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Designing For Identity And Interconnectedness At Wellesley College’s Acorns House

By funkhaus

The need to establish supportive spaces for students of color is strong on university campuses everywhere. Wellesley College has fulfilled this need well — including their investment in spaces like the Acorns House, a former on-campus residence that has been transformed into a dynamic new home base for Asian, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ Advising. In this flexible and interconnected space, students of these backgrounds and identities can share their common experiences with each other, celebrate their culture, and feel a much-needed sense of community. “What our students really look for when they come here is a sense of belonging,” says Michelle Maheu, Director for Planning, Design & Construction at Wellesley College in a video about the project. “We had a challenge of both transforming a space that was historically residential into something that was for student use, and also to transform it from a home into a part of an intercultural center here on campus.”

Wellesley sought Studio Luz to address this challenge, while being able to navigate a myriad of opinions and feelings about the project with understanding and empathy. “Studio Luz was brought in because of our capacity to merge different voices together and to listen to them and hold extensive workshops where we would engage with the student body and ask them: how can we make this campus environment more welcoming and inviting for you?” shares Studio Luz Principal + Co-Founder Hansy Better Barraza.

The project found its home in the modernist former residence of the Dean of Students, originally designed in 1955. To successfully reimagine the space, we knew we needed to understand the wants and needs of Wellesley’s current and future Asian and Latine students and LGBTQ+ students of color. We held a series of focus groups with students and faculty to gather responses from them, familiarizing us with the community’s aspirations for the department and the space. We also drew upon Wellesley College’s mission statement, which emphasizes service and leadership, as a guiding principle for our design.

“Studio Luz is driven by a desire to serve a community larger than ourselves,” notes Studio Luz Principal + Co-Founder Anthony Piermarini. “We are motivated by our engagement with the community, and that feeds into our decision-making process so that we are really informed by the needs of the people around us. Architecture can then be used in service and in response to those needs.”

We brought these shared values to life through intentional design elements, like movable textiles that create flexibility and allow spaces to foster confidentiality or community, depending on meeting needs. The kitchen and living room became central spaces for gathering, while the bedrooms transformed into offices for specific affinity groups. Both indoor and outdoor furniture associated with the home – such as hammocks and lounge chairs – create a sense of relaxation and community in the space. Each decision was made with students’ needs in mind, and the design ultimately creates a sense of overlapping, intricate identities of interconnectedness, while maintaining the structural integrity of the longstanding building.

Culture and connection were imbued into every step of the design process for the Acorns House project. Having worked with other higher education institutions to design and create spaces on campus that prioritize diversity and inclusion, we know just how vital these spaces are in their ability to manifest into real change in the lives of students. Acorns House is no different — this welcoming space will help support the thinkers and activists that Wellesley College is known for producing for years to come.