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The UBC Slackline Club organizes an event at the student union building, the Nest.

As universities upgrade aging infrastructure, some are turning to students to take a hand in designing some of the spaces they will inhabit during their university years

In March University of British Columbia (UBC) students passing through the atrium of the new $107-million student union building, the Nest, discovered their peers balancing like tightrope walkers two stories above them.

If they felt like testing their own agility, the students could take a stab at lower, easier slacklines, similar to tightropes but more flat and elastic, set up by the UBC Slackline Club, which organized the "UBC highline." The club began planning for the event as soon as the Nest was first unveiled in the summer of 2015.

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The 250,000-square-foot student hub includes space for studying, socializing and shopping, along with a theatre, gender-neutral bathrooms and a threestorey climbing wall. Not only was the Nest partially paid for by students through a levy, but they also conceived and designed the building.

Student-led design is becoming increasingly common, as universities are having to upgrade aging infrastructure with campuses built in the sixties and seventies and increasing numbers of students causing more wear and tear. Other schools, including Simon Fraser University (SFU) in British Columbia and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, are also empowering students to guide the design of new campus spaces.

And student governments are pouncing on the opportunity. In a process resembling city politics, they are holding open halls, passing funding referendums and inviting executive presentations from developers vying to make students' campus dreams a reality. With multiple generations of students taking the reins on the future of campus design, what does their vision say about the changing university experience?

At Dalhousie, for upgrades to its student union building, the student union, the SUB, spent two years gathering student input. What students crave most, it found, is a central hub for campus life.

"Friendly, open, welcoming, inclusive" was what Dan Nicholson, then president of the Dalhousie Student Union, recalls hearing repeatedly from his peers.

The university refers to the new student centre as a "living room on campus." The renovations include more space to study and socialize, with an all-glass conference room that gives a nod to the two-yearold Halifax Central Library, lauded as an architectural centrepiece of the city's downtown core.

"Being an urban campus, we wanted to not only create a unique space but also follow the lead of some of the other local designers and buildings," Mr. Nicholson says. He adds that students care about the look and feel of the university as much as they do about its programs and reputation.

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Bruce Knapp, managing principal of B+H Architects, the company UBC students selected to construct the Nest, echoes this statement.

After seeing five terms of student government throughout the construction of the Nest, Mr. Knapp says the new student generation wants a feeling of ownership over their university experience.

"Things like great teachers and great co-op opportunities need to be combined with a great place to spend four years," he says. He saw similar trends at Queen's, the University of New Brunswick, York University, University of Guelph and McGill University, where his company had previous contracts.

"There's a lot of competition about which is the best university."

The competition runs strong among students as well. For Enoch Weng, then student council president at SFU, seeing the Nest further engrained his belief that a new student union building and atrium for SFU's Burnaby campus would enrich life on campus. Construction is set to be completed in 2018.

But students' ownership goes beyond just directing the building design. At UBC, SFU and Dalhousie, student governments had to pass campuswide referendums to obtain student consent to raise fees in order to cover construction costs. The Nest was financed with an $80 yearly fee per student starting in 2008 and increasing incrementally to $100. SFU's new student building imposes an increase of $10 to student fees every semester, to be capped at $90 by 2022.

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So how are campus renovations actually changing students' university experiences?

What it looks like day-to-day can come down to pretty nuanced details. For many students, a central student hub simply means that students have a comfortable place to hang out.

For Mr. Weng, his vision for what a student centre can do remains uninhibited, despite the fact that he will have graduated when construction is finished.

"It's a place to make friends. It's the perfect place for those with hobbies. It's the perfect place to throw a concert, sing songs. It's a place for advocacy, to reach out, to book politicians to come speak.

There's a facility for video games. There are dedicated performing spaces. For our innovative students, there are lab facilities and rooms where they can experiment.

My vision is all encompassing."

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