BUILDing Well-being

By Crystal Hutchinson, Health Promotion Specialist, Simon Fraser University

While attending Supporting Student Success research team’s (@CdnStdntSuccess) presentation on “Principles for Creating Student Focused Postsecondary Organizations” at CACUSS this summer, I was thrilled to see physical space emerge as a key area influencing organizational culture in higher education. My excitement was due to my role at Simon Fraser University (SFU), where I lead the Well-being through Physical Spaces project on behalf of the Health Promotion team (@SFUhealth_promo). This project aims to improve the well-being of SFU students by enhancing the physical campus environment. There is a growing body of literature that demonstrates a connection between built environments and mental, social and physical health. As a result, physical environments within higher education settings present a strategic opportunity for us to impact student learning, engagement and well-being.


SFU’s focus on well-being through physical spaces is innovative and leading within Canada. Although it was developed prior to the release of the WELL Building Standard (Delos Living LLC, 2015), it similarly focuses on considering psychosocial well-being in the design of built environments. Physical Spaces is one of six areas for action to impact student well-being in SFU’s Healthy Campus Community initiative which is informed by health promotion theory (World Health Organization, 2010; Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, 1986). The project also aligns with the Okanagan Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges (2015) that identifies creating supportive campus environments and working cross-departmentally to enhance student well-being.

About the Well-being through Physical Spaces Project

The Well-being through Physical Spaces Project was developed in 2013 through a literature review that indicated the quality of physical learning environments has a significant and measurable impact on student achievement, productivity, satisfaction and well-being (Earthman, 2002; Hill & Epps, 2010; Lippman, 2010; Whiteside, Brooks & Walker, 2010; Young, Green, Roehrich-Patrick, Joseph & Gibson, 2003). However, most research has been within corporate and health care sectors as well as in education at the elementary and secondary school level, suggesting that the interplay between the built environment, student well-being and learning within post-secondary settings is emergent. Data collected from focus groups and existing undergraduate surveys at SFU was also analyzed to inform the project and to explore how students perceived various physical spaces on campus in relation to their well-being.

SFU Health Promotion Physical Spaces Infographic_Page_1

A rationale, summarizing key literature was prepared and included on the project website alongside an SFU Health Promotion Physical Spaces Infographic which highlights the key design features impacting well-being:

Art and colour
Adaptable furniture
Air quality and temperature
Incorporation of nature

Opportunities for Social Connection

My colleagues and I then focused on building relationships with key stakeholders including Campus Development and Planning within Facilities Services, the Simon Fraser Student Society, and two campus space committees. My role has been to support partners in considering and incorporating (where possible) the key features mentioned above by reviewing and providing input to design plans or attending planning meetings. Positive examples of already existing campus spaces are highlighted and shared to inspire others to consider well-being through physical space design.

Another noteworthy aspect of this project is that the student voice is incorporated throughout. Prior to the Health Promotion Team’s involvement, students were not consulted in campus space redesign. Our two student volunteer groups elicit student feedback before and after a space renovation through outreach, consultation events and an informal survey tool. Student leaders collect student feedback on proposed designs and identify key features students request. Interestingly, although students don’t always consciously make the connection, the physical features they often desire in a space are aligned with features that have also been shown to support well-being.

Evaluating Success  

We monitor progress by tracking space projects that have incorporated a consideration for well-being in design as well as the number of new partnerships and expansion of existing partnerships. We also survey students to see how well renovated spaces match their needs and to identify ways to improve design. Over 250 students have completed post-occupancy surveys on three renovated student lounge spaces that the Health Promotion team informed in 2014 and 2015.



Not only are students satisfied with the renovated spaces, but they have also shared just how it makes them feel:

It’s really nice to see renovated spaces to promote socialization, or are simply more inviting, uplifting spots to study and hang out” – Student

Having a place to study and wait for classes like this is great for students and that’s why I enjoy staying on campus” – Student

The new colours make me feel happy and cheerful” – Student

We have also received positive feedback from key partners:

Thanks to our partnership with SFU’s Health Promotion team, the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) has designed our new student union building with a strong focus on student health and well-being. The team’s insight and guidance allowed the SFSS to analyze the results of our student consultation with a wellness perspective that might otherwise have been overlooked. As a result, we’ve prioritized the design of spaces that are inclusive and accessible to all, provide maximum exposure to natural daylight, and are built with natural materials such as glass and wood. I’m confident that the design has been greatly enhanced because of our collaboration.”                           – Marc Fontaine, General Manager, Build SFU, Simon Fraser Student Society

The scope of the Well-being through Physical Spaces project continues to grow. To date, over 500 students’ feedback has shaped decisions related to space design and we have informed over 15 spaces including lounges, classrooms and lecture theatres. Well-being was a key consideration in the design of SFU’s first student union building, which is currently under construction. We hope to further this work by continuing to enable and empower stakeholders to consider well-being in new space design or renewal and to facilitate student engagement and report on student feedback.

The Well-being through Physical Space project exemplifies how fostering partnerships beyond Student Affairs and by engaging the student voice in decision making processes can be valuable strategies for success. Exploring opportunities for staff, faculty and students to work together in new ways to co-create solutions will not only lead to better health and learning outcomes but will also enhance the culture of our institutions.

If you are interested in learning more about the Well-being through Physical Spaces project, connect with Crystal by emailing:


Earthman, G. I. (2002). School facility conditions and student academic achievement, Los Angeles, CA: UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA).

Hill, M. C., & Epps, K.K. (2010). The impact of physical classroom environment on student satisfaction and student evaluation of teaching in the university environment. Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 14(4), 65-79.

Lippman, P.C. (2010). Can the physical environment have an impact on the learning environment? Centre for Effective Learning Environments Exchange, 13, 1-6.

Whiteside, A., Brooks, D. C., & Walker, J. D. (2010). Making the case for space: Three years of empirical research on learning environments. Educause Quarterly, 33(3), 11

Young, E., Green, H. A., Roehrich-Patrick, L., Joseph, L., & Gibson, T. (2003). Do K-12 school facilities affect education outcomes? Nashville, TN: Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.



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