Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Logo for The Western Front

WWU’s design department struggles with outdated facilities and accessibility issues

Accessibility issues and asbestos presence hinder student experience and creativity, while funding challenges delay much-needed renovations

A production lab filled with letterpress equipment in the Fine Arts building at Western Washington University. Here, design students use these tools to explore their creativity and develop hands-on experience.  // Photo courtesy of Western Washington University

For the past 20 years, the design department at Western Washington University has tried to secure funding to resolve their ongoing frustrations with the conditions of the Fine Arts Facilities.

Across the Art Annex and Fine Arts building, a lack of accessibility features and isolating classroom environments have been a source of discontent among students and faculty. Many of the computer labs and classroom studios lack a source of natural light, and not all rooms are accessible to students with limited mobility.

The Art Annex has no elevator to access the second floor and no accessible bathrooms. Western’s website on the building fails to mention this despite detailing accessible entrances to the basement and first floor.

“The space is an integral part of our program,” said design professor and recently appointed department chair Kacey Morrow, regarding the Art Annex. “About half of our primary instruction takes place on the second floor of the [Art] Annex, and half of our faculty offices are up there, as well as where the AS Design Club meets biweekly.”

The building has a documented history of past students affected by these issues, Morrow said. 

In 2019, a graduate student with limited mobility wrote a letter to the Disability Access Center describing their difficulty climbing the steep, narrow staircase of the Art Annex. Another student who broke their foot couldn’t access classrooms or faculty offices, and as a result, their course meeting place was moved on short notice.

Inaccessibility also deters prospective applicants from the design major, thus negatively affecting recruitment. Additionally, all the Fine Arts Facilities are shared amongst the design, art and art history departments, meaning all students in these programs have to use them.

If an elevator is not possible, Morrow said she would want to see a sky bridge connecting the Art Annex to the Fine Arts building to make it wheelchair accessible. Currently, the only way to access the basement and third floor in the Fine Arts building is via stairs.

In addition to having accessibility problems of its own, the Fine Arts building adjacent to the Art Annex contains the known carcinogen, asbestos, within its walls. 

Director of Facilities Asset Management Greg Hough, explained that due to the age of the Fine Arts building, asbestos is present in various elements of the building, such as vinyl tiling.

It does not pose any immediate health hazards, Hough said, although it has led to walls and windows being sealed off with drywall, thus darkening rooms from natural light.

“Why do we have no windows in this building? I feel like so much creativity and brain power comes from natural light. It stunts the brain so much,” fifth-year design student Mia Cadran said. 

She said the lack of advocacy from Western, along with the construction of new science buildings on campus, feels disrespectful to the arts.

She also recalled that during her freshman year at Western, water was not potable in the Fine Arts building for the school year due to lead contamination, marking the beginning of frustration and uncertainty in the facilities.

“In my tenure here, we've added elevators to Fraser Hall and College Hall and the Fairhaven academic building, and those all served a bigger area in a bigger population,” Hough said. “So, it's not that it's being ignored, it's just the funds are so tight that as we prioritize we have to look very carefully at who's the biggest population benefited by the investment.” 

Capital Plans are larger multi-million-dollar projects that align with the legislature's vision for higher education statewide. These plans include new buildings and large renovations for all arts buildings on campus. The Minor Works projects are smaller-scale proposals for projects like an elevator in the Art Annex.

Hough also said Western is trying to streamline integrating operating dollars and capital dollars, or day-to-day operations and long-term operations.

“By guidelines from the state, you're not able to intermix those kinds of funds,” Hough said.

According to Morrow, the design department is shortlisted on the 2024 Supplemental Capital Budget Request under the Classroom, Lab and Collaborative upgrades for improvements in the Fine Arts Building 101 computer lab.

“Our professional design program is highly competitive, has a high graduation rate and produces successful employment opportunities. It is in [the legislatures’] best interest to provide better resources to a program like ours that contributes many successful design thinkers into positions within the statewide industry and economy,” Morrow said.

The capital plan submitted for 2023-25 removed the College of Fine and Performing Arts Renovation and Addition proposal and substituted it with two projects called Academic Renewal I and II. According to the 2023-33 capital plan, these are two phases of renovation planned for the Wilson Library, Performing Arts Center, Fine Arts, Arts Annex and Humanities buildings.

The funding request in the document says, “This project will request pre-design funding in the 2025-27 biennium, design funding in the 2027-29 biennium, and construction funding in the 2029-31 biennium.” This means another decade before renovation takes place if funding is granted.

“Design is in everything, and everything is design,” Cadran said. “So it’s frustrating when [designers] are depended on in the real world, but we don’t have places to learn and flourish.”

Ayden Sweat

Ayden Sweat (he/him) is a campus news reporter for The Front this quarter. He is a third-year student and a Visual Journalism pre-major with an interest in photojournalism and layout design. In his free time, he frequents the outdoors, hosts a radio show at KUGS-FM, and collects a variety of physical media. Ayden can be reached at

Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2024 The Western Front