Halls of Learning Emulate Workplace Design

Just as increased collaboration and changing work habits are reshaping the office environment, market forces are transforming the design of classrooms and schools. These tech-powered, flexible educational spaces enhance the learning experience while helping students to develop collaboration skills that many of them will need in their chosen careers.

Three trends driving these changes are: a growing consumerist approach to pursuing an education, the need for cost control and advancements in teaching and learning. Each of these trends affects schools, universities and for-profit providers and, as a result, has significant implications for owned and occupied real estate in the education sector.

Appealing to the Student Consumer
Today’s young job applicants frequently ask potential employers how their work will add value and fit into a larger mission, and many will choose employment based on their personal values. They are more likely than previous generations to demand social and environmental responsibility from their employer, and to expect a variety of nearby housing, dining and entertainment options, preferably within walking distance of their job and public transportation.

Many students take a similar, consumer approach to education. They seek practical skills with applications in solving real-world problems. They know the training they want, what they expect to pay for it and when and where they plan to receive it. If they can accomplish this without making lifestyle sacrifices, even better.
Educators competing for promising students can cater to these demands by offering an appealing learning environment and the right mix of amenities for socialization and collaboration. More and more education centers occupy converted downtown office buildings or even multi-tenant properties that provide convenient student access and urban, live-work-play amenities, which may be lacking on a traditional campus.

Cost Control Measures
Some education providers are choosing to free capital for operations by leasing instead of owning their space and are amortizing tenant improvement costs over their lease terms. At the same time, creating a more flexible environment with better space utilization that considers new, integrated methods of learning can reduce square footage requirements, bringing down costs.

Lecture halls and classrooms, for example, are being replaced by multiuse rooms with advanced audio-visual capabilities, much like the team rooms in a modern office. Instructors and students simply log in to call up course materials, rather than relying on props and fixtures that would limit a room’s use to a single field of study. Dissimilar courses use the same room in succession with little down time, compared with traditional classrooms that are seldom used more than 40 percent of the school day.

Needs vary widely and depend largely on the coursework offered. A university may need to modernize aging buildings or convert lecture space to laboratories, for example, while another school may seek to eliminate excess square footage and add food services and collaboration areas. Many schools are using sale-leaseback transactions to finance investments in mechanical systems, technology enhancements, aesthetic upgrades and health and safety improvements.

New Thought on Learning
In most areas of study, today’s coursework de-emphasizes lectures and instead puts students to work attacking real-world issues, often collaborating in small groups that may cross disciplines. Off-site practicums augment learning with real-life experiences in the surrounding community, which raises the importance of the school’s location. Because learning takes place anywhere the individual or group chooses to work, building designs must accommodate and encourage this collaboration.

The newest educational facilities offer features that have taken hold in the business world, including WiFi connectivity throughout the property. Libraries, corridors, courtyards and coffee bars offer seating where students can gather, complete with charging stations and glass walls or marker boards for writing. Some gathering spots will include multimedia equipment and large video monitors for student use.

Food and beverage options are critical, because they enable students to remain on the property, rather than sacrifice learning time traveling to and from off-campus eateries. In addition to a café or cafeteria, the coffee bar is another addition that many learning institutions are borrowing from the modern workplace.

Tying It Together
Part of the design challenge in these new learning centers is to retain and project the school’s identity in a multipurpose facility, often in a vibrant urban environment that competes for its students’ attention. This is important for long-term funding, because tomorrow’s alumni contribution is often determined by today’s student experience.

As with companies, each school has a brand that helps to differentiate it in a crowded marketplace. Graphics and color are important elements that distinguish the property and provide branding and cultural messaging. These visual touches also constitute a low-cost solution that helps to build student loyalty.

Given their shared goals of attracting and retaining bright minds, it isn’t surprising that educators and office developers today employ many of the same tactics when it comes to real estate. Both are intent upon cultivating a broad range of holistic amenities at and around their properties, keeping in tune with a live-work-play-learn lifestyle.

About the Author

Phil Utigard is executive vice president and leader of Transwestern’s Education Advisory Group, working with public and private universities; for-profit institutions; vocational, professional and charter schools; and private equity firms to address complex real estate challenges. Mr. Utigard can be reached at [email protected] or 312/881-7060.