Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

The Challenge of Making Buildings Flexible: How to Create Campuses That Adapt to Changing Needs

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

The Challenge of Making Buildings Flexible: How to Create Campuses That Adapt to Changing Needs

Article excerpt


MANY OF THE TOP COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES in the country have invested hundreds of hours in developing master plans for their campuses that include both a philosophy and an action plan for buildings, landscapes, roads, student housing, safety, walkways, and integration with surrounding communities. These master plans convey a vision that spans decades and serve as blueprints for the desired student life and learning environments. However, all master plans grapple with an inherent tension: while their goal is to offer clear, detailed guidance, they are subject to revision based on changing needs.

This idea-the requirement for flexibility in response to changing needs-is becoming a norm in the planning process and is now being acknowledged in most college and university master plans. Here are a few examples:

* Middlebury College (n.d., p. 1): "The Middlebury College Campus Master Plan is intended as a flexible instrument to guide the physical development of the campus over the next half-century."

* Harvard University (2013, p. 53): "This Vision provides generalized and flexible parameters to guide the build out of other Harvard landholdings in the longer-term."

* Wellesley College (VSBA 2013, p. I-1): "Meet current and anticipated program needs, with enough flexibility to accommodate evolution of programs and pedagogies."

* Holy Cross (Porter 2006, ¶ 2): "No institution, academic or otherwise, can survive without paying careful attention to its own shifting needs in the face of evolving social and intellectual realities in the world at large."

Taking flexibility into consideration when developing a master plan has become best practice on a national and international scale as practitioners aim to address our constantly evolving world. A white paper published by the International Facility Management Association (2009, p. 16) includes this description of a strategic facility plan (SFP):

Regardless of the tools used in the development of an SFP, the SFP should be viewed as a living document that reports findings and makes considered recommendations for implementing the plan within a realistic time frame, yet maintains flexibility to adapt as business requires.

However, the concept of flexibility is in direct conflict with the nature of most buildings. Historically, college buildings have been considered permanent structures-landmarks designed to stand forever. This is apparent when exploring the quads and commons of many universities. From the Gothic dining halls at Princeton to Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia, the long-standing nature of campus buildings conveys a sense of being "steeped in history" and adds to the stature of the school. But, increasingly, schools are under pressure to evolve and modify facilities to meet the demands of new programs. This is most apparent in the technology and engineering fields, STEM curriculum, and even some liberal arts programs.

The students of this generation are among the most skilled users of new technology; they grew up with a smartphone in hand and Google at their fingertips. An article titled "Students of Today and Tomorrow" by leading architectural firm Perkins+Will (Poelker 2010) points out that the Millennial generation has grown up in an environment where technology is ubiquitous and, therefore, information is limitless. By combining the tenets of student-centered education with the familiar aspects of technology-driven environments, school facility design can begin to connect with students in an entirely new way.

For this reason, many forward-thinking academic institutions are revisiting their classroom design and facilities plans to maximize learning outcomes. A pilot study by the University of Salford and architects Nightingale Associates found that the classroom environment can affect a student's academic progress over the course of a year by as much as 25 percent (Barrett et al. 2013). …

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