Student Life Buildings as Third Places: Spatiality and the Formation of Meanings

Presented by: Yelena McLane, Nadya Kozinets

Student life buildings at colleges and universities are designed to support students in achieving academic goals and enhancing campus experiences by creating environments that facilitate engagement and social interaction, provide a sense of community and belonging, and ultimately imbue personal and social meanings. In built environments, meaning formation is closely associated with the concept of ‘place,’ and its location, physical, cultural, and aesthetic qualities, which, in turn, determine users’ degree of individual or social involvement (Manzo & Devine-Wright, 2014). In this study, the researchers apply place attachment theory, and more specifically, the ‘third place’ concept, to investigate student life buildings on two university campuses as locations where many students come to meet, relax, eat, study, or socialize. The aim is to investigate whether these buildings could be viewed as third-place environments, and how spatial morphologies, defined by permeability and visibility, facilitate or inhibit user perceptions of these environments as third places. The theoretical framework for this study was informed by David Seamon’s phenomenology of ‘place attachment,’ under which people and their physical experiences in space form a synergetic relationship (Seamon, 2014). Seamon argued that in built environments bodily experiences and routines originate with and are influenced by spatial qualities, which play a major role in “interpersonal” and “communal” communication and engagement, and subsequently facilitate the formation of meanings and attachment. Seamon described ‘places’ as dynamic generators of interactions between individual users and between users and environments, and further identified factors that contribute to sustaining or eroding place attachments. In this study, the researchers utilize the theories and techniques of space syntax analysis to identify how these characteristics manifest themselves in two sites identified for research. Permeability and visibility are key factors that define spatial configurations and function (Hillier, 2007) and create conditions for visual awareness, integration, and interpersonal encounters. This study blends the quantitative approaches of space syntax with qualitative, ethnographic data: the individual voices of student users whose impressions of buildings’ configurations and functions, and personal accounts of interaction and engagement, within these environments combine to put flesh onto the bones of rote spatial analysis. The results of this study indicate that students do view student life buildings as third place environments. The contributing factors include spatial and functional characteristics, such as visual openness within spaces and connectivity between spaces, ease of navigation, connectivity of spaces within buildings (permeability), higher user density, multi-functional spaces and furnishings, accommodation of individuals and small groups; design characteristics, including aesthetics and sophistication; and social and programmatic characteristics, including cultural offerings, student services, authorized eating and drinking, and the presence of coffee houses, bookstores, and other retail outlets. The purpose of this study was to inform and contribute to the current discourse on student life buildings on university campuses. The findings provide analysis of spatial structures and first-hand insights into how students use and perceive these buildings. University facilities administrators, planners and designers can use this information as they develop spaces that successfully encourage students to gather for eating, resting, studying, socializing, meeting new people, and simply “hanging out.” Each these activities leads to the formation of close, place-based emotional bonds, and adds to individually and socially meaningful experiences on university campuses.


  • Hillier, B. (2007). Space is the machine: A configurational theory of architecture. London, UK: UCL, Space Syntax. Retrieved from:
  • Manzo, L. & Devine-Wright, P. (Eds.). (2014). Place attachment: Advances in theory, methods and applications. London, UK & New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Seamon, D. (2014). Place attachment and phenomenology: The synergistic dynamism of place. In Manzo, L. C. & P. Devine-Wright (eds.), Place attachment: Advances in theory, methods and applications (pp. 11-22). London, UK & New York, NY: Routledge.