Design Trends in Higher Education Facilities

Following this month’s release of College Planning & Management’s 2009 Annual College Construction Report, we talked with Avi Lothan, FAIA, principal at DeStefano Partners, a Chicago-based architecture and design firm, about current and future trends in higher education construction and facility design. Mr. Lothan discussed the current trend toward multipurpose space and 24/7 learning on campuses, hopes for projects coming out of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and tech-savvy community college programs.

From the architectural and design standpoint — what trends are you seeing in higher education facilities?

Avi Lothan:
Well, higher ed architecture is really following what’s going on in higher ed in terms of teaching pedagogy: where people spend their time. Historically what colleges have done really well is focus on what happens in the classrooms. Recent trends are really focusing on what happens outside the classroom.

A lot of teaching happens on a 24/7 basis, a lot of learning happens in the context of other students — people who are not necessarily your professors. A lot of time is being spent thinking about the extended lives of these facilities on a late-night, afternoon, in-between-the-classroom standpoint to foster the kind of interaction between students and other students, and students and faculty, that supports this 24/7-view of education.

Historically, universities’ facilities, even basic arts and sciences buildings, spent most of their energy and budget dealing with the classroom. Now we’re spending a lot of time looking at the public spaces — what happens outside the classroom. So every building now has a coffee bar or some sort of social opportunity. Residence halls have coffee bars too, but they also have libraries, classrooms, computer labs. The idea, now, is both teaching and socialization of students happens all the time in all sorts of locations; therefore, buildings are becoming more multipurpose in their programming. They’re recognizing that all sorts of interesting things happen in a corridor, outside the classroom in a corner conversation with a professor.

A lot of education happens even when a faculty member is not there; they’re trying to capture those activities in the school and in the classroom buildings and make them purposeful. I think that’s an interesting trend. Even down to building window seats in corridors, those sorts of things. Those attempts to capture improvisational experiences between students, faculty, administration, and graduate students are really a source of enrichment in the campus life. Colleges and universities now are very focused on recognizing the value of those opportunities and creating special places for them.

What changes can colleges and universities expect to see coming out of the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act? Increased funding for research, corporate and academic partnerships, enrollment in certain fields? Will this affect higher education facility design?

Avi Lothan:
We can only hope. It seems to be a moving target. I can tell you what my impressions are. I don’t have enough detail to be authoritative about where the money is really going to go. But there are a number of clear opportunities within what I’m reading.

Obviously money is going to go to basic research, which is a big issue. That’s been a trend in higher education — if you look at a lot of the construction over the last five, ten years, it’s been in research and facilities for science teaching. I’m sure we’ll see that and more of it.

You’ll also see a lot of education at the community-college level. There’s a lot of deferred interest in community colleges, but they’re limited because they’re publicly financed. So hopefully there will be money to expand programs at that level.

And I think that will have two places. One, there is pent up demand for community college programs. We’ll also see community colleges getting a shot in the arm because a lot of the retraining of the newly unemployed will happen at that level.

The third thing that I think will translate into significant construction activities is an emphasis on sustainable design with public buildings. So, where possible, especially with public universities, community colleges as well, you’ll see money going to sustainable design initiatives that should translate into long-term operating efficiencies and cost reductions for those institutions over time.

Community college enrollment has seen an increase as we’ve headed further into the economic downturn. What kind of facility trends have you seen there?

Avi Lothan:
A lot of programs are being re-tooled, but there are some clear trends even at the community college level, and that’s just reflecting larger social trends as well.

For example, there’s a significant amount of growth in health careers — nursing, dental hygenists, people to operate high-tech equipment like CAT scan machines and MRI machines. These are year-long programs in community colleges, and you’re seeing community colleges build buildings with MRIs and CAT scans and all this expensive equipment just to teach people how to use it. That is a trend we have been seeing for a number of years now, and you’ll see that continue and expand.

The other is that even what you might consider old-style industrial art activities are being recast in 21st-century terms. [For an example, at one college] there are computers in every classroom. So even the grease monkey in the auto mechanics class needs to be able to deal with high-tech, computer-driven diagnostic equipment that wasn’t even part of these programs several years ago. So, the technical infrastructure of teaching, even in old school programs, has changed fundamentally, and a lot of money will be invested in upgrading those facilities to support it.