Students sit in chairs in an East Campus dorm foyer

Student Residence Project Community Engagement

Listening & Discovery

Over the course of three sessions from November 2019 to January 2020, Adjaye Associates embarked on a ‘deep dive’ into the social and cultural climate of Grinnell as it relates to the new Downtown Student Residence (DSR) building project. The objective of the Listening & Discovery Phase was not directly architectural; the deliverables from this process do not include a sketch or renderings of an initial design proposal.

Workshop session

As outlined within these pages, the outcome of this fact-finding mission is a series of recommendations with regard to program, process, and the legacy of the building. We were guided by the following questions:

  • How could this new building establish a mutually symbiotic relationship with the town in which users from both parties could benefit and evolve?
  • Specifically, what other programmatic function(s) could the building provide to promote new ways of learning (students) and yield vitality outcomes (town)?
  • What considerations might have been overlooked as it relates to the integration and implementation of this project?

The Process

From college faculty, staff, and students to small downtown business owners, members of the farming community, and key community leaders, we choreographed two distinct workshop scenarios for our first two visits: Session 1 – Identity of Place and Session 2 – Iowa Nice.

Iowa Nice Workshop

In the first session, we intentionally siloed each group to explore how Grinnell is perceived through the eyes of its diverse population. Through cognitive mapping exercises and open dialogue, we came to understand the institutions and destinations that define the town and, in many ways, came to understand what is most sacred to Grinnell’s identity and longevity.

In Session 2, we prompted a more challenging conversation by unsiloing the groups and prompting participants to define what “Iowa Nice” means. This became a jumping off point to better understand the layered history of both division and unity that seems to define Grinnell’s past and current climate.

Our final session concluded with ‘open forum’ type conversations in which we initiated dialogue with participants about our initial conclusions.


In light of this particularly polarized moment in American history, we kept returning to the notion of Grinnell as a ‘microcosm’ of the nation. As outlined in our supporting data/visual catalog, and interview excerpts, we identified a series of visible and invisible influences that contribute to a sense of polarity. These forces include but are not limited to issues of national significance such as the sociocultural and economic impact of digital retail (ex: Amazon), and issues such as food security/quality and access to healthcare and education. And, at the micro level of Grinnell, we identified the trajectory of the college and the town have often been or perceived to be at odds.

Initial Conclusions

Based on these observations, we came to the conclusion that we would be doing Grinnell a disservice if we were to propose a singular programmatic purpose (outside of student residences) such as “skate park” or “museum.” Instead, we believe the answer is multi pronged and multifaceted; we propose a Forum – place for convening with the infrastructure to support cultural and intellectual exchange; small businesses; and, equally important, respite and rejuvenation. To encourage a cross pollination of people and ideas requires a nimble multiplicity of spaces and purposes that can be activated at different scales. We envision a new action-oriented community anchor that buzzes just as much in its in between thresholds where happen-stance can facilitate new connections between users from all walks of Grinnell.

Workshop Process

  • Session 1:  Identity of Place                            November 11-12, 2019
  • Session 2:  Iowa Nice                                           December 5-6, 2019
  • Session 3:  Divisions & Consensus                        January 27-28, 2020

Listening Sessions

A cognitive map from the Iowa Nice listening session
A handwritten cognitive map from a different listening session


  • Austin Jones

    Why do you think this initiative for the Downtown Student Residence is important?

    The biggest achievement of bringing a Downtown Residence Hall is that it gives a vibrant space for the college students to be neighbors that interact with the community.  It provides another opportunity for the students to turn our Grinnell into a home.  Home is where the heart is and having the opportunity to meet a variety of people both related to the college and the community creates an opportunity to have more memories of this grand place.

    Austin Jones
    President / Financial Advisor of Grinnell Investor Center

  • Saketan Anand

    “And, that’s the other thing. You cannot disagree with someone’s humanity; you can’t disagree with someone’s story. You can’t say that that didn’t happen, or you didn’t feel that way when someone expresses something different from your beliefs.”

    Saketan Anand
    Vice President of Student Affairs for Student Government Association 2019–20

  • Susan Sanning

    “I think what’s exciting to me about this space downtown is, how do we make this acceptable to our general public? How do we get out of our head and have a place where expertise isn’t just in the classroom? But where it’s ok for people to have these kind of problem-solving conversations.”

    Susan Sanning
    Associate Dean and Director of Service & Social Innovation


(Frequency of mention)

During Session 1 – Identity of Place, we conducted cognitive mapping exercises to identify the most frequented, iconic, or cherished places within the Grinnell community. From the data collected in Session 1 and from subsequent conversations, Central Park was identified as the most frequented and universally enjoyed community venue. It was described as a “neutralizer” and community offering for both respite and programmed activity.

Other frequently mentioned places included:

  • Sullivan Bank
  • The Peppertree @ Depot Crossing
  • Prairie Canary
  • Grinnell Art Center


Outline drawing of late republican Roman forum

Roman Forum – Late Republican Period Late 2nd and 1st Centuries B.C.E.

Multiple, open spaces amongst public buildings often form figures that are irregularly shaped. These open spaces create smaller meeting points, as part of a larger network. The experience of walking through the Roman Forum can perhaps be described as meandering through a series of architectural objects, without a finite path.

While typically we define flexibility through the ability to adapt programmatic uses, we suggest a framework for flexibility that would allow interstitial spaces to evolve and adapt over time.  Drawing upon the genesis of the forum concept from the Late Republic Period, we propose a defined anchor point with interstitial spaces that can evolve both architecturally and programmatically throughout the building’s life span. This enables the common space itself to become the central nucleus responsive to and in dialogue with offshoot, transitional spaces. This establishes approachable gateways from both college to town and town to college.

Programmed, public, and in-between spaces marked in a modern space

Programmed, public, and in-between spaces

Central Park

By and large, the anecdotes we heard about Central Park focused mainly on sentiment rather than on the built environment (which allows for both programmed and unprogrammed activity). Further, we noted that the park’s autonomy from the college was mentioned by many individuals—both college community and town members— as the defining reason for it being common ground.

The emphasis and common opinion of Central Park surprised us given the period of ‘retrenchment’ during the freezing Iowa winter months. This finding became critical to how we envision the building operating, particularly when outdoor activity is not feasible. As we embark on the design of the DSR, we will consider how the building will function as a Grinnell College sponsored common ground. Further, what tertiary activity can promote cross pollination?

Central Park bandstand

Campus Benefits

The influx of large scale manufacturing companies has led to micro campuses which provide employees with benefits such as wellness centers and training centers. While this is undoubtedly positive for the employees, the unintended or unconscious effect is an emphasis on inward-facing growth. In contrast, the small business of the town remains more outwardly focused, relying on communal, public space for respite or professional growth outside of work obligations.

Town Benefits

The small businesses of the town remain more outwardly focused, relying on communal, public space.

While independent entities, they operate as part of a collective, interconnected whole. This is a promising takeaway as it implies the DSR could increase pedestrian traffic and urban activity, creating an informal and extended network for personal and professional growth.

We use cookies to enable essential services and functionality on our site, enhance your user experience, provide better service through personalized content, collect data on how visitors interact with our site, and enable advertising services.

To accept the use of cookies and continue on to the site, click "I Agree." For more information about our use of cookies and how to opt out, please refer to our website privacy policy.