Jen & Liz ponder tertiary education spaces post-COVID


We’d like to introduce ourselves, Jen, Architect and Associate and Liz, Interior Designer. Having both recently completed interior fitouts with RMIT and Monash Universities, we’ve been pondering the future of designing tertiary education spaces in a post-COVID world. We both have a keen interest in Human Centred Design, which focuses design efforts on creating spaces that promote physical and mental wellbeing.

In the last few months we’ve read articles, attended virtual lectures and webinars that have discussed the immediate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. These have included thinking around hygiene, finish selections and maintenance to minimise spread of illness. Additionally, many designers have made predictions around changes to commercial spaces if there is a long term trend toward increased remote working.


Monash Business School Alumni Centre

This discourse has led us to wonder and debate how the pandemic could change our design approach of tertiary educational spaces. Ultimately we hope that the physical health risk of COVID will be decreased through development of effective treatments and vaccine. However, if we find that we are impacted by COVID for an extended period, we believe that we will need to significantly rethink the nature of tertiary education spatial design. Current tertiary design relies on substantial use of high turnover shared spaces that service large user groups, which is obviously at odds with measures that minimise spread of illness. Additionally, regardless of the length of the physical health threat of COVID, as designers we are also conscious of the psychological experience of the spaces we design, and how unease resulting from COVID will affect the use of shared spaces as we start to transition out of social distancing measures.While many people will return to post-COVID life with ease, we are acutely aware there will be a significant portion of the population who will continue to struggle with hypervigilance and anxiety. This will hamper their ability to confidently re-occupy shared spaces even if the physical health threat has subsided.

Monash Business School Alumni Centre


A central concept of both projects we have recently completed at RMIT and Monash is The Third Space – this is a term given to places that are separate to our two usual environments, the ‘first place’ being our homes and ‘second place’ our workplace (or learning space in the case of students). The Third Space provides us with opportunities to meet people, make new friends and foster a sense of community and connection. We think that the Third Space is something that is fundamental to successful University Campuses, and is an incredibly important part of university life. Spaces that enable extended dwelling and encourage interaction are essential to providing a rich and engaging university environment that fosters social interaction and sharing of knowledge. Additionally, for many students who live in smaller or shared living arrangements, the Third Space provides areas for study, relaxation and socialisation if that may not be possible or comfortable within their accommodation. However, the nature of these shared spaces that encourage extended dwelling are challenging to inhabit while also maintaining the social distancing measures we are all currently experiencing.


As we start to design tertiary spaces that will be occupied in a post-COVID society, we are mindful that we need to provide spaces that may assist in encouraging dwelling by anyone feeling less confident in public spaces. This may be by designing spaces that provide for distancing and screening through careful arrangements of interior elements, but in a more discrete way than the Perspex screens that have quickly materialised into many public and shared spaces.As designers we enjoy a challenge, and curating spaces that still feel intimate, without relying on closeness is something we are interested to explore further.


The anxiety of transitioning back into shared public spaces could be lessened by providing dedicated bookable zones. While the pandemic is still active, this would enable scheduling of times that the spaces can be occupied, and then cleaned before the next user occupies the space. While this is at odds with the organic and casual use of shared spaces that designer often aspire to, we wonder if such measures could be implemented, this would enable shared zones to be used in a more controlled and conscious way, while also reducing health risks.

Monash Business School Alumni Centre

Although we are still in the early days of the COVID situation, and a number of factors that will impact the future of design depend on the length and severity of the pandemic, we’re interested to see and are already considering the possible long term changes. If anything, this pandemic has certainly highlighted the importance of human connection and community which makes The Third Space a vital and valuable place we all need access to. Communal and public spaces bring life to a University campus, and help foster a community by allowing students and staff to meet and share knowledge. They provide opportunities for continued and impromptu learning as well as offering space and resource that users may not get from home or work. Design will continue to play an important role in the success of these spaces as people rebuild their confidence using public spaces in a post-COVID world.