The underlying calculus of exceptional business school design. Part I, the process

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 1 of a 3-part series.
By: , and | October 12, 2021
Wake Forest University, Farrell Hall School of Business, Location: Winston-Salem N.C. Architect: Robert A M Stern Architects

The edict in the post-pandemic academic landscape is the same as it was pre-pandemic:  business schools must optimize their competitive advantage by giving students facilities that support collaborative, cross-disciplinary education.

Technology is an even bigger driver of instructional design than it was in the pre-pandemic world. Hybrid education has particularly significant impacts on the design of teaching spaces. As virtual learning has proven its viability, the physical classroom must “up its game” by providing the interaction that serves as the benefit of being there in person.

Curricula and degree programs are evolving rapidly, so being flexible is a “must.”  Academic departments, however, are rarely configured for flexibility. 

As a result, if you are 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. Setting up the right process is the most important.

Process Makes Perfect.  When undertaking any sort of transformational project, establishing a decision-making structure is of paramount importance.  Your organization is set up to make academic decisions. You will probably find that a different “org chart” is necessary to make the many strategic and tactical decisions that a building project requires. Once you have set up your structure, it is important to clearly articulate the programming and design process and share it with all decision makers and project participants so the entire team can establish a realistic project schedule that includes meeting dates, deadlines, and deliverables. 

This helps stakeholders understand exactly what deliverables to expect from the design team, when to expect them, and why their involvement is crucial to the end product. Below are several process-related items to consider when planning and designing a business school project.

Reflect the school’s internal organization.  Colleges and universities are consensus-based institutions. Everyone has a voice and is accustomed to being heard. One of the most challenging conversations is when architects explain to business school leaders the difference between the focused and linear process of planning and designing a new building versus the more iterative and democratic way they manage their programs.

One effective strategy is to assign an individual from the college, preferably with close ties to the faculty, to manage stakeholder participation such as setting meetings and encouraging feedback. Ideally, this coordinator communicates with stakeholders on a daily basis and can confer using their common daily language.  Through departmental representatives, the business school faculty and staff can provide input regarding pedagogy, learning environments, and optimal class size. It needs to be understood that the coordinator will have quite a bit of additional duties from this role, which could amount to the equivalent of a half time or even three-quarter time role.  As such we have seen some institutions hire outside consultants to help with this decision making and organization.  One thing to note is that this role is in addition to the one the University or Facilities Project Manager plays within the process.  

Vision = Goals + Decisions.  Be clear and direct about establishing a project vision, identifying goals, and identifying a decision-making structure in an organized manner. A shared set of goals frames the conversation and provides designers and university leaders a reference point for decision-making.  A clear statement of purpose can be extremely valuable months into the process if a difficult decision must be made.

The design team facilitates, focuses, engages and guides the process. Often a steering committee is charged with setting goals and making critical decisions to ensure that the stakeholders who need to provide input are invited and participate.  A good rule of thumb is to limit the number of committee members. Nine is generally appropriate; it’s a big enough number to encompass a range of opinions, but still small enough to accomplish things with that many people in the room. The odd number also ensures a single vote to facilitate decision-making, if necessary. 

Getting out of the comfort zone.  Getting buy-in for alternative approaches can be organizationally, politically, and logistically complicated, since planning a new building is a process which most users have likely never been through. With rapidly changing pedagogy and increasing competition, however, the next generation of business schools demands meaningful thought about the future.

Design team leaders can articulate emerging business school design trends, share benchmarking data, and identify alternative classroom configurations to help faculty and administrators think beyond how they have approached learning environments in the past. 3D drawings, photographs of existing installations, visiting peer facilities, and classroom mockups are all tools architects use to help educators envision possibilities for their new spaces.

Ideas take time to percolate.  One of the most important things to remember is that design takes time. Even if leaders can get all the right stakeholders in a room for the visioning session and project team leaders come away with a clear set of project goals, stakeholders need time to digest and review the information. Business school faculty are accustomed to analyzing data but need to build “think time” into the process and schedule. 

It is never too early to talk about budget. Technology and furniture for business schools often cost significant dollars. It is best to start talking about your technology and furniture budget earlier rather than later in the design process to avoid “sticker shock.” 

Projected costs should be compared against benchmark data from peer institutions and be aware of “gray areas” that can sneak up and challenge the budget. One such culprit is window shades, which can sometimes get lost between hard construction costs and furnishings. Everyone wants light in their classrooms, but digital media is best viewed in light-controlled environments.  

Flexibility vs. Decision-avoidance.  In response to digital technologies and evolving teaching methods, flexibility has become the mantra of educational design. In principle, flexible classrooms can allow educators to teach in multiple styles within a single space. In practice, flexible classrooms can be less effective than targeted classroom design and can be harder to maintain and pay for in first cost.

Coming to consensus regarding a preferred spatial organization is understandably difficult, so many business schools default to generic flexibility to avoid decisions rather than to provide valuable adaptability for real needs.

Part II of the Series The underlying calculus of exceptional business school design – flexibility will explore strategies to maximize the business school learning environments’ flexibility while minimizing capital outlay.

Doug Neri, AIA, NCARB, is associate principal/director of education practice at GFF.  He can be reached at  Jon Rollins, AIA, NCARB, is Principal at GFF.  He can be reached at  Kevin Smith, AIA, is Partner with RAMSA and can be reached at

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