Creative Solutions

Trends in higher education are leading a transformation of buildings and interiors on college campuses, says Melanie Conant, NCIDQ, director of Interior Design for the Boston-based firm The Architectural Team. The solutions can be simple: Use furniture to better respond to today’s campus dynamic.

University officials increasingly value collaboration, “informal learning” and ways to spruce up classrooms and common areas while keeping costs low. “Often the solution is to create new spaces in existing buildings,” says Conant, “using creative approaches with furnishings, lighting and other relatively inexpensive approaches.”

The Architectural Team’s expertise in adaptive reuse of older buildings, coupled with Conant’s significant experience, has led to a few valuable recommendations:

  1. The workplace crossover. More and more, higher education interiors are starting to resemble new corporate workplaces. The corporate world has embraced the open-plan office, for instance, and Conant now sees that happening on college campuses.

    Conant recommends that underused private faculty offices be converted to meeting and conference rooms with shared workspaces and desks available. Today’s less formal workplaces also use “breakout spaces” with small furniture groupings — some of them grouped around an interactive screen — as well as lounge-type seating with electricity and data plug-ins. Conant also recommends moveable furniture, which students can adjust themselves and adapt to suit the moment’s need.

  2. Capturing open space, indoors. Big open spaces can actually help students to focus, especially when they are designed to be filled with natural daylight.

    “The healthiest kind of illumination is daylight,” says Conant, “which helps students stay alert and feel part of an active environment.” Another advantage of open space is flexibility: colleges can use modular, partition-type walls that move like furniture and furniture on casters, allowing students to easily open spaces for club meetings, parties, a movie, a music or theater performance, or a reading or guest lecture.

  3. Reinforcing community on campus. Feeling like a part of a community can improve student performance as well as retention rates, recent research has shown. Well designed and inspired spaces can help to create this atmosphere.

    Community can be expressed in many ways. Apart from the informal gathering spaces, comfortable furniture and daylight already mentioned, providing ease of access to shared resources can reinforce a positive group dynamic. Spaces that convey a sense of security help, too, by making students feel safer among their peers. And a sense of community integration can perhaps be fully expressed through creative means; for instance, large-scale locally produced artwork can express shared community ideals or tenets.

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

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