Focus on Function

The days in which a professor stands at the front of a huge room and simply delivers a lecture while students dutifully listen and take notes are disappearing. Today’s students and educators demand far more interaction and flexibility. Thoughtful facility design can help colleges and universities meet these expectations.

This article explores design trends and shares some best practices for creating academic facilities. By keeping these guidelines in mind, academic institutions can create environments that help them deliver outstanding learning and work experiences.

Promote Collaboration and Interaction

Educators recognize that people learn in different ways, at different times, and in different places. This knowledge is transforming how higher education environments are being designed, particularly as it relates to supporting students working together in teams.

In the classroom, educators are increasingly serving not as “talking heads,” but as leaders of an interactive learning experience in which students work together in small groups. Rather than being stationed at the front of the room, the instructor is placed at the center, where he or she can interact with the students. Flexible room configurations and technology allow teaming, with students typically working in groups of up to 10 people.

As an example, the Health and Life Sciences Building at Elgin Community College in Elgin, IL, features classrooms with small breakout spaces, rather than large, static lecture halls.

This is a dramatic departure from the traditional tiered lecture hall, and the trend applies to other interior and exterior spaces on campus, too. Thanks to the growing use of mobile technology, students expect their learning experience to extend beyond the confines of the classroom. Educational facilities, therefore, often now include non-traditional spaces, such as cafés, for group work and casual interaction.

Provide Spaces for Individual Work

While it is important to include environments for teaming and social interaction, there is also a need for spaces designed for distraction-free individual study or work.

For example, while faculty members spend much of their time interacting with students, their work also includes many “heads-down” tasks that require a quiet place that promotes reflection and focus. Having a dedicated space that is well designed, including the appropriate furniture and finishes, allows instructors to devote the required attention to these tasks while also demonstrating that the institution appreciates its employees.

Design for Flexibility and Freedom

Higher education facilities must be designed to accommodate a variety of learning styles and meet the needs of all students. For example, some students learn better by working independently, but they still need an environment that encourages participation. A thoughtfully designed space can accommodate both needs. The right furniture and well-placed alcoves can enable students to be part of the group while also providing space for focused study and allowing students to maintain their independence. Window study bays provide personal zones that remain connected to the group study area.

Similarly, students want the freedom to work the way they want to and where they want to, whether that means interacting casually, participating in more formal groups, or working individually. They expect around-the-clock access to casual, communal spaces, such as coffeehouses and cafés. The interiors of higher education facilities must support the educational process 24/7.

Provide Daylight

Increased access to daylight has been shown to improve an individual’s mood and his or her ability to manage stress. Teaching and learning environments are, therefore, being designed with more open floor plans that provide greater access to daylight.

For example, Elgin Community College filled its Health and Life Sciences Building with natural light by maximizing exterior windows within Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines, and then used clerestory windows to bring that light into interior classrooms and key student collaborative areas.

Create Interprofessional Spaces

Increasingly, college and university facilities are being designed to bring diverse programs — engineering, nursing, and business, for example — and their research functions together in a single, shared facility. This approach can bring both cost and operational efficiencies. More importantly, it creates opportunities for interprofessional collaboration and interactive learning while helping to bridge academics with business (bench, to bed, to market), giving students a more well-rounded experience.

Facilitate Real-World Training

Academic institutions are using more hands-on, less theoretical teaching methods that help students to transition more smoothly into the work world. This approach is also influencing the design of facility interiors.

For example, as in “real-world” hospitals and clinics, front-of-house/back-of-house functional separations are being implemented in dental, nursing, and allied health educational buildings. In addition to creating a more true-to-life learning experience, these separations improve patient flow and provide a safer environment for such tasks as equipment sterilization.

The use of impactful design and “real-world” finishes, materials, and color palettes in training areas can further help simulate the environments that students will ultimately work in after graduation. Colleges and universities should not feel limited to staying within the realm of “academic” design, but rather strive to strike a balance between a traditional classroom environment and a simulated health care environment.

Offer Simple, Clear Wayfinding

Intuitive wayfinding — understandable spatial organization that guides people as they move through a facility — improves the experiences of students, faculty, staff, and visitors by helping them easily locate and arrive at their destinations and steering unauthorized people away from restricted areas. Wayfinding can be enhanced in many ways, including but not limited to the effective use of color, material, and social clues.

Express Your Culture

Every academic institution has a unique culture and sense of institutional pride. Well-designed interior spaces and environmental graphics create places where colleges and universities can celebrate their history by sharing what makes it unique to be part of that institution. Keeping the collegiate spirit alive by creating a place that supports the values and energy of the institution directly impacts student, faculty and staff satisfaction and differentiates an institution from its competition. 

In higher education, it is difficult to predict needs two years out, let alone what the needs will be throughout a facility’s typical multi-decade lifespan. By creating thoughtfully designed interiors that focus on flexibility, colleges and universities can help ensure that their facilities are able to adapt to the ever-changing landscape in education and continue to deliver exceptional student and faculty experiences. 

Larry Schnuck, AIA, is a senior design principal at architecture and experience design firm Kahler Slater and is team leader for the firm’s Higher Education and Academic Health Sciences practice areas. He can be reached at [email protected] or 414/290-3714.