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But How Does it Feel?

By Kristen Cole

Before reading about how students interact with the Smith College campus and its buildings, I had not given much thought to my own use of the physical campus or, for that matter, to my office or home. Yet, it is my very perception of the spaces I inhabit – put simply, how I feel about those spaces – on which I base a lot of decisions. In fact, I made my largest purchase based on space considerations.

But first, the students. In her research, Smith School for Social Work student Stephanie Keep gauged student perceptions of campus and, in particular, found shifts in their behavior after the construction of the Campus Center. Prior to the construction, students listed a variety of places for hanging out with friends, buying a snack and finding a quiet spot. Afterward, the Campus Center became the locus for all of those activities, according to Keep. While the findings themselves cannot be characterized as groundbreaking, or even particularly surprising, the importance of determining whether a particular space achieved its intended goal, hit home. Literally.

Homebuyers consider much more than just the facts about a house – i.e. its age, square footage and number of baths and bedrooms. I looked for a place that would allow for shared time with my two kids. I wanted to be able to easily interact with them during those precious few moments when we are all at home, and I also want to be able to monitor their use of the computer and television. The former desire led to my purchase of a home with an open floor plan between living room and kitchen. The latter desire, to my placement of the computer and television in a first-floor location that affords me full view of the screens whether I am preparing dinner or reading the newspaper. Recently, my space desires led me to purchase and install a new countertop so that the kids can pull up stools to do their homework at the edge of the kitchen and I can be involved while still taking care of other tasks.

The same sort of search for the right “feel” can be applied to work space and how work space impacts job satisfaction, notes Keep. “People don’t often talk about how it feels to work somewhere,” she said. “We get caught up in facts about a place as if that is how it feels, but how it feels is a different thing.” Which would make you feel like an important part of a work place: The solo office in a basement or an office flanked by other offices on the first floor?

This may be the point to mention that Keep earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, also at Smith College. In fact, it was as an undergraduate that Keep began taking architecture courses and using the GIS lab. With assistance from GIS specialist Jon Caris, she learned the technology to map student use of campus and pursue the topic of her master’s thesis. “Social work is very focused on looking at the person in their environment but, as in all fields, you need assessment,” said Keep. “This was the tool to say, did it work or didn’t it?”

In the case of the Campus Center, a $23-million investment by the college, Keep’s findings appear conclusive. Designed with the mission to bring together the Smith community, Keep wrote, the Campus Center “successfully met its goal.”

In the case of my house, other than the addition of a three-foot length of countertop, I haven’t made any significant changes since we moved in a few years ago. The house has “successfully met” my goals.

Perhaps the conclusion of Keep’s thesis is better summarized by the message hanging in my kitchen: A home cannot be bought; it must be made.  


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