Furnishing for Technology

Colleges and universities are transforming their teaching methods and reconsidering how they use technology to better enhance the learning environment. Richland College has accomplished this in the design of its new LEED Platinum-certified Sabine Hall science building. Wanting to meet faculty needs as well as the expectations of students who are more connected and facile with technology, Richland enhanced the ways professors teach, students learn, and how students, faculty, and administration engage technology.

Richland College is one of seven colleges of the Dallas County Community College District. The new $34M, 118,000-gross-sq.-ft. Sabine Hall science building, designed by Perkins+Will, set out from the beginning to strengthen the college mission of “Teaching, Learning, and Community Building,” and to create a learning-centered environment dedicated to science education. Given these objectives, it was important the building strike the right balance of borrowing from successes of the past while also engaging the technologies of the future.

At Home in Sabine Hall
Sabine Hall provides a new home for the associate degree sciences in biology, chemistry, physics, and geosciences. It houses teaching labs, science faculty offices, the Science Corner tutoring space, campus bookstore, and coffee shop. At the outset, the project team established clear goals and objectives for the facility: spaces must be flexible; technology must be engaging and easy to use; rooms must integrate natural light wherever possible; design must include places for collaboration and socialization; and the building must incorporate environmentally sustainable features, systems, and furnishings. Sabine Hall is the culmination of these goals, meeting the needs of students and instructors while also creating an atmosphere that encourages interaction and collaborative learning with easy access to technology. 

A consistent theme of material reduction throughout building design and selection of finishes and furnishings was carried out. This “non-additive design” philosophy is illustrated by exposed two-story concrete atrium columns and minimized use of fabric and cushions to reduce the material usage.
To support the science division’s existing curricula for preparing and distributing lab kits, the project team organized the floor plan along a centrally located “spine.” This layout provides an efficient laboratory preparation zone and full technology utility service to all 16 labs. The wide orientation of seating and benches not only innovatively combines classrooms and labs, it also maximizes viewing angles, strengthens efficiency, encourages collaboration among students working in teams, and places students in closer proximity to the professor. These spaces assure and easily accommodate maximum enrollment for both degree and non-degree students, especially during the fall semester when demand is at its highest. Learning environments planned for class sizes no larger than 30 students allow for quality access to instruction and maintenance of the ideal 24:1 student/teacher ratio despite the ever-present challenge with which community college administrations must contend: natural attrition.

Support for Sustainability
High-quality furnishings and fabrics increase the overall character of the furnishings and building environment. All are GREENGUARD certified for air quality, using formaldehyde-free products made from recycled or recyclable materials. Materials also reduce maintenance — such as Crypton fabric, constructed to minimize the amount of liquid seepage — especially appropriate for labs and public gathering spaces. Fabric wrapped “crushed can” freestanding stools were used to resemble the molecules profiled in the terrazzo atrium floor.

To support new instructional modes, the learning environment layout allows the instructor to immerse him- or herself in the space — to be anywhere in the room — while granting visual and physical access to every student. Every seat is a “good” seat with optimum viewing angles. Every student has clear sight lines to moveable dry-erase whiteboards and projection screens, and the instructor can maintain constant good visual contact, elevating the room’s level of safety. Other key features include the 4-in. by 30-in. inlet grill in the island bench that provides easy convenient access for student laptops, and a down-draft exhaust (intended for the limited use of small amounts of low-level hazard chemicals) serving as a cost-effective alternative to expensive fume hoods for low-level experiments.

To remain consistent with the other buildings on campus, FSC-certified rough-sawn red oak was specified for the lab casework and moveable furnishings. A light grey epoxy resin top, which better reflects light while enhancing the quality and appearance of the learning environment, replaces the traditional black tops. Faculty offices utilize all natural corkboards for capturing messages while freestanding glass marker board partitions, separating the science corner from the faculty offices, serve as an organizing element while encouraging interaction.

Equipped for Distance Learning
Every classroom/lab and conference room supports distance learning. One ceiling-mounted PTZ camera promotes interaction between students and professors. Multipurpose conference rooms both serve as classrooms and offer additional lecture space for centrally broadcast lectures, seminars, and meetings that faculty can show campus-wide, district-wide, or via the web. Document cams with vertical and horizontal display of 2D- and 3D-images provide every student an unobstructed view of course material and experiments. Eight-unit and four-unit wireless microphone systems are available in conference rooms, along with an integrated multimedia lectern. Two-unit wireless microphone systems are installed in each classroom for voice recording to support lecture capture.

Each room contains a convenient WiFi touch panel control with a wall-mounted charging and docking station. The wireless panel controls all room functions, including projectors, projection screens, audio volume, and the switching of projector input from PC to DVD to document camera or digital microscope content, making access to information easy. Wall-mounted plates providing analog and digital audio-video connections are conveniently located above countertops. Equipment racks are mounted in millwork below counters with rail slides and rotating platforms for simple access and maintenance.

A high-speed information transport network supporting both wired and wireless technologies throughout the building for laptops, iPads, and other mobile devices makes accessing information easy. Students have the opportunity to take classes via webcast or online course-management systems accessed from PCs for e-learning, course lessons, class notes, or obtaining a course syllabus. Security access, control, and camera surveillance for exterior and interior doors utilize card swipes with a central control programming station.

Richland College, like many colleges and universities across the country, is transforming its learning environments and reinventing how the community teaches, learns, and uses technology. Recognizing current and future curricular requirements in a learning-centered environment and balancing strategic use of technology without breaking the proverbial “technology bank” allows higher education institutions to be flexible, well furnished, responsive, and innovative in the delivery of modern science education.  

Richard M. Miller, AIA, NCARB, LEED-AP BD+C, is a principal and Higher Education Market Sector leader for Perkins+Will-Dallas. He can be contacted at Richard.Miller@perkinswill.com. Kurt Albach is director, Media/Production Services for Richland College. He can be contacted at KAlbach@dcccd.edu.

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