From ‘Weigh-Station’ to ‘Learning Commons’: New Changes Anticipated for Great Hall

By Skylar Killian

The Great Hall is the “hub of the community” in the Upper School.

 It is an area where students gather to eat, converse, and work– it serves as a space for collaboration and communication. However, the Great Hall is tired. It needs to be more functional and visually inspiring. One key piece that drives steps towards re-envisionment of the space is the demand for flexibility. Ultimately, as the Great Hall exists as a multi-use space, furniture and spatial design innovation must accommodate a variety of uses – from dramatic productions and academic collaboration, to community gathering.

Incorporating furniture to adjust to different spatial needs is one way to address the variety of use the Great Hall must accommodate. Due to budget and area accessibility constraints, identifying and sourcing the ideal furniture demands extensive research and planning. Charged with the task of completing this process, the Creative Collective, a group of students lead by Cameron Jack, has been working with the administration to create an appropriate design layout and find furniture to fill the space. When assessing furniture options, there are several requirements that new pieces must meet including movability, durability, and multi-use purposes. In addition, there is hope that a new furniture plan may help reduce or eradicate any seating hierarchy that currently exists, like seniors claiming the couches. The arrangement of added elements to the space have also been considered. For example, the idea of  “soft seating” areas wherein students can relax, study, and interact has been proposed and will likely play a major role in the refurbishment of the Great Hall. One reason behind the inclusion of “soft seating” areas is to encourage student interaction and conversation, ultimately eliminating the sense of being on display that can come with the linear style of seating the Great Hall currently houses. Rather than sitting in a linear fashion and watching as people walk through the hall, such seating areas would encourage a shift in dynamics and create community areas.

If the material covered in this article is beginning to put you on edge, it might be because any seating discussion regarding the Great Hall leads to the inevitable question: What will happen to the infamous furbicles? “You could describe the Upper School’s relationship to the furbicles as love-hate,” Asha Appel, Head of OES Upper School, explains, ultimately highlighting that though rather inflexible and dated, the furbicles hold some significance in the community, and serve as the backdrop for many memorable moments. Furthermore, due to their ability to accommodate many students during gathering or study periods and the great deal of history that they carry, students should find some comfort in that at least half of the furbicles within the space should return in the fall.

In an attempt to further improve furniture elements in the Great Hall, plans include more study space for students.“Bar work areas,” which would consist of a place to charge electronics, a stool, and an individual workstation, have been proposed as an effective way to promote efficient studying. As with any new design element, the many stakeholders of the Great Hall must be taken into consideration. How will these bar areas be moved when there is a theatrical performance? One solution proposed is to ensure that these bars fold down against the walls so the open space can be re-claimed when needed, The real challenge lies in understanding and anticipating the different spatial needs as each equipment and furniture element is introduced into the new Great Hall layout.

Not only are bar work areas a likely possibility, but standing tables might also be scattered throughout the Great Hall and placed in different configurations, such as L’s and T’s. These tables would serve the purpose of providing study spaces, while also occupying some of the area in the center of the room, breaking up traffic. Furthermore, group study spaces will be included in the undertaking. These group areas will likely take the form of both smaller group tables and larger group tables, each of which would allow room for four and six people, respectively. At the moment, floor plan designs place the tables along the wall in semi-circle configurations and the possibility of including whiteboard style wallpaper extending up from the tables remains. In terms of furniture, color pallette plays a key role, yet financial and time constraints are a limiting factor in this element of the design process.

While the majority of Great Hall changes center on new furniture and equipment, visual aesthetics are also being considered. Inspiring design ideas include murals, notice boards, and paintings, all reflecting student voices and community values.

Upper School Head, Asha Appel, does anticipate some hesitancy from community members in accepting the refreshed space. She compares the Great Hall to a favorite pair of jeans: “It’s like when someone throws out your favorite pair of jeans, full of holes, but they are yours,”

Ultimately, the new plans for the Great Hall are exciting. It should be noted that design itself is always complicated and a work in progress, especially given the many groups within the school community that must be considered throughout the process of instituting changes in the Great Hall. Given its complexity and widespread impact, this project would not be possible without the wonderful resources, provision of a generous budget, and the support of both faculty and students.

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