The underlying calculus of exceptional business school design. Part II, flexibility

To create a best-in-class business school facility to recruit and retain top teaching talent and students, you must manage three key factors of success—process, flexibility and cost. Part 2 of a 3-part series.
By: , and | October 13, 2021
A James Madison University study room. Study rooms are always an ‘if you build them, they will come’ scenario. You can rarely build too many of them.

In Part I of the Series, drivers and insights for the planning process to design best-in-class business school facilities were explored. Now, as in the pre-pandemic landscape, business schools optimize their competitive advantage by providing students with facilities designed for collaborative, cross-disciplinary education. The three factors for a successful business school facility, one which recruits and retains top educators as well as students, are process, flexibility, and cost. The process must begin the journey to exceptional business school design and include a clear vision that allows goals to be easily identified and the decision-making structure to function effectively. Next comes the strategies to maximize the flexibility of the business school’s learning environment.

Flexibility and Adaptability. Is it necessary to reconfigure a classroom between class sessions to accommodate different disciplines? Or is it best to provide for long-term adaptability to unforeseen needs?

The latter approach requires designing a room as a system. Partitions made of drywall and studs rather than concrete, power and data run in a cable tray above the ceiling rather than buried in a wall or floor, and plumbing and HVAC running outside the space are all good approaches to maximize future adaptability.

Goal setting early in the design process is crucial. Design teams need to understand what educational leaders seek to accomplish with flexible rooms before beginning space planning. Prioritizing goals rather than solutions during visioning allows leaders to make decisions without getting tangled too early in dollars and cents.

For example, operable partitions and room dividers seem to be an easy solution to enhance flexibility. However, the more ease of movement and sound control, the bigger the price tag. And even motorized partitions may require maintenance staff to operate and clear furnishings out of the way. If the primary goals are sound isolation and cost control, a flexible classroom that relies on movable partitions may not be the best solution.

Another example is tiered classrooms. The conventional wisdom is that tiers are antithetical to flexibility. However, tiers can be a very effective way to ensure good sightlines and, therefore, classroom attention. Some versions of tiered classrooms can also provide easy transitions from lecture to group collaboration mode, ensuring flexibility in use, even without built-in flexibility for reconfiguration. Rather than adopt a “one tier fits all” policy, it is best to consider what configuration works best for the business school’s pedagogy, aligning the design with project goals and priorities from the visioning session.

In any case, platforms should be constructed of light-gauge framing or access flooring rather than solid concrete so they can be more easily removed if future requirements change.

Information Technology considerations. According to a survey by McGraw Hill Education, over 80% of students bring multiple devices to class. Phones, tablets, laptops, and smart watches function best with both data and power connections at the student’s fingertips. As we’ve seen in the most recent technology conferences, all of the industry leading designers (Apple, Samsung, etc) are doubling down on the interconnectivity of their smart devices. The challenge to higher education is adapting the software and pedagogy to stay nimble enough to maximize their potential. These are simple solutions, yet often overlooked during budget exercises, that the design team can provide to support the faculty.

Device-centric classrooms require connectivity to the internet, to other devices in the room, and to each other. Network bandwidth requirements to support active learning environments will continue to increase dramatically in higher education facilities, especially in business schools, where it is important to emulate the technology-enabled work environment that students will enter after graduation. Convenient access to power, without cords creating a trip hazard, remains crucial.

Instructional technology has continued to evolve, with demands for more screens, input sources, and cameras that affect classroom configuration at the very outset of the design process.  As virtual learning continues to gain importance, getting the technology right is even more crucial. And hybrid learning makes even more demands on both technology and classroom configuration. A recent client found that in a mixed classroom, the online students lost crucial connections in teamwork and pedagogy if they did not have a visual presence in the room. As a result, they added two monitors to every classroom, one facing the instructor and one facing the in-person students, so everyone could interact more directly with the online students.

Data infrastructure needs to be considered during the planning process to ensure students will have continued access to materials required for their coursework, and project design teams can recommend strategies to allow future upgrades without disrupting service.

Information Technology (IT) and associated AV devices are a significant line item in the construction budget for a new school of business, and planners need to balance today’s costs with tomorrow’s flexibility. Leaders should recognize that a technologically state-of-the-art building has associated soft costs as well, including additional IT staff to keep it running properly and train faculty and students in its use.

Social Spaces. Social spaces within an institution of business learning are vital to the development of the student body. This cannot be overstated. Examples of these room types are study rooms (aka breakout rooms), large atria, multi-purpose rooms, and many other types.

Study rooms are always an ‘if you build them, they will come’ scenario. You can rarely build too many of them. The breakout room sizes we are accustomed to seeing are between 4-6 people depending on the desires of the institution and, more particularly, the size of the standard group within the pedagogy model.

There also can be a need for, albeit fewer, rooms that can handle a size between 8-12, especially for smaller classroom sections that are more prevalent in graduate studies. As these classes typically meet less regularly the rooms can double as study rooms and conference rooms.

The beating heart of many modern schools of business is the commons. This is a space where students should congregate, along with faculty and visitors. The design of these spaces can be tricky—it wants to be both crossroads and living room. Too big and it feels cavernous, too small and it doesn’t feel like the place to be. See the photo to the side of the new perfectly proportioned atrium space at James Madison University.

Part III of the Series The Underlying Calculus of Exceptional Business School Design – The Cost will address the total budget as well as cost controls to ensure the goals are achieved while minimizing capital outlay.

Doug Neri, AIA, NCARB, is associate principal/director of education practice at GFF.  He can be reached at doug.neri@gff.com.  Jon Rollins, AIA, NCARB, is Principal at GFF.  He can be reached at jon.rollins@gff.com.  Kevin Smith, AIA, is Partner with RAMSA and can be reached at K.Smith@ramsa.com.

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