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‘Student experience’ critical to design and construction of colleges and universities

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by Dan O’Reilly last update:Dec 2, 2016

Participants at a recent seminar sponsored by consulting firm Arup were told online learning and other factors are ushering in a wave of changes in the design, delivery, use and location of colleges and universities.
‘Student experience’ critical to design and construction of colleges and universities

Speaking to a packed audience at Arup's Toronto office, a four-member panel of speakers from the fields of architecture, engineering and academia said the learning process is evolving and that will impact architecture and the built environment.

"A professor standing in a room with 500 students could be a thing of the past," said Daniel Teramura, a partner at Moriyama & Teshima Architects, referring to a possible future scenario where online learning replaces large lecture halls.

Flexibility and adaptability in design are crucial, he said, pointing out that while buildings are expected to have a 50- to 75-year lifecycle, program and space requirements do change.

Post-secondary institutions should "be buildings with dignity" that complement the spaces around them and are timeless in design. New iconic buildings may seem dated at some point in the future, he cautioned.

Some of the harbingers of change that will and are shaping educational building design include reduced government funding, the Internet and the increased expectations of students, "who pay a lot of money for their education and are reacting like consumers," he said.

Peering into the future, Teramura presented a number of different scenarios. Noting that technology is a driver of change, he said the proliferation of online courses may impact the demand for building spaces.

On the other hand, there may actually be an increased need for more buildings if post-secondary institutions become more engaged in community involvement.

Moriyama & Teshima is currently conducting a study for Wilfrid Laurier University on the feasibility of repurposing a large commercial building, he said.

Sometimes academic spaces have to be reallocated. Citing a study his firm conducted for one institution on a perceived lack of classroom space, Teramura said the study revealed most of the classrooms were primarily occupied from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday.

Toronto's Ryerson University is already heavily engaged in community involvement, said its director of design and construction capital projects, Monica Contreras.

It has a co-operative relationship with the City of Toronto and always engages its residential and commercial neighbours over proposed development projects, she added.

Referring to the amount of onsite redevelopment occurring at its downtown campus, she said that Ryerson is "giving old buildings a new purpose."

However, like all universities, it is "always catching up on deferred maintenance."

As an example, she cited poor evaluations a number of teachers at another institution were receiving from students. Most of those teachers taught in the same room that an inspection revealed had poor ventilation.

The "student experience" is very important in the design and construction of colleges and universities. One of the most important buildings at Ryerson is the Student Learning Centre because it is a community space that fosters social and educational interaction, said Contreras.

After a class students often gather around a table to discuss and debate the issues and ideas raised by their professors, said Luigi Ferrara, dean of the Centre for Arts, Design and Information Technology at George Brown College.

In response to a question about changes in the next 20 years, Ferrara said he could see a time where more institutions might occupy former retail sites.

Heather Fraser, adjunct professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, was the fourth speaker. One of her suggestions was that colleges and universities be designed to accommodate a student mix comprised of both millennials and older people wishing to further their education.

In opening up the seminar, Zoran Markovic, an associate principal with Arup, said the panellists were selected because of their professional experience and passion.

The seminar was moderated by Francesca Birks, an associate with the Foresight, Research and Innovation division of Arup's New York City office.

last update:Dec 2, 2016

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