Landscapes for universities have to do a lot of work. Plantings need to be hearty, easy to maintain, and have low irrigation requirements. Stormwater management, especially in urban environments, requires intense planning and infrastructure. Beyond these important practicalities, though, landscapes offer an opportunity to enhance student and faculty wellbeing. Research tells us that being connected to high-quality landscape environments has stress-reducing impacts and improves cognitive function.
At Yale Law School’s Baker Hall, the design of the exterior environment has an even bigger impact than in typical university environments. In addition to classroom and collaborative space, the building houses 110 residents.
We implemented several strategies to engage landscape in supporting health and wellbeing. Active and passive activities are accommodated with a variety of outdoor spatial character zones. A generous lawn offers a place for students to play frisbee or put out picnic blankets. A sports field drainage system was used to avoid having multiple drains that would make using the lawn in this way unsafe and unpleasant. There are nooks and crannies where someone can quietly study. There are café and picnic tables, and the courtyard was carefully designed to accommodate a tent for events.
Plant selection is critical when designing to support wellbeing. Research shows that landscape material with textural variety has a stronger impact on stress reduction than uniform species. An existing elm was able to be saved and offers the overhead canopy and dappled shade that has particularly stress-reducing effects. Shrubs with smaller textures such as Inkberry and Cherry Laurel are combined with grassy textures like Liriope and woodland textures like Lady’s Mantel. Blooming was planned for year-round interest with particular attention to the beginning of the school year and commencement. The courtyard is also home to sculptures meant to delight and evoke. Rona Pondick’s “Granite Bed” is 16’ art piece that can be used for lounging.
A canopy and plinth were added to the exterior of the building. This area allows people to enjoy being outdoors even during inclement weather. It also allows people to experience a sense of “prospect” over their surroundings. The craving for this sensation is what causes people to want decks or porches on their homes. Having a sense of prospect over your surroundings is naturally comforting. It also serves to reduce the entrance of contaminants into the building.
A guiding design strategy for the renovation of the building was to connect the interior space to the landscape as much as possible. There are a series of acoustically glazed workrooms along the first floor corridor. Windows in these spaces have sills and heads tight to the exterior surfaces, making it feel like the exterior materials extend into the building. When walking through the corridor, you have a continuous connection to the courtyard. An unexpected delight is that the acoustic glazing on the other side of the corridor provides a reverse reflection of the courtyard, translucently layered with views to the townhouses on the other side of the building through the classroom and study spaces. You truly feel surrounded by nature even when you’re indoors.