We are a firm who actively listens — and what we’ve heard from our clients is that outdated collegiate spaces are getting in the way of progress. Hundreds of higher education projects over the last decade have taught us that spaces are constantly challenged with evolving needs. The architecture that supported innovation in the classroom of yesterday might stand in the way of progress today. While we can’t anticipate every trend, we can design spaces to be ready to support organizations as they adapt and grow.

The Shift to Conversations

Among our clients in the higher education community, we’ve seen the focus shift in recent years. To achieve the ambitious missions set by most colleges and universities, institutional growth plans have to go beyond simply attracting more and brighter students. The focus has shifted to promoting highly visible research and securing grants as a business model. 

This shift calls for dynamic spaces that support collaboration and conversation in a new way. Lab researchers in particular are expanding beyond the wet lab environment and physical “doing” spaces. Experimentation will never go away, but research lab environments continue to evolve, and the shift is toward conversations. 

Designing the Solution

In today’s research space, ideas often move quickly from discussion around the water cooler to digital modeling of a proposed scenario, all outside of a highly specialized testing lab. One person at a computer calls for a very different environment than a team bouncing ideas around, and both are distinct departures from the “lab” of yesterday. 

In a workshop during the early stages of design for the Malachowsky Hall for Data Science and Information Technology at the University of Florida, faculty members compared academic research to operating a small business. To remain competitive, they explained, Principal Investigators must plan, market, sell, and manage their teams just as a small business would. Ultimately, this conversation led us to a floor plan that empowers research teams to scale up and down and customize their space in real time as teams shift and research projects evolve.

The need for space to flex and change for the specifics of any given grant or research initiative applies across the entire campus. It’s important to consider that needs will change from project to project, whether it’s the number of people using a space, its infrastructure or location, or highly specialized equipment requirements. 

Leaning into Listening 

Modern-day higher education is as much about the transfer of knowledge as it is about building students’ character. Whether it’s living, social, celebratory, or quiet spaces, institutions are beginning to recognize the need to provide students and faculty with the kinds of spaces that support life outside a classroom or lab. 

Colleges and universities are embracing the attitude that peer-to-peer learning, exposure to diverse experiences, and a new kind of classroom dialogue contribute to student success. Removing barriers to conversation builds soft skills and authentic communication that strengthens the university community and its students. Replacing closed-door offices with co-location and conversation spaces is one concrete way that design can enhance dialogue and cross-pollination of ideas. 

The leaders and innovators of tomorrow are built by the colleges and universities of today. As students graduate into an increasingly complex world, and universities operate in an increasingly competitive environment, the success of both begin with the experiences shaped on campus. Purposeful space cultivates pioneering research and learning: agile and collaborative campus spaces contribute to the success of the doers and thinkers of the future.