Student Union Transformation: A Case Study On Creating Purposeful Space

Environments conducive for community building provide space and opportunities for individuals to make connections with their peers and establish relationships, Daniel Kenney, Ricardo Dumont, and Ginger Kenney reported in their 2005 book Mission and Place: Strengthening Learning and Community through Campus. Anecdotally, it’s clear that student unions provide space where students gather, access services, and connect with one another. The student union is where connections are made and where a campus community is fostered. However, much is unknown about the role of the college union in building community.  

A recent study aimed to learn how notions of community may have been incorporated in the planning process of a newly renovated and expanded student union and better understand the relationship of community in two of the spaces created as an outcome of the project. The research from this case study provides evidence to support the relationship between community building and student union facilities.  


The following research questions guided this study: 

  1. How and to what extent do the notions of community appear in the planning process of a student union?
  2. How are notions of community reflected in the use of the student union?  

This qualitative case study was framed by Carney Strange and James Banning’stheory of campus ecologyand hierarchal model of environmental purposes and design as well as Joseph Myers’ definition of organic community. The campus ecology theory explainsthe relationship between physical space,individuals, and activities within that space. The definition of organic community outlines how individuals may feel in the physical space and how they may choose to engage within it. The three phases of the hierarchal model describe a progression by individuals as they move from feeling safe within an inclusive environment to being engaged in the space to ultimately developing connections with the community.  

Data were collected two ways: semistructured interviews followed by observations of the union’s Monumental Stairway and Student Organization Center. The interviews permitted participants to articulate their thoughts about the planning and design processes.The interviews led participants through four categories of questions with the first two categories focused on the renovation project’s design guidelines and participants’ perceptions of community in the planning process.The remaining categories focused on participants’ perceptions of keywords (e.g., safety, inclusion, engagement, and community) and descriptions of their understanding of how individuals use the Monumental Stairway and Student Organization Center.

The 15 participants in the semi-structured interviews served on either the planning committee or the project committee. They had varying lengths of involvement in the overall project, depending on their respective status at the time. Of the 15, nine were undergraduate students during the project and six were staff members or administrators. At the time of the interviews, the student participants had graduated, but most were still residing locally. Of the six administrators and staff, all were still employed at the institution at the time of the interviews and eager to have a chance to share their thoughts following completion of the overall project. The demographics of the individuals were relatively diverse (e.g., race/ethnicity, age, length of service to the project and university), but more men (11) than women (4).

The second source of data was observations of how the space was being used and by whom. The observations were conducted at the Monumental Stairway and Student Organization Center over two days with multiple observation periods.  

Pre-coding of the interview transcriptions and observation field notes was used to identify keywords and phrases.In addition, deductive coding led to the aligninment of the data with the planning process, congruence with the definition of organic community, and application of the four terms or concepts from the hierarchal model of environmental purposes and design.  


The results of the data analysis affirmed that the planning committee designed an environment where engagement is cultivated and that lends itself to involvement and community building.The first major theme, Sense of Place, provided the framework for the findings related to the first research question: “How and to what extent do the notions of community appear in the planning process in a student union?” The emergence of Gathering Space as the second theme created an intersection of physical space where activities occur and where relationships are fostered.This theme provided the framework for the findings related to the second research question: “How are notions of community reflected in the use of the student union?”Each theme is supported by subthemes, presented in Table 2. 

Theme 1: Sense of Place

During the semistructured interviews, participants articulated that they were part of something larger than themselves and had the opportunity to make a lasting impact on the campus. They expressed positive feelings about being engaged in the planning and design of something that was more than just a building. In developing an understanding of the planning process and what the participants experienced, three subthemes were identified in the context of this first major theme: belonging, purposeful space, and community. In addition, participants described the planning process as a series of intentional and inclusive conversations based on agreed upon design guidelines.  

The prescribed planning stages that D.J.M. van der Voordt and Herman B.R. Wegen outlined in their 2005 book Architecture in Use: An Introduction to the Programming, Design, and Evaluation of Buildings were “exploratory, programme identification, design specification, and use and management.” While none of the planning committee members used these terms nor articulated an awareness of these stages, they were nonetheless following this prescribed process. In fact, planning committee members, under the guidance of the primary architect, created a set of design guidelines that established general parameters during the exploratory phase. The guidelines encouraged dreaming big but also kept the planning and design teams focused. One participant echoed other participants in saying that the guidelines kept the conversations centered on the promises made to the student body. 

The priority of the planning process was to create spaces where students would be able to connect, relax, and engage with each other. By intentionally gathering and incorporating constituent ideas within the context of the design guidelines, participants aimed to secure congruence between design and functionality along with input on aesthetics and atmosphere. These efforts affirm the other phases in the prescribed planning process.  

The planning committee’s efforts were met with great appreciation and satisfaction, evidenced by overwhelming excitement about the new student union on social media after its opening. This evidence also indicates that the planning and design process was successful, despite apparent lack of awareness of a formal process other than the creation of design guidelines.  

Some participants described the extensive work completed by the staff and planning committee as affirming and rewarding. By engaging students with options on the size of the facility, total cost, and effect on the student fee, the committee was creating strategies for success. “The more the vision [or a project] encompasses multiple objectives and is understood and supported by multiple constituencies, the more momentum is created to make it real” Kenney, Dumont, and Kenney wrote. This was demonstrated by the commitment of the student leaders on the planning committee to remain engaged in the project beyond their tenure at the university.  

An interesting reflection by one participant was that the planning and design process in itself was an act of community building. Throughout their engagement in the project, there was an increased sense of ownership, a commitment to influence the design so that it would welcome all, and a desire to get it right. This effect on planning participants was absent from the literature, and so this second level of community building for the participants is noteworthy.  

As ascertained in this study, having a Sense of Place provides opportunities for students to cultivate belonging, identify with a purposeful place, and develop a connection to their community. Terrell Strayhorn identified a direct correlation between belonging and satisfaction that “leads to positive gains such as happiness, elation, achievement, and optimal function,” according to his 2012 book College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for all Students.

In their 2005 paper Promoting Student Success: Making Place Matter to Student Success, Kathleen Manning and George Kuh wrote that in creating “sense of place” with “powerful connections [for the students] to something larger than [them]selves,” the student union becomes a significant gathering space for the students. This study affirms that university leaders and student affairs professionals need “to understand … the characteristics of the physical environment that foster community, and to recognize the role that many parts of the physical environment play in enhancing in the richness of community on campus,” as Kenney, Dumont, and Kenney asserted.  

Theme 2: Gathering Space

The second theme from the study was Gathering Space. To establish and sustain an environment where patterns of belonging would be supported, participants wholeheartedly wanted to create an atmosphere where all students knew they were part of the “Cougar Family.” One participant even went so far as to state that “we wanted to create this phenomenal area; we [wanted to] have this space in the middle … a place to take a break, feel connected, [and] that you belong.” 

Although community was never truly defined by the interview, Myers’s organic community provided the context of what some of the participants described. Participants made it known that they wanted all students to feel welcome and there should also be a sense that the entire building belongs to everyone. Participants echoed the need for a student center that evoked pride, a place where students would want to hang out and attend social and cultural events. Several participants who were students during their time on the planning committee referred to the negative influence the student union had before it was renovated; they reflected on the “lack of an impression” the facility left on potential students and their family members during campus visits.  

This study examined the relationship between the physical space of the student union and the individuals engaged in activities within it. The student union is more than just a facility; it is a gathering space where activities provide opportunities for students to be involved and for connections to take place. The attraction to the student union may include the aesthetics, activities it hosts, visible commitment to sustainability, access to supportive services, and/or the connection to the space, in general.

Strange and Banning’s hierarchal model of environmental purposes and design specifically considers the influence of the environment and physical spaces on the college student experience and the building of community. The student experience begins with a sense of security and belonging in the space, followed by engagement in the activities held within it, and culminating with a sense of full membership in a community. Interview participants discussed the importance of students and community members having a sense of security and feeling that they belonged in the student center.

Additionally, one of the interviewed participants strongly advocated for relocating services dedicated to vulnerable populations back into the student center and in more prominent locations. The placement of these services would send a clear message that all members of the campus community are welcomed. Observations of both the Monumental Stairway and Student Organization Center provided the opportunity to note the diversity of those using the two spaces throughout a day, which was a positive reflection of the institution’s racial and ethnic diversity. The findings of this study indicate that development of physical space that provides opportunities for students to gather matters.   


A desired outcome of this study was to provide professionals with insight into day-to-day operations, strategic planning, and renovation or repurposing existing facilities.The ability to connect student engagement and a sense of communitywith physical space creates opportunities to plan student-centered facilities that purposefully contribute to students’ sense of belonging.In addition, the findings can empower student affairs professionals to take responsibility in the design of student-centered facilities to support and foster campus community.  

Planning Process

The planning process for designing a new and/or renovating an older student union should follow a systematic approach.First and foremost, the planning committee must be an inclusive group of participants who bring different perspectives to the discussion to ensure a diversity of thought, ideas, and needs.Campus leaders and architects should keep this in mind when asking individuals to serve on the planning committee. Planning is not necessarily a democratic or participatory process but rather is a deliberative conversation about values and the interpretation and aptness of goals and means, John Forester indicated in his 1999 book The Deliberative Practitioner: Encouraging Participatory Planning Processes.

A participant in this case study stated that the process must reflect the desired outcome of the project, explaining that if the facility is to be inclusive of the diverse campus community, then the process needs to welcome a diversity of perspectives throughout.The planning committee in this case study was careful to reach out to many different student groups, faculty leaders and their governance organization, and the staff council.The planning committee also met with former student leaders and active alumni.  

In addition, planning committee members can become a significant stakeholder group for the project.In this case study, participation increased individuals’ sense of ownership; therefore, the participants became advocates strongly committed to the success of the project. Advocates are informed and empowered spokespersons who can assist in building excitement on the project and positively influence the successful completion of the new facility.  

Early adoption of design guidelines provides a framework for the actual design development of the renovation or new construction project.The guidelines should summarize the cumulative feedback from constituent meetings and provide planning committee members with talking points on the actual project.Once the guidelines are developed, it is imperative to share them with the constituents with whom the planning committee originally met.One participant from the case study indicated that the guidelines summarized the core values of the entire project, which were significant to all involved.The design guidelines should also serve as a touchstone in the process and be used to hold one another accountable when recommending identified spaces or programs and services to place in the facility.  

Although in this case study there was a lack of knowledge of the prescribed planning stages, there was great success in the outcome of the project due to the intentionality of the process.Lead architects can further educate futureplanning committeesabout the prescribed process and the specific phases. Doing so will permit student affairs professionals to systematically engage constituents while defining purpose for new or renovated physical spaces, exploring possible uses, and building a sense of project ownership within the campus community.  

PostOccupancy Evaluations

During the last decade, student affairs professionals have been challenged to assess their programs, services, and activities effectively.Although anecdotal stories abound about how students are positively affected through their engagement, greater demand exists for learning outcomes and assessment directly associated with the events and services provided.As scholar-practitioners, professionals can implement effective environmental assessments to strengthen the narrative about the importance of student unions and demonstrate an alignment with the institution’s mission and values. 

Environmental assessment is one of the most neglected forms of assessment, according to John Schuh and Lee Upcraft intheir 1996 manual Assessment Practice in Student Affairs. Traditional data collected to demonstrate how a student union facility is occupied do not typically account forhow the users feel or why they come to the student union.Therefore, a comprehensive post-occupancy evaluation, which relates to the last phase of the prescribed planning process, mustlook beyond annual deferred maintenance and basic usage data to inform decision making and resource allocation.It should also assess why students and other members of the campus community choose to use the student union.Campus leaders should expect such environmental assessments as part of annual evaluations of the student union and its programs and services. Likewise, a comprehensive post-occupancy evaluationshould be a standard tool used when determining the future of aging student unions and in the justifications for renovating or replacing existing student unions.  

Future Research

This study was limited based on the demographics of students who were observed using the gathering spaces. Faculty and staff, older students, individuals with limited vision, and individuals with mobility issues/challenges were not seen in the two spaces. Another limitation to the study was that the observation methodology did not provide an opportunity to identify sexual orientation, gender identity, or any indication of faith other than maybe a few limited cultural identifiers (e.g., head scarf). It would be useful to learn whether students from more diverse backgrounds would have similar experiences as those observed in this case study.

Although Lori Patton presents the role and scope of various cultural centers in Cultural Centers in Higher Education: Perspective on Identity, Theory, and Practice, there is limited research on the role of the student union in relationship to a diverse student population. Identifying and learning more about the diversity of the students and how/when they are using the student union would potentially provide a more comprehensive understanding of how a diverse student body may be finding connections and engagement in the student union. Therefore, future research could focus on gathering spaces in student unions with populations not identified in this study and possible comparative studies to test the outcomes of this study. 

Additional research might also include a survey on perceptions of the space (e.g., whether it is welcoming, accessible, engaging; whether the student feels at ease in the space). Such research could include a student focus group with open-ended questions (e.g., “describe how you may or may not engage in the space,” “describe the types of activities you engaged in the last time you utilized the space”). Developing a greater understanding of students’ perceptions of student-centered physical space can assist professionals in effectively identifying efficient uses of human, financial, and physical resources to best support students, their development, and their persistence at the institution.  

New research could present the relevance of the student union within the context of the institution’s mission. In a 2013 Bulletin article, Danielle DeSawal and Tamara Yakaboski challenged researchers to demonstrate “how the college unions support the academic mission of higher education and how its physical space creates learning for diverse student populations.” Although a student union may be perceived as supporting cocurricular social or cultural activities, it may also have spaces like study rooms where academic-related activities can take place.

Manning and Kuh reported identifiedthat space “dedicated for ‘socially catalytic’ interactions … where students and faculty can meet informally or where student can work together on projects” can influence student success. The findings of this case study would be beneficial to student affairs professionals to create strong accounts about the importance of purposefully designed student-centered physical space in supporting student success. Demonstrating a high congruence between the student union and the mission of the institution provides a compelling narrative for human, financial, and physical resources, particularly when combined with data.  

Finallya comparative case study based on similar-sized student unions or campus communities would provide opportunities to demonstrate similar outcomes in relation to physical space and community. This case study only looked at one student union and two gathering spaces. It would be beneficial to compare multiple student unions with similar gathering spaces. Additionally, new research could examine the planning and design process as itself an act of community building. The results of the comparisons across like-sized schools or student union operations could prove helpful within the contextof campus ecology and organic community and to campus leaders managing new facilities projects.  

As a paradigm, campus ecology helps describe the relationship between college students and the four environments of the college campus: human characteristics, organizational structures, college constructs and perceptions, and the physical environment. The ability to connect student engagement with physical space creates opportunities to plan student-centered facilities that purposely contribute to students’ sense of belonging and the campus community.An outcome of campus community is its positive influence on student success, persistence, and graduation. This study demonstrates that purposefully designed physical spaces matter in making a positive impact on the campus community, and the student union can be an important contributing variable.


  • Daniel Maxwell

    Daniel M. Maxwell, Ed.D., is associate vice president for student affairs at the University of Houston and associate vice chancellor for student affairs for the University of Houston system.

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