Today’s students desire a variety of study spaces, choosing among diverse scenarios whether working together or alone. COVID-19 has amplified the need for these options due to crucial six-feet-apart social distancing. How can we integrate this type of flexibility within a building’s existing footprint? In the case of Harvard University’s Computer Science / Statistics Data Science Lab (CS/SDS Lab) and the Cabot Science Library’s second floor—two projects with different programs and sets of existing conditions—a deeper understanding of social interaction levels informed our firm’s renovation of their array of public and private spaces in a variety of configurations. Our strategies included: 1) introduction of abundant natural light 2) insertion of flexible electricity and 3) focus on social interaction intensity levels.

1) Abundance of Natural Light

Both projects are located in the 1973 Josep Lluis Sert-designed Science Center, a modern concrete landmark. The first step was to introduce abundant natural light into the original precast building. Glass partitions were inserted to replace previously solid partitions, providing both the necessary physical and sound separation while allowing daylight to enter many of the interior rooms. What was once a solid dark enclosed staircase transformed into a transparent vertical core, offering a visual connection between all levels of the library.

2) Flexibility of Electricity
Because of the existing structure’s constraints, careful planning was required to ensure maximum malleability. The introduction of electricity throughout was key for providing reimagined settings for the spatial configurations to come. Abundant electrical outlets were added to amplify student workspace and furniture arrangement options.

3) Focus on Social Interaction Intensity Levels
A “social interaction intensity” framework helped define spaces that support a clear range of density, each addressing the projects’ differing programs. Using four levels of interaction as a guide, the team identified distinct areas for each project as: level 1 (studying alone), level 2 (quietly working together), level 3 (group meetings), and level 4 (casual conversations). Areas in remote locations of the plan were tagged as level 1 (places for quiet study), and rooms and spaces near entrances or circulation were tagged level 4 (places for casual exchange). Furniture also played a part in this plan: pod-like, single-seated furniture indicates a desire to be alone (level 1), table and chairs provide a place to quietly work together (level 2), individual soft seating invites a quick “hello” (level 3), and group lounge furniture fosters conversation (level 4). These options give students the flexibility they desire day-to-day.

The CS/SDS Lab now comprises a variety of shared open spaces, shared offices, and private offices. Users here typically work individually on their laptops or collaboratively together over glass writing boards and lively debates. Because of a variety of interaction levels and social densities needed, the space became inherently flexible and adaptable. Two foldable glass wall partitions were used in the CS/SDS Lab to expand the work area when, biannually, a hackathon event takes place. For all other times, the space can be broken into three areas: the kitchenette, work area, and small conference room—spaces that inherently need and provide different types of social exchange. The Cabot Science Library second floor has several group study rooms surrounding one large, central area. The space is a quiet area where students can work within a larger study context. In context of COVID-19, the plan allows for multiple situations: a one-way seating direction or staggered seating for individual distancing, group study rooms for those already living together to study together while being distanced from others, and taller table partitions that can replace existing partitions if added security is needed.

By designing a malleable architectural framework that allows for flexibility, using social interaction research and levels as a guide, we can collectively create interior spaces that accommodate many configurations and shared settings, meeting today’s COVID-19 academic challenges and tomorrow’s student needs.