A New School of Thought on Collaboration Spaces

Many of us can envision the college campuses and classrooms of generations past, where students filtered in and out of buildings and classrooms with little engagement in between. More often than not, the spaces outside the classroom — the hallways, the entryways, the staircases — weren’t conducive to collaboration or creativity, but rather simply for moving from one classroom to the next.

Today, architectural design elements in higher education are moving beyond the four walls of the classroom. Designers have begun to focus on how to make the most of each and every space in the campus setting. Instead of being restricted to the traditional classroom alone, modern design makes use of previously unlikely places, such as corridors, rooftops, outdoor areas, entryways and staircases as opportunities for students to meet, collaborate, study and relax. In fact, architects and designers are spending more and more time thinking about how interpersonal interactions impact building design, delivering more ways students and faculty can work and learn together, and also create pathways that serve students well as they move into collaborative work environments in their post-graduate careers.

Find Collaborative Opportunities

When it comes to collaboration spaces, the goal is to provide areas outside of the classroom for students to engage with others or become engaged in their work. This might take effect in small groups, peer-to-peer interactions and even individually for focused independent work. The key is offering spaces to support all the ways students learn and achieve, especially in areas outside their traditional class environments. These might include corridors, entryways and staircases.


Corridors provide a key means of transportation from point A to point B, and many students find themselves walking substantial distances throughout a typical day. However, campus planners are taking cues from students who tend to congregate, socialize, study and relax between classes, often in makeshift spaces along the walls of wide hallways. Architects and designers can make the most of these passageways by designing touch-down spaces along the walls with benches, bar-height work surfaces, writable surfaces and plenty of outlets and USB ports to encourage students to make use of these intermediate areas to charge their phones, check emails, jot notes or hold quick study sessions.


Much like corridors, entryways carry a lot of potential for students coming together in the minutes before or after class. Building and classroom entryways are popular gathering spaces for students to socialize, cram in a last-minute study session, debrief after class or chat with faculty. Designing wide entries with plenty of room to come and go, as well as flexible seating and places to set bags and backpacks, can make for a comfortable and calming transition area that naturally lends itself to collaboration.


Particularly in older buildings, staircases might feel narrow, enclosed and dark — hardly a place to linger and do productive work. Yet, more and more designers are creating and renovating stairways designed to encourage chance encounters, with comfortable spaces tucked nearby for an easy transition from stair climbing to brainstorming. Wide open and well-lit stairways make it comfortable for students to take a moment to catch up with peers or professors without feeling cramped or rushed. What’s more, designed amenities like lounge areas on landings and study carrels around the corner from the top or bottom steps can give students convenient places to touch down and spend a few minutes chatting or checking emails or texts before moving to their next destination.

Staircases can also create opportunities to connect to daylight. Known as biophilic design, upgrading stairs with views of the outdoors can encourage students to take the steps instead of ride the elevator, helping to improve students’ outlook and well being.

Consider Seating Arrangements

Generally speaking, getting people together to connect and share ideas is easier and more natural when they have a good place to sit. Designing a variety of seating types into different types of spaces encourages conversation and collaboration while accommodating a range of different postures, from sitting to standing to lounging. This can not only increase an area’s utility, but also its comfort and accessibility.

Consider the differences between a traditional, hard study table and more comfortable and relaxed lounge chairs or a sofa. This change of posture can affect how students feel in different physical spaces, as well as what they hope to achieve there. Diverse options, such as standing height surfaces and barstools as well as traditional tables and desks, can encourage different kinds of activity. You might design a laptop bar along a corridor, and a bank of desks in an otherwise unused corner. In these ways, architects and designers can make the most of spaces with slim profiles or snug corners. 

What’s more, mobile furniture helps give students more control when it comes to seating different group sizes in different spaces. Sectional couches, ottomans that double as seats and mobile writing surfaces can all give students greater ownership over their learning spaces, which can lead to exciting ideation opportunities and community-building gatherings.

Take Cues From the Corporate World

When architects and designers take cues from designing for corporate clients, they can think beyond the four walls of the university in order to create collaboration spaces that offer spontaneous and informal connections, as well as spark more creative sessions. In fact, students entering the workforce today require the kind of soft skills necessary for collaboration and complex problem solving. Enhancing the spaces that support further learning and collaboration with peers and faculty helps students to build these skills and be better equipped to enter the workforce upon graduation.

All told, part of the evolution of the college campus involves enhancing the student experience throughout the campus, not just within the classroom. By providing opportunities for students to engage one another in spaces that are accessible, comfortable and flexible, these social and educational experiences can happen more easily and spark all sorts of learning and growth opportunities — whether at a desk or under a staircase.

About the Author

Tracy Tafoya is a LEED-AP and OZ Architecture principal with more than 25 years’ experience as a designer. Tracy leads OZ’s Interior Design studio, bringing a fresh perspective to libraries, higher education, corporate offices and more. Visit OZ at www.ozarch.com and contact Tracy at [email protected]