Students create campus meditation room to help Cornellians de-stress

Professors guide students to research, design and build spaces for benefit of community...

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By Sarah Cutler via Cornell Chronicle, 12/11/12

Photo courtesy Mark Vorreuter
Photo courtesy Mark Vorreuter

When the grind of classes or work intensifies, Cornell students, faculty and staff have a new retreat -- a meditation and reflection space in Mews Hall on North Campus designed and built by students in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis.

Students applied lessons from practitioners of Zen, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist meditation and prayer about their faiths' mindfulness rituals to construct a room open to people of all religions and cultures. Applying universal design principles, the students also ensured that the area accommodates people with disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs. The space was unveiled Nov. 29.

The room has soft natural lighting and wood to create a naturalistic atmosphere where users can be "passively entertained and restored," designers said during a tour of the space. A storage wall near the room's entrance provides "a place of pause, of refuge" before guiding users into the main area, which includes custom-built wooden meditation chairs.

The space is the product of a semester-long collaboration between two courses in the College of Human Ecology: the Environment and Social Behavior taught by Gary Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology, and an interior design studio taught by Paul Eshelman, professor of design and environmental analysis. For nearly 20 years, Evans and Eshelman have combined their fall courses, guiding students to research, design and build spaces for the benefit of the community. In past years, they've built areas for local daycare and Head Start facilities, senior centers and Boys and Girls clubs.

Cornell United Religious Work (CURW) associate director Leslie Meyerhoff suggested the idea of a meditation and reflection room last spring and helped with the planning -- and is happy with the final product, she said.

"I love it," she said. "We need a place to stop, breathe and reconnect with our spirit, or whatever gives us meaning."

Rev. Kenneth Clarke Sr., director of CURW, supported Meyerhoff's idea and arranged for funding for mock-ups. The creation of the room is "part of a larger context," he said.

"What we've lived through in the last four years -- with the contraction of the university, and fewer resources with the same amount of work to get done -- there are higher stress levels felt by faculty and staff," he said. "We're looking for ways to manage the workload. … We wanted to carve out something that reflects a shift in pace."

During the first month of the project, the classes learned independently of each other: Evans' class studied principles of environment-behavior relationships, including concepts for restorative and meditative spaces, while Eshelman's students learned principles of design and construction.

Throughout the semester, the classes worked together to blend evidence on user needs with design theories. By the end of October, the design was done; November was devoted mainly to construction.

"The design process is grappling with a continuing stream of problems, but that's the nature of the educational experience," Eshelman said. "There's never a challenge that can't be worked through."

This year's classes faced an unusual problem, Evans said: They knew -- or rather, thought they knew -- quite a bit about their primary user group. As college students creating a room for other college students, "it is easy to go with their own experience and intuition, so it can be an impediment to being open-minded," he said.

But the team overcame that challenge through research, observations and interviews with people of various faiths, Evans said.

Added Megan Connolly '14, a student in Eshelman's class: "I think it's an awesome project to be working in a space on campus. In other projects, we just work with small models, but here, we're watching something come to life."

Sarah Cutler '16 is a communications assistant for the College of Human Ecology.

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