With each passing year, colleges and universities are challenged by an evolving array of external forces. Today, higher education is facing new trends: advances in technology, emerging new user needs, increasing demands for real-world learning environments...and the list continues.
An institution's ability to respond to new trends directly affects its ability to compete in the academic arena and fulfill its mission. As a result, institutions are developing long-term strategic plans for resources including capital, people, technology, information and, of particular importance, facilities.
Changing views Colleges and universities, like the private business sector, commonly have viewed their facilities as a necessary evil that is non-returning. However, funds deployed in institutional facilities can-in fact, must-be expected to produce a return by advancing the institution's mission and competitive advantage.
But how can an institution make this happen? Institutions can produce a return from their facilities by strategically controlling those costs that do not directly support their mission and productivity. At the same time, they must gain additional advantages from those costs that do. In other words, if an institution's real estate is directly adding value to its mission-advancing learning through technology and cabling infrastructure, meeting the new needs of users, creating innovative real-world learning environments-then that same real estate is systematically providing a return.
Given the trends facing higher education today, how can institutions design their facilities as strategic resources? Each member of a project team-including the client, architect, and other designers and engineers-must strive to fully understand the trends and their long-term implications. This understanding helps team members consider design guidelines and measure the effectiveness of potential solutions as they plan for change.
Technology in the classroom The primary components of education are changing. The Internet and videoconferencing are emerging as primary tools of education. As the potential of inexpensive, user-friendly technology increases and the platform of available information expands, classroom design is increasingly hinging on technical standards.
Students' access and learning processes also are affected. The newest benefactors of these implications are non-traditional students and students in rural communities, as access can be gained from nearly anywhere at anytime.
However, students in the classroom also are finding gains. The primary impact in the classroom is on how students receive information and, therefore, learn. Increasingly, lecture information is transferred electronically to students. And, in some classrooms, students are equipped with electronic workstations.
What does all this mean for classroom design? The whole idea is to view a classroom as a hollow shell "wet" with technology. This has caused planners to rethink classroom design at two broad levels: technological infrastructure and space planning.
For technological infrastructure, classrooms are being created with strategically placed cabling and wiring raceways. In addition, it is important to incorporate empty conduit throughout facilities, thereby providing the channels to run future cabling and wiring raceways. By incorporating this conduit, a classroom becomes a strategic resource, positioning an institution for changes and advancements in technology.
Maximizing flexibility is not only important for planning technological infrastructure, but also it is a primary key for space planning. Creating flexible classrooms means designing spaces with proportions to accommodate a variety of functions, instead of just one specific learning activity that could potentially hinder future possibilities. Designing classroom spaces as column-free space and minimizing permanently attached hardware-desks, seating and even today's latest technology-also helps to achieve the hollow-shell effect.
Emerging user needs In addition to classroom design, technology is affecting user needs as well, including social interaction and workplace productivity. While the implications of technology are fragmenting academic life, they are impacting workplace efficiency in a positive way. This has prompted project teams to incorporate responsive designs into campus planning and facilities.
How can institutions design for the exchange of ideas and interaction to improve academic life among all users? The goal is to design public spaces for increasing interaction. This means creating spontaneous visits among students, faculty and staff. While multiple types of spaces are conducive to greater faculty, faculty-staff and faculty-student exchanges and interaction, public spaces-both indoor and outdoor-are among the most popular places to attract people.
To achieve this goal, project teams should consider successful precedents incorporated in public spaces of the past. Most people know of the great town squares in Europe and of the forums in Greece. The public naturally gathered in these places. These areas joined a community allowing people to eat, stroll, visit, trade or relax together.
By applying the precedents-overlapping circulation arteries, access to water, cultural identity, marketplace, sunlight, etc.-found in these historical areas, project teams serve the social needs of users by creating a new or enhancing an existing public space or "campus" town center. In addition to creating the space, incorporating unique features, such as a fountain, greenery or benches, helps draw people to a public place. Lounges designed as subspaces allow users to see and be seen, giving public spaces a source of identity and a sense of place for the campus.
While historical precedents and features encourage natural chances for people to unite, technology also can play a role to connect people. Interior public spaces present an opportunity to incorporate technology into campus design. By incorporating outlets where people can access power and the Internet with their own PCs to work or study, students and faculty are drawn out of computer labs and private spaces to a public space where they can collaborate together.
Designing for productivity Faculty, staff and administrators need spaces that efficiently support academic workplace functions. The desired results are design solutions that accelerate productivity, stir creativity and enhance teamwork. By designing for these results, a facility advances its value as a strategic resource.
To create effective workplace design, research must be conducted at multiple levels. Accurate, value-adding results depend on asking the right people the right questions. This means interviewing the people who will work in the space and asking questions revolving around what they need in order to establish requirements.
When the research is complete, issues such as storage, adjacencies, teaming, location of people and the real relationships that define departments are explored. Therefore, project teams measure the effectiveness of potential design solutions from the inside out: from individual staff positions to departments to the facility as a whole.
In addition to workplace relationships, interior finishes-color, materials and textures-that support the total design of the space also must be considered. Although needs are explored from the inside out, materials and finishes decisions aim to draw the outside in. This creates a dynamic design process and innovative environments.
In addition to traditional academic environments-classrooms, public spaces and the workplace-an emerging trend to provide real-world learning environments is on the rise in higher education.
Real-world learning environments are environments where students apply what is learned in the classroom as they would in an internship or as a young professional. What does this mean for higher education? Among many issues, flexible spaces must be designed to support these specialized functions. In order to design spaces that foster these specialized functions, planners need to gain a thorough understanding of the program.
One such example is a healthcare clinic. At a conceptual level, a dozen or more students will be observing a faculty member or professor conduct a live demonstration of a procedure on a patient. The primary design challenge becomes allowing students to observe what is happening and capturing that experience for later review.
This is best facilitated with technology. For a clinical setting, cameras and monitors are designed in the clinical room allowing students to not only observe the procedure firsthand, but also to view the procedure live via monitor. Recording the procedure allows students to have video documentation of the lesson and the ability to review it later.
In addition to facilitating the learning process, creating an environment seamless to the actual setting also is part of the design challenge. Creating the feel, if clinical, is about creating an emergency-room atmosphere. This not only is achieved in the space design and finishes, but also with the hardware, equipment and furniture that completes the environment. Incorporating the appropriate measure of flexibility into the design solution is examined on a case-by-case basis.