these elements will be constrained by local conditions.

In the sections below I first consider residential college buildings (2.1), with an emphasis on the common areas that support college life, and then turn to the grounds and gardens of a residential college (2.2) and how they can be developed to support the college’s educational mission.

2.1.  College Buildings, Common Rooms, and Student Rooms

Residential college buildings are traditionally arranged around a courtyard, and if your buildings are already arranged that way you should celebrate. A courtyard is beneficial because it channels pedestrian traffic past a single entrance where offices and bulletin boards can be placed, and because it screens off vehicular traffic and outside noise, something that is especially important in an urban setting. But if you are working with buildings that do not have a courtyard arrangement you should certainly not despair, especially if your college isn’t in an urban setting where a courtyard is more necessary. What you want to provide, with or without a courtyard, is a sense of enclosure, and this can be accomplished with landscaping (2.2.1) as well as with buildings. Regardless of their arrangement, all residential college buildings should certainly obey the four-story limit recommended by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues (their Pattern 21) and dictated in truth by common sense.

If you are establishing your residential colleges in modern dormitory buildings you will probably find the student rooms arranged on “double-loaded” corridors. This is a satisfactory arrangement provided the corridors are not too long. I would not place more that 30 residents on any one corridor; I have seen corridors with more than 40 residents, and their social cohesion was markedly less. If corridors are used they should certainly be interrupted with openings, alcoves, and natural light, all of which will serve to counteract the unpleasant tunnel-like effect that long corridors can sometimes produce. My experience with long corridors supports the observations that Alexander makes with respect to small public squares (Pattern 61), where he notes that individual faces are commonly recognizable up to a distance of 75 feet. When people cannot recognize each other at the opposite ends of a long corridor they do not feel safe, because they are unsure whether the person heading their way is a neighbor or perhaps an intruder. The optimal length of corridors in a residential college is actually shorter than 75 feet, however, because although people can successfully communicate at 75 feet in a raised voice, raised voices are exactly what one should be trying to avoid near people’s sleeping quarters.

An older arrangement for student rooms in residential colleges, one that should be considered for new construction, is the staircase arrangement. In this model, which is only effective if the buildings are arranged around a courtyard, the student rooms are placed around independent staircases that open separately into the courtyard. The courtyard then serves to channel traffic through a single college entrance and past the major common rooms. In the absence of a courtyard-like arrangement of the buildings, however, I would not recommend the staircase model as it would disrupt rather than promote social cohesion. In new construction also, and in renovations of old construction, it is very important to mix some large rooms and studio apartments together on the same corridors or staircases with common dormitory-style rooms. These spaces should be reserved for graduate students (1.3.4) and older undergraduates, and perhaps for occasional married couples. You should not segregate these different groups, but rather mix age groups together to a considerable extent, though certainly with varying degrees of privacy. First-year students stuck in small doubles should see clearly that as they advance through the college, they will have the same opportunity that everyone has to move into the better rooms; this is an incentive to remain in residence. And the better rooms should not be priced higher: all rooms should cost the same, and should be allocated by a seniority-based lottery, a system that is fair and understandable to everyone. The last thing you want to do is drive away seniors who would like to stay in residence, but who are priced out of the college by counterproductive rental policies.

Within or adjacent to the main college buildings you should provide residences for the master and the dean. These may be apartments, or detached or semi-detached houses. In purpose-built residential colleges there is commonly a “Master’s Lodge” connected to or across the street from the other college buildings. The master and the dean should be expected to use their residences for official entertaining of students and guests, and so their residences should made spacious enough to be able to perform those functions.

The flow of pedestrian traffic through the college buildings and grounds is very important and should strongly influence the placement of the common rooms. The two locations that will have the highest amount of daily traffic will be the entrance to the college as a whole and the entrance to the dining hall (2.1.1). That means that most of the common rooms should be adjacent to (but not directly in the path of) these high traffic areas. The Junior Common Room (2.1.3), for example, might be placed adjacent to the dining hall, but screened off somewhat so that a measure of privacy is afforded. People going either to the JCR or to the dining hall should be able to glance safely into the other room to see if any of their friends (or enemies) are there, without actually having to enter the room unless they choose to do so. Common areas with less heavy traffic will include the laundry room and the college offices (2.1.6). You might put the laundry room next to the game room (2.1.4), for example, so people will have a place to socialize while waiting for their clothes to dry, and you might put the college offices in the same area or perhaps adjacent to the main entrance so that people will pass by them every day as they go in and out of the college. This will make it more likely for them to drop in, read the bulletin boards, and talk to the college staff. In every case an intimacy gradient should be established so people don’t step directly from a busy sidewalk into an office or common area, but instead pass through a small transitional space. The transitional space may not need to be anything more than the feeling created by a few potted plants, a picture on the wall, or a special carpet on the floor. Entrance transitions and intimacy gradients are discussed by Alexander and many other architectural writers, and I encourage every residential college officer to become familiar with these basic design principles.

Refuge and prospect: Underlying many successful indoor and outdoor environments, both natural and built, is another design principle called “refuge and prospect”: we are comfortable in those places where we have the opportunity to see without being seen, the opportunity to watch our surroundings and at the same time to escape from them whenever desired. Balconies, chairs by windows, colonnades, archways, seating areas behind low hedges and walls—all these provide a sense of protection while at the same time they permit us to keep an eye on our surroundings. Architectural and landscape theorists such as Jay Appleton and Grant Hildebrand have written on this subject, and they argue that the human preference for refuge-prospect places has biological roots. (Compare also Alexander’s Pattern 114, “Hierarchy of Open Space.”) The reason these notions are of practical importance to students of residential colleges is that a residential college should not be a dormitory or a hotel but a home. Those environmental features, like refuge-prospect places, that make for comfortable homes also make for successful residential colleges.

In the interior spaces throughout your college you should minimize or eliminate three of the most common features of cheap institutional architecture, namely flourescent lights, cinder block, and unfinished concrete. Everywhere you should emphasize wood, brick, stone, green plants, and filtered natural light. This is especially important in the college’s common rooms, which we will now examine individually.

2.1.1. College Dining Hall — The dining hall is perhaps the most important single room in a residential college, and yet the large centralized dining facilities that now exist on many campuses make it difficult to establish. Let us first consider how a residential college dining hall ought to be arranged, and then consider fall-back positions that can be adopted if the ideal arrangement is not yet possible.

Every fully-equipped residential college should have its own dining hall as part of the college buildings. The dining hall should be large enough to hold all the members of the college at one time for special events, although only rarely will it be filled to that capacity. The dining hall should be decorated with artwork, portraits, flags and banners, sculptures, and all manner of other signs and symbols (3.2.3) that reflect the history and traditions of the college. In a new college it will take time to accumulate these things, of course, and you shouldn’t be overly concerned about that. But consider beginning right away so everyone will be able to see the dining hall develop while they are there. In your first year commission a student or a fellow of the college (perhaps a professor in the art department) to paint a portrait of your college’s namesake, and order some flags which the students themselves can hang in a dinner-time ceremony. By involving the members in these activities they will come to feel ownership of the space, and will be proud to show it off to visitors.

Big heads: When I was a resident tutor in Dudley House at Harvard we discovered that there was a giant bust of one of the former masters, carved in wood by an early student, that was gathering dust (literally) in the corner of another campus building. The student sculptor, José Buscaglia, had since gone on to become an internationally known artist whose work was displayed around the world. We asked the current master to request permission to have the bust moved to the house dining hall, and permission was granted. So one day a crew that named itself “Dudley Moving & Storage” marched to the site, picked up the old sculpture, and carried it in procession to its new home in the Dudley House dining hall. We had to detach the giant head from its base in order to move it, and discovered thereby that the base was hollow. So before reassembling it (this secret has never before been revealed) the members of Dudley Moving & Storage signed their names and the date inside the base of the sculpture, and then set it up dramatically in its new home. In two or three hundred years another group of students will probably have to move it again; I hope they find our names, add theirs, and then close it back up again for the future.

By virtue of being the place that everyone visits on a daily basis, the college dining hall will be a center for announcements and social activity. Once each week in the dining hall the fellows of the college should have lunch (3.3.3)—every Friday at noon, say—and at other times the students and faculty should be encouraged to establish special-interest tables: on Mondays at lunch there might be a regular French table for students who want to practice their French; on Tuesdays at dinner there might be a regular biology table for students who want to talk about biology; and so on. (At one residential college, the students who could not speak French set up a competing “French accent table” next to the French table. They usually had better attendance.) You will know your dining hall is alive when at least once or twice each evening someone clinks on a glass and makes an announcement about some college or university event.

Although the primary clientele of each college dining hall will be the members of that college, students and faculty alike will often want to eat with friends from other colleges, and that should be encouraged. A convenient way to arrange this is to have all the dining halls open to visitors on most days and evenings, but to have one evening each week (every Wednesday, say) on which all students must go to their own dining hall—such an approach supports both social mixing and college identity.

For centuries one of the standard uses of a college dining hall (often just called “The Hall,” as the largest room in the college) has been to host concerts, plays, and all manner of performances. All the furniture in every college dining hall should be moveable so that it can be rearranged or set aside when necessary for the hall to function as a temporary theater or auditorium. When constructing a new dining hall, a slightly elevated area that can function as a stage and as a “high table” for special dinners should be built in at one end. A smaller, private dining room attached to the main hall—a room that can support lunch and dinner meetings for small groups—is also a useful feature.

In addition to a main dining hall, every residential college should have one or more kitchens in which the members can cook for themselves if they so desire. You will find that some of the students as they get older will be less happy with eating in the dining hall every day, no matter how good the food there may be. Providing a clean place for them to prepare their own food will encourage them to remain in residence (1.3.3) in the college. And a kitchen will always be needed to support special college events, late-night study sessions, and the like. It will become yet another social pocket within the college community as well as an outlet for college creativity.

Nice work if you can get it: The kitchen in Strong College was not far from the college office, and whenever I caught the scent of cookies coming down the hall I made it known to the students that it was my, um, burdensome professional obligation to make sure that everything they were cooking was, um, safe to eat, and that even though it represented, um, a great personal risk to me, I had to, um, test everything that they were baking because we wouldn’t want, um, to have some terrible accident where they all died of food poisoning or something like that. They caught on soon enough, and on many an evening I enjoyed the first fruits of their culinary labors, as much to their delight as to my own. (Sometimes when the cookies tasted a little, um, wrong, I would have to sample a second one just to make sure they were all safe.)

If your institution has large, centralized dining facilities that serve whole sections of the campus, it may not be possible at first to establish individual college dining halls. (Although college dining halls should be considered prime candidates for endowment support.) If this is the case, then the centralized facility should be partitioned in some way so that each college has its own room. Each individual dining room should be under the control of its college as regards furniture and decorations. Provide each of these rooms with a separate entrance and exit if possible. Hold some of your summer orientation sessions in the dining room so that incoming students will learn right away where it is, and so that it will be a familiar place to come to when they arrive at the beginning of the school year. If even this much is not yet possible, remember that food can and should be introduced at all college functions no matter where or when they are held. Movie nights, weekly social hours, student council meetings, orientation sessions for new students, late-night poetry readings and star-gazing evenings, not to mention the “consulting chairs” in the college office—all these things should be well-supplied with food throughout the year. See the recommendations on the college life page for further ideas in this direction.

Specification summary: The main dining hall of a residential college should be a large perpetually-open room with a separate lockable serving area and at least one adjacent small (40-person) dining room for private functions. The exact dimensions of the main hall will be dictated by the college’s size: it should be have a legal capacity that will permit 95% of the college’s membership to be present. Importantly, the main hall should be roughly rectangular with easily-moved furniture and a raised platform at one end so it can be used for concerts and plays.

2.1.2. Senior Common Room — The Senior Common Room is a private room for the senior members (1.2) of the college. It should be elegant but comfortable, and should be suitable for reading and relaxation, quiet study, and special receptions. Be sure it has a small refrigerator and perhaps a microwave oven to support a private lunch; some college SCRs are noted for their wine cabinets. A small piano would be a nice addition as well. The Senior Common Room should ordinarily be locked, and all the senior members of the college should be issued keys so they can come and go as they please. It should be a pleasant place to gather before going to dinner or to other special functions in the college and the university at large. Be sure to have a reception for the senior members either at the beginning or the end of each year in the SCR to thank them for their service to the college. As with all other college rooms, the Senior Common Room should be decorated with things of importance to the history of the college. As a locked room, it can also serve as a college treasure room of sorts, home to trophies and other valuable items that it may not be possible to leave in more public areas.

Members and rooms: In many residential colleges the terms “Senior Common Room” and “Junior Common Room” are used to refer not only to the rooms themselves but also to the body of senior and junior members, respectively. People often speak of being “a member of the Senior Common Room” of a particular college, or of having “a meeting of the Senior Common Room” (a meeting of the senior members). The student council president may be referred to as “the President of the JCR,” meaning the president of the junior members collectively. Colleges with large graduate populations sometimes refer to the graduate members collectively as “the Middle Common Room.” Further, in some of the British colleges the variant “Senior Combination Room” is used in place of “Senior Common Room.” Frank Stubbings notes that at Cambridge University this variant has given rise to the amusing locution “Will you combine this evening?” meaning “Will you be socializing in the Senior Combination Room after dinner?”

Although the Senior Common Room is mainly for the senior members of the college, the students should occasionally be invited in for faculty-sponsored events and special occasions, and by virtue of it being a “private” room these invitations will take on an air of importance. College clubs sponsored by the fellows can hold their meetings in the SCR, for example, and if you have an annual awards dinner for students you might instruct the prizewinners to gather with the senior members in the SCR beforehand. Every year in the Strong College Senior Common Room I hosted a December reading of Dylan Thomas’ famous story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” that was open to everyone in the college. This happy tradition always drew a good audience, and with the room decorated and lit only by the lights of a small Christmas tree it made a memorable impression on everyone who attended. There is a great deal to be said for having infrequent, special occasions on which certain rooms and places which are not otherwise available become open. The social effect is not unlike that of the “Zen View” in architecture described by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues (Pattern 134).

Specification summary: A residential college Senior Common Room should be a lockable first floor space of about 800–900 square feet in a medium to low traffic area, furnished with at least three comfortable seating circles, floor and table lamps, a small piano, a small (and quiet) refrigerator, storage and display cupboards, a bookcase, good windows, and picture molding all around. The target is “elegant living room” style.

2.1.3. Junior Common RoomThe Junior Common Room is the principal college living room, and after the dining hall it will be the most important room in the college. It should be spacious and comfortable, and furnished in a way that will provide a wide range of social opportunities. The chairs and tables should be set up in a number of different circles so that several small social groups can all be active in the room at the same time. It should contain comfortable chairs for conversation, sofas for lounging or napping, a card table for game playing, a long table for social study groups and for serving food, and a magazine rack and newspaper basket to hold a few local, national, and international publications. Place one or two comfortable chairs off in a corner, preferably by a window (Alexander’s Pattern 180), for people who just want to sit and stare into space or watch the activity in the room from a quiet distance.

People should always be able to walk into the Junior Common Room and find something to do. In addition to a magazine rack and a newspaper basket, place a dictionary, an atlas, an almanac, and a book of quotations on the JCR tables and leave them there at all times. Like all the common rooms, the JCR should have a commonplace book (3.2.5) for people to record their late night or early morning thoughts. Put a bird feeder outside one of the JCR windows, and put a pair of students in charge of keeping it filled. Use the commonplace book to record the birds that are seen (or the oracles that appear). The JCR should be the site of a weekly Master’s Tea (3.3.1) for all the members of the college to socialize and eat, and it will be regularly used throughout the year for all manner of social events from award ceremonies to Halloween costume parties.

A piano should be a prominent feature of your Junior Common Room. It doesn’t have to be a Steinway grand (though if someone offers you one, I advise you to accept). If you can obtain an extra piano, consider keeping two in the JCR: an average one for general use and a good one that is ordinarily locked but that can be opened for special performances. Serious music students who want to practice can borrow the key to the good piano from the college office. Supply the piano with a varied collection of sheet music, from folk songs to Broadway musicals to classical concerti (including, of course, the sheet music of the immortal Tom Lehrer, whose oeuvre encompasses them all).

Do not put a television in your Junior Common Room: it will instantly kill all the valuable social interactions that you should be trying to encourage. When Strong College first opened in a newly-renovated dormitory, one of the first things the campus housing department did was order a large-screen TV for our Junior Common Room. One of the first things I did was cancel the order. To see why, all one needed to do was to look at the main lounges of all the other campus dormitories that the housing office oversaw: they were little more than jumbled bunches of chairs all aimed at a giant TV. By contrast, the Strong College JCR had circles of conversation, people playing cards, people napping in the corner, couples flirting, study groups working, birds feeding at the window, maps on the wall, diarists pouring out their lives into commonplace books, and on and on.

If you are lucky enough to have a fireplace in your Junior Common Room, treasure it and make it a centerpiece of the room (Alexander’s Pattern 181). Use it late at night to teach lessons about Plato’s Cave, and have ceremonial burnings of appropriate objects at different times of year to propitiate whatever gods may live in your vicinity. To add further warmth to the JCR you should also fill the room with potted plants, ferns, cacti, and other green and growing things. Give all of the plants names, and put students in charge of watering and pruning them. Among the plants in the Strong College JCR was a rather large potted tree named Angus that had been donated by one of the senior members. At tea each week a plush green snake from the college petting zoo often found itself placed among the tree’s branches, from which location it would watch the proceedings and startle unsuspecting passers-by. (By contrast again, when Strong College first opened I inquired with the professional housing department about plants; the reply was, “we don’t do plants.”)

Specification summary: A residential college Junior Common Room should be a perpetually open first floor space of about 2000–2500 square feet in a high traffic area, furnished with at least four comfortable seating circles of different sizes, a large study/serving table, a card table, a piano, ample storage cupboards, a magazine and newspaper basket, no television, good windows with window seats, and picture molding all around. The target is “hotel lobby” or “comfortable living room” style.

2.1.4. College Game Room — Every residential college needs a slightly noisy “rec room” furnished with a ping-pong or pool table, a medium-sized television, vending machines, and perhaps a video game or two. This room may never be immaculate, but by allowing it to be the noisy place, the Junior Common Room can remain the quieter living room that it should be. Consider providing the game room with a cabinet for sports trophies won by college athletic champions, and have student artists decorate the game room walls with murals honoring the winners of college contests and competitions. Once you have established an annual rhythm (3.5) of college sporting events (a regatta, a croquet tournament, a ping-pong extravaganza), set aside one wall in the game room to receive the decorated signatures of each year’s winners, written directly on the wall during a game room ceremony. A coat of varnish will protect them, and a clever builder could even install removable wall panels that could be replaced or extended as needed. Be sure also to have at least one regular study table in the room—there will always be some students who prefer to do their work in the midst of many distractions.

Specification summary: A residential college Game Room should be a perpetually open basement or upper-story space of about 800–900 square feet in a medium traffic area, sound proofed and furnished with a comfortable seating circle, a medium-sized television, a card table, a trophy cabinet, some combination of pool, ping pong, and game tables, and with walls suitable for mural painting. The target is “large family recreation room” style.

2.1.5. College Library — Every residential college should have its own small library: a study room and general-purpose collection of books and periodicals suitable for undergraduates. It does not need to begin as something dramatic; one large room is sufficient, and the library can double as a computer room. If you have no money for books, begin by soliciting donations from the senior members. It will be as important to involve the members in the growth of the library as it will be to have a large collection. The library should be kept open and staffed by volunteer student librarians for an established span of hours each day and then locked otherwise. The role of volunteer librarian can be an important one for students to take on (especially beginning freshmen) as a way to contribute to the life of the college. Put one of the resident tutors (1.2.4) in charge of supervising the volunteers and maintaining the library schedule, and pay the volunteers with chocolate certificates or some other internal form of currency. At the end of each year place on the library wall a small brass plaque (easily purchased from sports trophy shops) with the names of that year’s librarians and book donors. As with all the other common rooms in the college, use the library walls to display artwork and college memorabilia of all kinds. The library commonplace book should record the librarians’ work hours and the number of library visitors, along with the usual musings of all who may pass by. Residential College Libraries — A library, however small, is a sine qua non of a college. A special page of recommendations on establishing residential college libraries shows that the library-founding business need not be complicated or expensive at all.

2.1.6. College Offices — A general college office as well as private offices for the master and the dean should be provided in every residential college. A communal office for the resident tutors should also be provided if space is available. The ideal arrangement would be to have a spacious outer office with private offices connected to it on either side, each of which also has its own entrance from the main corridor. The outer office should be the workplace of the administrative secretary (1.2.5) and should also be large enough to serve as a semi-public social space for college members (Alexander’s Patterns 183 and 152). The office should be in a heavy-traffic area of the college, and students and faculty alike should feel comfortable coming into the office to chat, to find out what is going on in the college that day, to talk about their troubles, and to ask if there anything they can do to help out around the house. Be sure to have a candy dish or a perpetually-full pot of coffee available in the office at all times. Food is the currency of all social transactions in a residential college. Use the college office also as a show-and-tell space for new college treasures. (“Now on display in the college office is our new copy of the Gutenberg Bible. Be sure to stop by for a look before we lock it away in the vault.”) Frank Boyden’s office at Deerfield Academy, as described by John McPhee, manifests the proper college-office spirit:

In his first year at Deerfield, he set up a card table beside a radiator just inside the front door of the school building. This was his office, not because there was no room for a headmaster's office anywhere else but because he wanted nothing to go on in the school without his being in the middle of it. Years later, when the present main school building was built, the headmaster had the architect design a wide place in the first-floor central hallway—the spot with the heaviest traffic in the school—and that was where his desk was put and where it still is.

Measures of success: The Strong College office that I oversaw for several years was a wonderful social space as well as an administrative space. It was much too small, and not well designed architecturally, but on many an evening there were up to a dozen students in there with me, carrying on their own conversations in three or four different circles, teasing each other, braiding hair, playing with the stuffed animals (which stayed in the office when not on display), reading books from the shelves, listening to Tom Lehrer, and sleeping in the office chairs. I occasionally joined the activities, but just as often I simply continued doing my work in the middle of it all. I usually tried to outlast them all into the evening so that I would never have to ask anyone to leave. One night, after the crowd had thinned out, one student was left asleep, curled up in a big chair. When I finally called it an evening, I just covered her with the office blanket, turned out the light, and locked the door behind me. “It is a mark of success in a park, public lobby or a porch, when people can come there and fall asleep” (Pattern 94).

Specification summary: A residential college office should be a lockable first floor space of about 600 square feet in a high traffic area near the entrance to the college, furnished with semi-enclosed secretarial space, a comfortable seating circle, a study table, windows overlooking the college entrance or courtyard, doorways to adjacent private offices, a very large walk-in storage closet, and (as usual) picture moldings all around.

2.1.7. College Guest Room — One room in every college should be furnished as a guest room that can be used to host visiting faculty, parents, and other guests of the college and the university. Make the guest room into a museum of college art work: prize-winning student paintings, drawings, and photographs can decorate its walls, and college-made curtains and other textiles can cover the windows and beds. A student committee can be in charge of the guest room and be responsible for greeting visitors, making sure the room is properly prepared for their arrival, and perhaps furnishing it with fresh flowers from the college gardens (2.2.2). The senior members of the college should be required to spend a night in the college guest room as a condition of their appointments, and then it will be possible to say that every member of the college has resided in the college buildings. The students will be delighted when faculty spend time with them in the evening.

2.1.8. Other Rooms — Depending upon the space you have available, consider establishing any number of other special-purpose rooms in your college, such as a music practice room, an exercise room, a rooftop observatory, a landmark tower, an art studio, a woodworking shop, and so on. In Strong College we had one extra small room that we set up as a dedicated television-viewing room. Since the most important things on television (it should go without saying) are the various avatars of Star Trek, I named the room “The Star Chamber” and began a long-running project of decorating the walls with hand-drawn and glow-in-the-dark stars. One talented student drew detailed space ships flying among the stars, and students watching television would often proudly show visitors which of the many stars on the wall were “theirs.” A room for the student council (1.3.5) is also important: it can serve as a meeting place for council committees, as a hangout, and if large enough, as a place for a weekly coffee bar or movie night.

2.1.9. The Importance of Good Maintenance and Housekeeping — Throughout your college and at all times of year the importance of good maintenance and housekeeping cannot be overemphasized. Places that look like dumps will be treated like dumps; places that are clean and attractive will be treated with respect. The college leadership should set a direct example for the students by themselves straightening up furniture when walking through common rooms, putting newspapers back in baskets, picking up litter from the lawn, and so on. The students will model responsible behavior if they see responsible behavior. Do not rely on your custodial staff (1.2.6) to do all the work: maintaining a pleasant home is the work of an entire household. It should go without saying that any kind of serious vandalism such as graffiti, broken windows, etc., should be fixed immediately (within 24 hours).

In each of the common rooms you should inconspicuously post a floor plan so that the custodial staff and the students will know how the furniture in the room is supposed to be arranged, and so that it can be put back properly after special use. In Strong College I always told my students that they were free to rearrange the furniture any way they wished, as long as they put it back in the usual places when they were done. I well know that this was an occasional source of amusement to some of them, but I also know that it made all the difference in the world in the overall appearance of the building. Parents and other visitors regularly commented on how clean everything looked and how attractive all the rooms were. A floor plan also allows you to keep track of exactly how many pieces of furniture belong in each room so that stray pieces can be tracked down, something else that should be done immediately upon discovery. (The reaction of one student who moved into Strong College from another building was, “Wow, you have furniture here.” In her former dormitory, all the common room furniture routinely disappeared into students’ private rooms at the beginning of the year and the residence life officials in charge of the place made no effort to retrieve it.)

You should always support your custodial and maintenance staff and talk to them about what they are seeing around the college buildings, and you should be sure that they are known to all the members of the college as individuals. Students found responsible for serious property offenses should be required to write letters of apology to the custodial staff so that those students will learn that their misbehavior has direct personal consequences for the people who have to clean up after them.

2.2.  College Grounds and Gardens

He that delights to Plant and Set,
Makes After-Ages in his Debt.

—George Wither, A Collection of Emblemes

Every residential college should have some area of land, however small, beyond the footprint of the college buildings themselves—land that the college controls and that its members can plant and care for. There are few things that will have a greater impact on the health, identity, and social continuity of a residential college. Some universities do a very good job of landscaping in general, while others do a job that is not much different from what can be found at a shopping mall or an industrial park. In a residential college your objective should be to make every aspect of the college grounds educational. You will also want to involve the members of the college in the grounds work directly, by planting seeds, digging holes, trimming trees, watering flowers, and setting stones, and then later by drawing, painting, photographing, eating, and wearing the fruits of their labors. This will give the members a sense of ownership of the place, and that is exactly what you want to achieve. And the annual cycle of the living things on the college grounds will provide a stable, predictable framework to which you can attach the annual cycle of the college (3.1). Much research has been done on the social value of natural environments to the communities that live near them, and you may wish to explore the work of Rachel Kaplan and others for additional ideas. Good environmental stewardship should be manifest in the management of all your college’s buildings and grounds as well.

2.2.1. General Arrangement and a Sense of Enclosure — Your college grounds overall should be enclosed with some sort of hedge, gate, or wall that will define the property and thus help to promote college identity. It doesn’t have to be a complete barrier; even a low hedge can be adequate. But visitors and college members alike should enter onto the grounds and recognize that they are now “in” the college. The entrances to the grounds should be “well-articulated,” as architects say—clearly recognizable—and the approaches to the buildings should be attractive and inviting (in other words, they should be free of trash cans, parking meters, and other unsightly objects). If you are fortunate enough to have lots of space, give different sections of the grounds different characters: make one area into a traditional lawn, give another a more formal arrangement, make one corner into a rustic country-style garden, and another into a natural space. Be sure there are paths, places to sit, and something of interest to see at all times of year. Pay close attention to the orientation of the buildings and grounds with respect to the sun, always seek to screen off the sights and sounds of traffic, and provide views into the distance from certain places on the grounds if possible.

2.2.2. Landscape Elements and Plantings — The possibilities for individual landscape elements on the grounds of any residential college are endless, and precise recommendations cannot be made unless the site is known. What I offer here are recommendations for the general types of landscape elements that you should consider, along with examples of the kinds of educational thinking that should govern your choices.

As a biologist, one of the most fundamental distinctions I make in any landscape is the distinction between species that are native to the area and species that are exotic. Both are suitable for residential college grounds, but this distinction should be one that is known, illustrated, and built upon. Consider dedicating one portion of the grounds to native species from your region. Many cities and regions in the United States have native plant societies; you may wish to establish a relationship with such an organization (perhaps inviting its president to become an associate of the college), and use the college grounds as a demonstration garden not only for college members but also for the local neighborhood. If possible, consider recreating on your grounds a portion of the ecological community that would have been found in your area centuries ago.

Practical plants that can be eaten, worn, or otherwise used should certainly be given a place on your grounds. Gardens of fruit trees, vegetables, and culinary herbs are obvious choices and will be relished at college functions. A bed of flax can be used to teach about linen manufacture, and beds of wheat, rye, barley, and maize can be used to teach about much of the history of the world. Attar-producing roses can sweeten the college’s rooms, and college’s members as well. Consider tapping a sugar maple for maple syrup each spring, or a rubber tree for natural rubber. A useful shrub that is a personal favorite of mine is bayberry (Myrica cerifera) which was used in colonial New England to make deliciously-scented wax for candles. Strongly-scented trees and shrubs (Sweetbay Magnolia, Magnolia virginiana, is a good example in the southeastern United States) should without fail be placed under the students’ windows, providing them with a memory that will stay with them their entire lives.

Many groups of garden plants have played important roles in the history and literature of different societies, and can contribute greatly to the creation of a comprehensive educational environment, which is what a residential college should be. Roses are one of the most conspicuous examples: they have been featured in the literature, art, and culture of Europe for centuries. A garden of historic roses can be used illustrate much of European history. Similarly, chrysanthemums have figured prominently in the history of Japanese culture. The tulip trade has for centuries been an important element of the Dutch economy, and a garden of historic tulip cultivars is another example of a landscape feature that can be at once beautiful and educational. In all these cases, don’t simply go to the nearest garden shop and buy whatever is on sale (though that can be a start). Instead, search out national and international suppliers of plants that are distinctive and of enduring value, plants that will make your grounds a source of pride for generations to come. When done gradually over time this can all be done very inexpensively, and the advantages of allowing the members of the college to see the grounds develop through their own labors will be considerable.

In designing your plantings, consider their usefulness to wildlife as well. Gardens that specifically attract butterflies are very popular, and gardens for hummingbirds, or other nectar-feeding birds in other parts of the world, can provide endless delight. Be sure to include a bird bath or a source of running water somewhere on the grounds. Features such as these can teach students to see a garden as an ecosystem, and not merely as an ornament.

Plan your gardens so that they will be dramatically in flower at special times of year, such as during the arrival period for new students or during graduation week. If you have a particularly dramatic landscape, consider sponsoring an annual festival or celebration either within the college or for the general public. (Although not on the grounds of a residential college, I have in mind something like the annual Lilac Sunday celebration at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.)

In addition to purchasing new garden materials, salvage things from other sites in your neighborhood that may be threatened with destruction. On the Strong College grounds we were especially proud of a series of granite stones that had been part of the walkway of a nearby historic house that the university had destroyed, stones that we “liberated” rather late one night before the bulldozers arrived. In one section of the garden we made a border out of bricks from a collapsed outdoor grill that had served generations of students at a nearby lake. Our dozens of spring daffodils were taken from a nearby natural area as part of an ecological restoration project that both promoted the growth of native plants in the natural area and beautified our gardens all at the same time. And when the university proposed to destroy the historic chancellor’s house on campus we took cuttings from antique roses on its grounds to transplant to our gardens.

Lastly, you should use your college grounds as a means to maintain contact with your alumni around the world. Have the current students send them bayberry candles every winter, or canned tomatoes, or bottles of rose water. Distribute cuttings and seeds to alumni for their own gardens so they can keep a living part of their college with them wherever they go. And be sure to document everything you plant in your gardens in a special garden commonplace book that you preserve for posterity. The spirit of John Ruskin should live in everything you do:

Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them, “See! this our fathers did for us.”

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021