As the walls of the Bechtel Residence, Caltech's newest undergraduate housing facility, are being erected on the north end of campus, a committee of undergraduates is diligently working to help define its future.
The newly formed 16-student committee, which is known as the Committee on Undergraduate Caltech Housing (COUCH), has been asked by the administration to help explore how best to fill the 212-bed undergraduate residence when it opens in the fall of 2018. COUCH was formed following a series of town halls with the students in the winter and spring of 2017.
"This is something that we take seriously," says senior Timothy Liu, one of the COUCH members. Joining him are all ten members of Caltech's Interhouse Committee and six additional undergrads who were selected through an application process. "The housing system is central to our social life here and, as an upperclassman, I thought it was important to take a lead in helping to shape how this new residence adds to that experience."
The 95,000-square-foot Bechtel Residence, named for Caltech life trustee Stephen D. Bechtel, Jr., will be the first new undergraduate housing facility to open on campus in more than two decades. It will also provide the Institute with the opportunity to house all undergraduates on campus for the first time—a longtime goal of Caltech leaders.
"Whatever we do, it will change residential life at Caltech," Vice President for Student Affairs Joe Shepherd says, noting that the students are leading the charge in thinking through all aspects of the new residence, from how it will relate to the existing house system, to who will live there, to what the dining experience will be. "We should be thinking about how we do that, how we make that change, in the most positive way possible."
Bechtel was intentionally designed to provide the community with the greatest flexibility in maximizing space and determining its use. Drawing on input from hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and alumni throughout the planning and design phase, the administration ultimately decided that Bechtel would exist as a set of six distinct units of two to three stories in height, connected around a shared courtyard. Among those units would be a single dining facility that all the residents would share.
Now that construction on Bechtel is fully under way, the students of COUCH are taking the initiative and committing their free time—in between research projects, internships, work, and relaxation—to coming up with options and, ultimately, a suite of recommendations as to who should occupy the new residence.
"This is my opportunity to influence a decision being made that will have an impact on something that I care about," says junior Umesh Padia, who is also a member of COUCH. "I wanted to take part in the decision."
For their part, the students have approached this project much like they would any other research problem—with careful analysis, research, data, and a timeline.
Up first, they say, is researching living environments. Six of the members of COUCH are currently leading separate focus groups, each made up of five to 10 additional undergraduates who are not officially part of COUCH but are interested in evaluating different housing models for Bechtel. Some of Caltech's student leaders asked current undergraduates, in a survey last spring, about their interest in different options for the residence. The results of that survey led to the housing possibilities currently being considered by the focus groups. These include: a freshman residence; a sophomore residence; themed housing in which students are grouped by interests and affiliations; the creation of two to three new houses that would all reside within Bechtel; a system in which the existing eight houses have designated sections of the new facility that serve as offshoots of the houses themselves; or a residence that would not be directly affiliated with an existing house or theme.
As part of their research, the students in the focus groups are looking at other college and university campuses, and interviewing peers, resident associates, administrators, and staff about the pros and cons of their particular models. They have also met or plan to meet with faculty and staff to learn about their personal experiences and perspectives on the living environment they feel would best serve Caltech undergraduates. COUCH and student affairs are also inviting alumni to provide perspective through the Caltech Alumni Association.
"It's been super interesting to see everyone's perspectives," says COUCH committee member and sophomore Sarah Crucilla. "Our goal is to combine the voices of our peers and mentors with statistics to craft a residential experience that helps Caltech thrive."
This fall, the focus groups will be working with student affairs to compile their research into a single comprehensive written report that assesses the opportunities and limitations of various Bechtel options. COUCH has been actively working with student affairs team members to evaluate the practical aspects of various options for Bechtel and the implications for residential life. At the same time, staff in student affairs are also developing their own set of recommendations for how to define the new living and learning space.
Once complete, the students and leadership in student affairs plan to share their findings widely with the Caltech community; they will be leading discussions about the various proposals during campus meetings in the fall of 2017. These gatherings will provide an opportunity to refine the options for occupying Bechtel Residence and any associated changes in residential life at Caltech. A final decision on Bechtel, which will take the recommendations of all parties into consideration, will be announced in the spring of 2018.
"It's not every day that college students can have the chance to create a living environment for themselves and their peers, so we're making sure that we account for every variable," Crucilla says.
Ongoing updates on the decision process for determining Bechtel's housing model with be provided on Caltech Today.