Community Colleges Are the Next Frontier for Bold Architecture

With major architecture firms getting involved, these formerly neglected institutions are having a design renaissance—and showing us how design could transform the American education system.

Community Colleges Innovative Architecture
Central Arizona College’s new facility in Maricopa, Arizona is a “campus in a box.” Courtesy SmithGroupJJR

The architect and the college president were observing their brand-new facilities coming alive. It was the early autumn of 2016 and students were filing into the spacious day-lit atrium for the first time. The pair watched as a mother crossed the threshold, looked around, and started dancing. “This is the place where my baby will go!” she exclaimed.

“We live for those kinds of moments,” confides Charles Smith, the architect from Cannon Design who, with project director Jim Jankowski, helped shape Chicago’s Malcolm X College into the jig-inducing, awe-inspiring campus it is today.

Malcolm X is a community college geared to aspiring health-care professionals—and it has some remarkable statistics attached to its name. According to its interim president, David Sanders, about 92 percent of its nursing students pass their licensure exam on the first try. The college led its district in enrollment gains last year. Its graduation rates have doubled since 2015. And last year, it opened a state-of-the-art campus (designed by Cannon Design and Moody Nolan), complete with ambulatory and surgical simulation centers, mixed-use study spaces, cafés, and computer stations.

Malcolm X is just one of many community colleges across the country that have, in the past five years or so, opened new buildings or campuses designed by nationally renowned architecture firms. The uptick in development can be explained by a variety of causes: the aftereffects of increased enrollment in the years following 2009, when the recession inspired many to return to school; President Obama’s 2015 promise to make two years of community college free (so far, only the states of Oregon, Tennessee, and New York have followed through on a large scale); the growth of industries, such as health care and renewable energy, that require a steady stream of skilled workers; and the simple reality that many community colleges have midcentury campuses that don’t suit the needs of a 21st-century institution.

But what is less easily explained is why community colleges have turned to big-name architecture firms to help them redesign their campuses and construct their buildings. After all, community colleges are invariably cash-strapped. Of the 1,108 community colleges in the U.S., 982 are public. And while community colleges’ funding methods are as diverse as the communities themselves, revenue, broadly speaking, is generated from three major sources: state and federal allocations, local expenditures (which typically come from earmarking a specific property tax for the community college budget), and tuition, which is kept as low as possible to make these institutions as accessible as possible.

Key to understanding this trend in design is one vital realization: Community colleges are more essential to our country than ever. American society has seldom been as polarized as it is today, in large part because economic opportunity has migrated to urban centers and manufacturing jobs have become scarce. At the same time, the cost of higher education has never been greater, nor more out of reach for people seeking to train (or retrain) and position themselves for success in the global economy. Community colleges are among the few institutions that could fill that gap for thousands of Americans. Once you understand that community colleges improve the economy and produce jobs, the importance of their having excellent facilities follows quickly behind.

Unlike four-year institutions funded by private donations and endowments, community colleges have to be rigorous in proving their worth to the communities that pay for them. As Mark Kranz, VP and design director at SmithGroupJJR, told me, they “have a high level of responsibility to create something special, to honor the opportunity they were given by the taxpayers who voted for these projects.” Not only does this mean that their facilities can’t be wastefully lavish, but they have to work, period. The direct correlation between building and student success—high retention rates, graduates employed in the local economy, etc.—must be ironclad. In other words, at community colleges, the merits of design are put to the test daily.

Learning by Doing

Community Colleges Innovative Architecture
Malcolm X’s erstwhile car is on display in the Malcolm X College’s new facility. Courtesy Laura Peters

When it comes to experiential learning, community colleges are on the front lines—and have been for years. Since vocational training is part and parcel of their mission, community colleges are intimately familiar with the kinds of group-based active-learning classrooms that four-year institutions have only just started to embrace. Moreover, their facilities must be commensurate with those of a variety of cutting-edge office environments.

This is where a national, interdisciplinary architecture firm can truly add value. Carisima Koenig, an architect for Cannon Design, puts it this way: “I can go to our health-care arm and say, ‘Hey! We’re [working on a college that trains nurses]. What does the future of health care look like?’”

In the case of community colleges that are focused on the sciences and/or technology, architecture also has a pivotal part to play. The Tarrant County College Center of Excellence for Energy Technology in Fort Worth, Texas, designed by BNIM with Freese and Nichols, for example, is a lesson in itself; the building’s mechanical infrastructure is exposed throughout the facility so that students can witness firsthand the systems they’re learning to assemble and maintain. Moreover, the building’s laboratories are “plug-and-play,” so they can adapt to new technology as it’s adopted by industry.

In fact, many community colleges—by virtue of their being driven by fiscal responsibility—have been ahead of the curve in flexible design for decades. Without the resources to create single-use buildings for gyms, libraries, classrooms, etc., many community colleges have embraced the collaborative, hybrid spaces we are now seeing pop up in universities around the globe. And while any school could throw multiple functions into one facility, it takes a designer to make sure these spaces engender collaboration and interaction rather than chaos: “Designers have the ability to think through the combinations of those disparate programmatic uses and come up with inventive ways to put them together,” explains Smith. “And frankly, the intersections, the spaces in between, can be incredibly rich and exciting.”

Creating Campuses

Community Colleges Innovative Architecture
A nursing lab in Bristol Community College’s John J. Sbrega Health and Science Building. Courtesy Edward Caruso

For community colleges whose buildings are 30 to 40 years old (or older), new facilities are necessary not just from a practical standpoint but from a symbolic one as well. Midcentury buildings are often bunkerlike in their construction, and more than likely surrounded by asphalt parking lots.

Like four-year institutions, today’s community colleges are interested in placemaking, in creating campuses where students learn, linger, and interact (studies bear out that students who stay longer on campus are more likely to graduate). But they are far from ivory towers; a community college campus’s interactivity with its context—its local economy and industry—is crucial to its success. SmithGroupJJR’s Mark Kranz explains the relationship eloquently: “They are often engaged at multiple scales in partnerships with municipalities, other higher-ed institutions, and private industry. So they see their campuses as opportunities to engage the culture of a place.”

Colleges across the country are taking this approach: Malcolm X offers a dental clinic that provides services at a discounted rate, including free first visits for seniors; BNIM is currently designing a career and technical education facility for Johnson County Community College in Kansas; GateWay Community College in Phoenix, Arizona, designed by SmithGroupJJR, includes a community room, library, and career center that are open to the public.

Another huge part of rehabilitating campuses or building new ones (and a large reason why community colleges may be leaning on architectural expertise) is ensuring that these buildings are meeting more rigorous energy-efficiency standards—so that campuses can be sustainable, yes, but also so colleges can save as much money on operating costs as possible.

Perhaps the best example of how sustainability can reap unexpected benefits is Bristol Community College in Massachusetts. The college’s former president John Sbrega made a climate-change commitment to render the campus carbon-neutral by 2050, and turned to Sasaki principal Fiske Crowell to help him affordably create a health and science center that would use as little energy as possible. Massachusetts requires LEED certification of its state-owned buildings, but Sasaki set a more ambitious goal: a zero-net-energy facility. The state approved the plan—on the condition that the architects attain the ambitious goal within the existing budget.

Beyond investing in some necessary technologies—including a high-performance envelope, natural ventilation systems, and filtration fume hoods—the architects carefully considered how to leverage renewable energy sources. Critically, the college had pursued a partnership with a local utility company, which provided funds to build a site-scaled 3.2-megawatt solar array (in exchange, the college will pay a fixed rate for power for 20 years). The John J. Sbrega Health and Science Building is so efficient, it uses only about 17 percent of the energy produced; the rest is given to the other buildings on campus or sold back to the grid. Moreover, the building has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on operating costs, and, thanks to the numerous accolades the building has accumulated (including an AIA COTE Top Ten Award), has given Bristol Community College a level of recognition it might never have received otherwise.

A New Identity

Community Colleges Innovative Architecture
The Tarrant County College Energy Technology Center in Fort Worth, Texas was designed by BNIM. Courtesy BNIM

As the example of Bristol Community College shows, design can offer something community colleges deserve but seldom receive: recognition. In an extremely competitive marketplace for education, in which community colleges compete not only with four-year institutions but also with online degree programs, architecture affords a way for colleges to shape their identity as innovators—and recruit students in the process.

Malcolm X’s David Sanders explains: “We used to be the ugly sister to four-year institutions, but that’s no longer the case. We are a very necessary and important component in the educational industry, and people are looking more to us to prepare students for in-demand jobs, and quickly. Facilities need to change to address that need. But inherent in the formulation process of a new campus or facility is the need for it to be attractive to constituents and prospective students.”

For the architect, the opportunity to design community colleges offers a variety of unique, architecturally interesting challenges. First of all, with the right leadership, these institutions have not only more direct power structures (meaning plans need not get as tangled in bureaucracy) but a spirit of innovation. Sasaki’s Bryan Irwin enthuses that because community colleges can be nimble and take risks, his firm has “frankly done some of its most innovative work” with them.

But beyond the opportunity to create forward-looking, risk-taking architecture, community colleges offer a potentially more rewarding challenge to the designer. A beautifully designed building conveys a simple message: Community colleges matter.

Irwin puts it forcefully: “Community colleges are the last bastions of civic-minded behavior. They’re open to everyone; they show people a better life. A lot of these people feel stuck. They’re coming to get a nursing certificate or degree or a couple of courses—it’s a real struggle. They work part-time jobs, have kids, have complicated, financially strapped lives. Our role is to create an environment different from what they’re coming from, to ennoble their experience, to put them in a different mind-set. I want the building not to be intimidating or scary, but to feel optimistic, to have natural light, to be forward-looking, innovative—to get people energized.”

The past few months of the Trump administration have put the fate of community colleges, which live and die on public funding, on decidedly shaky ground. And yet these institutions, while gravely concerned, are leaning in on their private partnerships, reaching out to their communities, and getting scrappy with the limited resources they have at their disposal, as they always do. After all, their role is far too important not to. And if architects believe in designing for a more equitable America, they’d be wise to roll up their sleeves too.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like “Why Architects Must Rethink Restroom Design in Schools.”

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