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August 20, 2015

Six trends shaping the future of campus design

  • Northwest schools are changing because of technology, shifting demographics and new ways of learning.
    Perkins + Will


    As our region continues to grow, colleges and universities are facing a shifting economic, sociodemographic and environmental climate.

    To adapt, many institutions across the Pacific Northwest are taking a strategic approach to campus and facilities planning to ensure they have spaces, both indoor and out, that address recent evolutions in teaching, learning, research and community engagement.

    Trends include:

    • An increasingly diverse student base. From returning and first-generation students to international and students entering directly from high school, institutions are addressing a more complex student body than ever before.

    With one of the most diverse student populations in the state, Bellevue College accommodates a wide range of preparation levels and learners.

    The institution is undergoing a campus master plan, including assessing how well the physical campus currently and in the future will address its varied student needs. The answers will inform a campus plan that sets project priorities as a reflection of college priorities.

    • New ways of learning. Recent advances in brain science and learning research provide insights into how people learn and the many different styles of learning.

    Photo by Tim Griffith, courtesy of Perkins + Will [enlarge]
    Informal learning spaces offer students the chance to collaborate in and out of the classroom.

    “Active learning” in the form of hands-on, project-based work that includes peers as both co-learners and teachers is one of the most effective. This calls for a different approach to coursework and a different type of classroom.

    At Seattle Pacific University, the move toward active learning has changed some of the course curricula and the evaluation of teaching space campus-wide. While some classrooms will continue to be dedicated to a lecture format, others are planned with a lower occupancy with movable furniture, technology-based groupings and display/projection throughout the room.

    • Doing more with less: Faced with reduced funding and pressures to lower the overall cost of education, both public and private institutions are encountering a future of having to do more with less. Adaptive reuse can be one of the most effective strategies to reducing capital costs, as well as one of the most sustainably minded.

    After careful planning, Central Washington University has successfully garnered state funding to transform a vacated student union building that sits at the center of campus into the campus communications and technology center. Part of this achievement was the result of the university’s approach to planning, which includes diligent efforts to clearly tie project requests with the university mission and vision, the long-term campus plan, and current and future needs.

    • Integration of technology: Technology is expanding opportunities for access to online lectures, digital immersion and collaboration between faculty and students in remote locations. When content is gleaned from an online experience, the time spent in the physical classroom and on campus becomes even more critical to maximizing the experience and interaction among students, faculty and staff.

    A Digital Classroom Building at Washington State University is planned to be a high-performance learning environment that leverages the range of technologies and experiences that promote deep learning and student engagement.

    Photo by Ben Rahn/A-Frame Photography, courtesy of Perkins + Will [enlarge]
    This computer classroom is designed so students can work alone or in groups.

    This will be accomplished with a technology-rich building that showcases state-of-the-art approaches to learning, yet promotes engagement and community with numerous open, informal learning spaces and classrooms.

    • Blurring the boundaries: Teaching, learning, research and community engagement are at the heart of most academic institutions. The campus and its edges are where all can come together.

    The importance of interdisciplinary work across learning, research, community and industry engagement is increasing, and institutions are developing deliberate ways to collaborate between disciplines and constituents. Interdisciplinary programs like environmental studies and multidisciplinary research such as bioengineering help to address some of society’s most pressing concerns.

    Similarly, blurring traditional program and physical boundaries both within the campus and at the edges strengthens the student and faculty experience by bridging education and research with community and industry.

    Bates Technical College in Tacoma holds partnerships with local industry throughout the area including apprenticeships on campus, growing health care programs that offer practical experience, participation in downtown Tacoma’s revitalization, and programs for students in the Tacoma School District. Such connections are only expected to expand in the future.

    The college’s 2014 master plan update features strengthened connections between the campus and the downtown neighborhood while reinforcing college identity. This symbolically, functionally and physically serves to better integrate the college with its partners and surroundings.

    Similar approaches can be seen in plans developed for many other campuses, including the University of Washington, Seattle University and South Seattle College.

    • Being flexible, being nimble: Among all of the trends noted, flexibility in the physical environment and the long-term plan is the most important.

    The trends above underscore the ubiquitous nature of higher education’s persistently changing conditions and advancements. An institution’s planning and design strategy must support a fluid environment where teaching methods, technology and new ideas are continually evolving along with traditional spatial and departmental boundaries, and community and industry relationships.

    Both the Seattle University major institution master plan and similar plans for the University of Washington and South Seattle College identify overall space needs for future growth in the long-term plan, with specific uses and timing kept relatively flexible. This allows for inevitable changes that will occur within the university and college, yet offers a clear physical framework of connected open space, circulation and development within which the campuses can evolve and grow.

    The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the finest colleges and universities in the country. These institutions’ very nature as forward-thinking, environmental stewards and major contributors to the world through education, workforce training, research and community support offers vital contributions to us all, including fabulous campus environments.

    Thoughtful facilities and campus planning will help to safeguard their future as integral players in the region and guardians of the future of students at all levels of learning.

    Brodie Bain is the campus planning director for the Seattle office of global architecture and design firm Perkins + Will. She has worked on more than 30 campuses around the country.

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