Planning for Successful Design

Institutions of higher education are putting more emphasis than ever before on the physical plant that serves their students, faculty, and administrators. Instead of some small classrooms with moveable seats and some large auditoriums with fixed seats, which were the trademark of universities since the dawn of time, many institutions are now commissioning unique and specialized spaces. As a result, there are new and emerging approaches, tools, and techniques for planning, designing, and constructing learning spaces.

Examining the Motivating Trends

There are many motivations for this trend, but there are three that rise to the top as being the most pressing and urgent.

First, across the country, colleges and universities are facing increasing competition. More students than ever before are applying for college, and they are more prepared to meet and exceed admission standards. Therefore, middle-of-the-pack universities must have a competitive advantage to attract some of the smartest applicants. A modern, high-tech facility with desirable learning and living spaces provides an advantage for recruiting.

Second, many colleges and universities are facing budget cuts to academic departments and operations. New facilities being designed must often meet the demands of multiple departments and the challenges of inter-departmental co-existence. A related issue is funding. New and innovative facilities create naming opportunities, which can drive design and usage.

Finally and most important, there is now a much deeper understanding of how students learn and evolving teaching methodologies that drive planning and programming across departments. Universities are being challenged to meet the needs of all sorts of students, as opposed to catering to what was perceived as the homogenous masses in the past. Facilities are being planned for students who are visual learners; those that are auditory learners; those that learn best in groups; consume information from doing; or need quiet, solitary space. A rich combination of all of these options is best suited to meet the changing needs of colleges and universities.

Incorporating Best Practices
Given all these drivers for space design at colleges and universities in 2011 and beyond, there are some best practices that should be incorporated into any new or renovated space to facilitate healthy and effective learning.

1.    Understand the User — The first step in creating space for learning understands the learner and teacher. For academic buildings, there must be a clear identification of curricula and methodology. Will the space be used to teach business, science, or the humanities? What classes will be taught? How many students will be in the space at any given time? Will students work in groups or will classes be primarily lectures? The answer to each question will necessitate different design attributes, features, and surroundings. Many universities will find that they have multiple answers for each question, meaning the space will need to be mixed-use. Those complicated requirements must be carefully managed. Lighting, materials, and furniture should all be selected to support the goals for the space, both for their aesthetic appeal as well as their function.

2.    Consider the Whole Campus — Learning does not only take place in academic buildings. Residence halls, centers for learning/excellence, and student centers have replaced libraries as secondary learning spaces over the past 10 years. The use of space for learning, therefore, must be considered campus-wide and the mix of individual and group, quiet and loud, and specific and general spaces should be planned and designed to contribute to the whole. Outdoor spaces at many universities are preferred by students for reading and should be added to the plan, as should dining spaces, where students may meet to discuss a project over a meal. Students may finish a paper on their laptops at the gym before a big game or be up long past midnight finishing an experiment. “Learning space” should be redefined and reconsidered to create educational infrastructure everywhere.

3.    Plan for the Future —
Many colleges and universities are growing quickly; others need to renovate and refurbish only. Institutions of higher education should regularly maintain a Facilities Master Plan that coincides with and supports the academic and research master plans. For example, if there is an objective to grow the Communications School, spaces specifically dedicated to broadcasting or online media may make sense. If the plan is to attract a multi-year grant for life sciences innovation and commercialization, wet labs next to incubator offices might be necessary. Either way, the Facilities Master Plan will help to ensure university return on investment in learning space.

4.    Incorporate Technology —
Technology is essential in pretty much every learning space today. But how it is used and incorporated varies widely. WiFi access should be universal, which means that the signal needs to carry through building materials easily. More specific technology, like audio and visual equipment, sound systems, wireless devices, Bluetooth, and a variety constantly changing demands, are becoming the center of the learning experience. Spaces should therefore consider this and support both the technical and academic necessities. There are a multitude of new design features, layouts, and materials that can be incorporated to maximize a university’s technology investment.

5.    Be Sustainable — The speed at which university learning spaces are being designed, created, renovated, updated, and repurposed is head-spinning. For that reason, it is critical that design strategy and materials both be sustainable. Spaces that embrace the environment and surrounding campus landscape are becoming more popular with colleges and universities as well as students. Low water usage, solar energy, sunlight/daylighting, and green roofs are all tools that can be utilized in fresh, bright, dynamic spaces that students enjoy and want to inhabit. These features have the added benefit of contributing to the overall wellness of the campus.

The most important thing to consider when creating spaces that encourage learning is that they must be as diverse as the learners themselves. They must support the academic goals of the students and the business goals of the institution. This creates a robust and healthy educational ecosystem that will foster growth both for the individual and the group.

Michael Prifti, FAIA, is the managing principal at BLT Architects. More information is available at or or on Twitter @MikeFAIA.