Creating Collaborative Space

The Dos and Don'ts of designing learning facilities for today's interactive students.

Collaborative Spaces 


Collaborative learning involves teamwork, as does the designing of environments in which collaborative learning can thrive. As educational facility design experts, SHW Group knows what works — and what doesn’t — when it comes to creating collaborative spaces that allow for multiple uses and accommodate multiple learning styles. When creating collaborative spaces, keep the following in mind.

DO make collaborative spaces intentional, not just accidental. Spaces that are simply “stuck at the end of a hall” won’t foster the type of collaboration and innovation that is possible through deliberate design.

One approach is to strategically locate collaborative spaces en route to specific destination zones. At Western Michigan University’s (WMU) Sangren Hall in Kalamazoo this concept was utilized, looking at classrooms as a destination and incorporating collaborative zones outside of classrooms. These spaces provide an area for students to gather before and after class to review notes or study.

DON’T underestimate the power of food and beverages to attract people. This is especially true when it comes to creating destination zones within a building or campus. It’s important to understand the social aspects of collaborative spaces and why people want to work together at the café.

A café area was located within Grand Valley State University’s (GVSU) Mary Idema Pew Library, Learning and Information Commons in Allendale, MI, and strategically positioned collaborative spaces were placed along the route to the café. Users, drawn into the building by the primary library mission, soon discover the café situated in a location surrounded by other collaboration opportunities. The café will fuel the energy level and unique learning habits of today’s students.

“Virtually everything about the Mary Idema Pew Library, Learning and Information Commons is engineered to meet the unique habits and learning needs of today’s students. The café will provide opportunities for spontaneous collaboration as well as space for students to take a break from their work,” says James Moyer, associate vice president for facilities planning, GVSU.

DO understand one size doesn’t fit all. By incorporating spaces of varying size, scale, visibility, and technology, users are able to choose the space that works for them.

Flexible elements were incorporated throughout Sangren Hall and informal learning opportunities for groups of two to 20 were integrated into the building circulation. Banquette seating featuring embedded technology is placed throughout and all corridors incorporate a playful notion of seating with both small and large group configurations. For students who prefer a quieter environment, enclosed rooms on the first and fourth floors can be utilized by small groups or for individual study.

 “We predict that every student who graduates from WMU with a four-year degree will have had at least one class at Sangren Hall. Thus, it was critical that the facility include spaces to meet the needs of every WMU student, no matter their major, study habits, or learning needs,” says Peter Strazdas, associate vice president, facilities management, WMU.


DON’T limit flexibility and fluidity — encourage it. Mobile furniture and different types of furniture allow users to reconfigure a space depending on their uses and preferences.

Furniture should support both social and academic uses, student/student interaction, and student/faculty interaction. A current trend in higher education is the breakdown of faculty to student hierarchy, moving from the “sage on the stage” to more “guide on the side.” Furniture is one way to support the more approachable nature of the relationship by providing more casual settings for students and faculty to interact.

DO hide in plain sight. Collaborative spaces should provide a sense of limited privacy and separation while still allowing a view out. Furthermore, overly enclosed spaces provide opportunities for mischief.

At Jackson Community College’s (JCC) Health Laboratory Center in Jackson, MI, SHW Group located curved glass breakout spaces along hallways. The glass walls provide a sense of privacy for users without completely disconnecting them from the rest of the building. For students working on raw information, plasma screens that face away from the main circulation provide privacy.

“We wanted the Health Lab to have spaces that felt connected, yet separate. Utilizing glass for transparency wherever possible promotes a sense of togetherness and showcases the intellectual pursuit of knowledge within the space,” says Daniel J. Phelan, president, JCC.

DON’T shhh. People will self-regulate and find areas that align with their noise-level needs. One way to signal appropriate noise levels is by incorporating visual cues that trigger appropriate behaviors.

Varying degrees of quiet and active spaces were incorporated into GVSU’s Mary Idema Pew Library, Learning and Information Commons and utilized the books themselves to signal quiet zones. Books are housed on the east side of the building, offering spaces for quiet study, while the furniture on the west is more team-based to promote active learning.

DO provide technology-rich spaces, but not for only one use. Both high-tech tools that support collaboration and low-tech tools like whiteboards should be incorporated in order to meet a range of needs and used to complement one another. Providing surfaces on which students can scribble is important, and is leveraged by the fact that they can take a photo of the work, make a PDF, and send it to the whole group.

Strategically locating collaborative technology is important. DON’T litter walls with plasma screens. Often they will go unused. And, more importantly, DON’T assume students know how to use the technology. Even tech-savvy people sometimes need help understanding new technologies.

DO understand the power of collaborative spaces as a recruitment/retention tool.

At Angelo State University’s Porter Henderson Library Learning Commons in San Angelo, TX, a traditional campus library was renovated, resulting in a learning, information, and student resource center, making it a campus destination.

During the visioning process, it was discovered that most students sought off-campus destinations for collaboration. The renovated facility is designed to encourage on-campus study by providing an environment that serves the needs of various groups, supports their distinct learning relationships, and fosters interaction. By removing stacks and adding a variety of spaces, like a coffee bar, students collaborate in a comfortable, functional space, reducing the need to utilize off-campus meeting spaces.

“Student usage of the facility is up nearly 200 percent from the pre-renovation record student usage. The Porter Henderson Library Learning Commons has been a true evolutionary process that has resulted in a facility where students can meet, collaborate, socialize, present, and of course, learn,” says Maurice Fortin, library executive director, ASU.

DON’T limit the benefits of collaborative spaces to only new construction projects. The same principles can be implemented in renovations.

At J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College (JSRCC) in Richmond, VA, there existed a recognized need for collaborative spaces, and it was understood that those spaces should be varied to accommodate different users. The seven-story vertical campus, originally constructed in 1979, was lacking collaborative spaces and featured a low, dark entry.

In response, the first and second floors were connected to provide a more open, student union feel and consolidated the library, incorporating adjacent collaborative spaces. Designers transformed previously underutilized hallway spaces by opening exterior walls to provide natural light and creating small group collaborative spaces.

 “The renovation not only added collaborative spaces expected by 21st-century students, but also opened up the building by bringing in more natural light, creating a more inviting space and enhancing the overall learning environment,” says Mark W. Probst, director of facilities management & planning, JSRCC.

By following these strategies for designing successful collaborative spaces, designers can implement a range of innovative spaces that support users needs today and teach the skills students will need in the workplace. 

Tod Stevens, AIA, LEED-AP BD+C ([email protected]) is a principal at SHW Group with an expertise in library design. Stuart Rothenberger, AIA, LEED-AP ([email protected]) is an associate principal at SHW Group, specializing in higher education.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management June 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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