What is the State of the Higher Education Industry?
DLR Group Principal Stu Rothenberger, AIA, sat down with School Construction News Managing Editor Zach Chouteau to discuss the state of the higher education industry, as well as a few of DLR Group’s current projects.
ZC: What do you think is the most pivotal trend today in the area of higher education design?
Rothenberger: One of the most influential trends we’re seeing in higher education design is the ability to be responsive to the ever changing demands of students and the marketplace. Colleges and universities must be willing and able to create environments that are representative of the workplaces of today and tomorrow, and institutions that recognize the need to be nimble – to change programs, facilities, and curricula quickly, and advance how education is delivered – are flourishing.
And this trend applies to all campus buildings, not just academic facilities. Consider the campus library. Cutting-edge libraries are transforming overnight from stand-alone facilities to online, virtual experiences that support a global student body. Campuses that do not prioritize evolution in the way they deliver access and resources will simply not survive.
Arapahoe Community College Sturm Collaboration Campus in Castle Rock, Colorado by DLR Group. Rendering © DLR Group.
ZC: What recent project of yours have you found the most interesting or unique?
Rothenberger: Two current DLR Group projects offer unique solutions tailored specifically for their local stakeholders. Sharples Dining Hall at Swarthmore College is a campus landmark that has played a significant role in shaping the student experience on campus for decades; however, the beloved facility has become physically too small to comfortably house the student body. Plus, the current dining program is in need of an overhaul to better align with students’ dietary preferences. DLR Group is converting the existing dining hall into a community commons to create enhanced opportunities for socialization among students, staff, and faculty. Our design for the new dining hall accommodates a progressive culinary experience offering gluten and allergen free options and international and locally-sourced cuisine, and allows for demonstration and teaching to be a part of the student dining experience. This project, which is nestled among the 425-acre Scott Arboretum on campus, will transform campus life. It is projected to be net zero and will look aggressively at waste reduction as well as its overall carbon footprint.
DLR Group’s design for Arapahoe Community College’s new Sturm Collaboration Campus in Castle Rock, Colorado, is a transformational example for community colleges nationwide. The campus brings together education, business, and community to enhance the educational offerings and experiences for learners. DLR Group toured and interviewed local businesses and also facilitated discussions with the economic development council to pinpoint programs and elements that would first, draw business leaders onto campus and second, cater specifically to in-demand careers in the greater Denver metropolitan area and across Colorado. This early collaboration contributed to the overall design of a campus where students work alongside community and industry partners in hands-on learning, real-life scenarios, and internship/apprenticeship collaboration activities. The facility also provides much needed revenue generating event spaces, including a rooftop garden that can double as a wedding venue and multiple meeting spaces available for community use.
ZC: How has higher education design transformed the most significantly over the past 10 years?
Rothenberger: I see a couple of areas of significant change in the higher education industry. First, flexible design has evolved beyond interior features such as moveable walls and furniture or writable surfaces that allow students to customize their environments, into whole building solutions that serve multiple uses throughout the day. Campus buildings, classrooms, and lecture halls are no longer one-purpose spaces designed only for instruction. Today, institutions across the country are implementing flexible building and interior design that allows these spaces to provide 24/7 access for multiple users, ultimately creating revenue generating opportunities via increased access to business and community groups looking for a space to hold events for professional and personal needs.
The second significant change is that all institutions, regardless of two-year or four-year status, are seeking ways to incorporate programs and facilities that better prepare students for local and global in-demand careers. Decades ago, career and technical facilities and innovation centers were closely aligned with community colleges; now, specialized training facilities are popping up on public and private universities across the country. Designers are responding by creating facilities that can evolve as programs and curricula evolve, as well as spaces that can easily transform to respond to the unique needs of the local and global marketplace.
DLR Group facilitating 360-degree engagement. Photo by Trevor Dykstra.
ZC: When it comes to a successful higher education project, what do you think is the crucial ingredient?
Rothenberger: The single most important key to success is following a 360-degree engagement process to give every stakeholder a voice in the project. Throughout my career, I’ve come to realize there’s one component central to creating spaces where students, educators, and administrators can thrive: the students, educators, and administrators themselves. It is the personal conversations and engagements that uncover the nuances that make a good project a great one, and that ultimately end up reflecting the culture and needs of the campus. In our planning and design phases, DLR Group engages with campus communities through steering committees, in person meetings, person on the corner interviews, and student group and stakeholder meetings. This level of engagement creates momentum and stakeholder buy-in that is critical for long term project success and campus enrichment.
ZC: What one piece of advice might you give someone new to the higher education design industry?
Rothenberger: My best advice is to look ahead, don’t look back, because higher education design is constantly evolving. You will find yourself in a stalemate if you adopt a ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’ mindset. Starting every project with a blank slate allows you to understand the real issues or challenges inherent with each assignment and to address them with fresh and innovative ideas.
This article was originally printed in the March-April 2019 issue of School Construction News.