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Architectural Design Trends in Higher Education

Wireless technology and distance learning impact classroom design

Architectural Design Trends in Higher Education

Jan 17, 2007 12:00 PM,
By Linda Seid Frembes

Wireless technology and distance learning impact classroom design

Higher-education enrollment is on the rise, fueled by the addition of traditional full-time students and of non-traditional students such as part-timers and distance-education enrollees. This upward trend is driving schools to not only upgrade existing facilities but to also build new ones. According to Reed Construction Data, construction spending on education facilities is forecast to increase 11.7 percent in 2007. Growth is led by states such as Texas, which, in July 2006, passed a bill that would allocate $1.9 billion for construction development at its colleges and universities. The positive growth has spilled over into the architectural design community where the higher education market now accounts for 7.7 percent of 2005 billings (according to the American Institute of ArchitectsBusiness of Architecture: 2006 AIA Firm Survey).

“We try to plan for future flexibility in our designs and encourage clients to accommodate for future change,” says Alan Cobb, FAIA, vice president and director of architectural and design services for Albert Kahn Associates (AKA) in Detroit. AKA’s higher-education clients include the University of Nebraska, the University of Indiana, Boston College, Washtenaw Community College, Oakland University, Ferris State University, The University of Michigan, and Michigan State University. “That means incorporating shafts, vertical chases, and raised flooring in new construction, but such modifications can also be a major hurdle in existing buildings,” Cobb says.

“Even in the concept phase, clients are already thinking of technology,” says Paul Viccica, senior associate, senior designer, and project manager for CBT Architects in Boston. Viccica primarily handles academic work for the firm with higher-education clients including Babson College, Wellesley College Colby College, and Bryant University. “The IT staff gets involved upfront and brings an understanding of the technology needs.”

The notion of preparing for future technology has not radically changed in the past 100 years. In 1903, AKA founder Albert Kahn designed The University of Michigan engineering building, today known as West Hall. The firm began infrastructure renovation work at West Hall in 2003 and discovered that Kahn had developed an early raised-floor system using reinforced concrete. “He was probably planning for the possibility of lab plumbing or lab gas lines since it has always been an engineering and naval architecture building,” Cobb says.

Recently, for the Michigan State engineering building and materials research center, Cobb’s design used a pedestal floor to accommodate current and future technology. He noted that contingencies such as structural capabilities are still important; more so considering the push for a room to be a universal space used for any function.

“The flexibility of a room is important. There are twenty different professors who teach 20 different ways,” Viccica says. “They want a certain consistency of the room but also multiple display screens that can be configured to suit their needs. The standard teaching wall has been replaced with multiple layers of media.” According to Viccica, this affects sightlines and the placement of equipment which results in the students sitting further back from the professor to get the full view.

The want for a universal teaching space also affects storage of the equipment. “The professor needs equipment to be right at the teaching wall so it’s convenient to pull out and set up before class,” Viccica says. “If it’s not convenient, they won’t use it.”

“Components are getting smaller, but that just means you can have more of them,” Cobb adds. “Vertical chases and computer closets are often used to discreetly conceal equipment and technology.”

“As technology evolves, it plays a factor in the ease-of-use in a room. There are few dedicated classrooms anymore,” Viccica says. However, purpose-built rooms such as laboratories and data centers are straightforward designs and still have a place on a university campus.

Distance education, another hot AV topic, continues to evolutionize higher-education classroom design. “The collaborative approach to curriculum planning will change American universities,” Cobb says. “At Oakland University’s School of Business and Information Technology Building, we recently incorporated ‘collaboratories’ or breakout rooms as part of the classrooms. These breakout rooms can be used for collaboration or for distance education.”

Viccica cautions his clients against adding distance-education facilities just because everyone else has it. Incorporating distance education into a room means reviewing subsystems, lighting requirements, and room configuration, and Viccica finds that clients are often not thinking that far in advance. “It’s a big investment, so the cost versus benefit must be weighed,” he notes.

No matter what the project, both Cobb and Viccica agree that it is critical to bring in the AV consultants early in the process, including the master planning and programming phases.

“Miscommunication often occurs because programming is interpreted via the architects rather than the AV consultants hearing it firsthand from the client,” Viccia says. “People don’t realize how important this step is in the creation process.”

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