In today’s competitive higher education landscape, institutions face increasing pressure to develop students who are truly ready to enter the workforce. Students are seeking colleges and universities that will best prepare them for successful careers. Businesses are seeking graduates with a deep disciplinary knowledge in at least one field, who also have the capability to adapt that knowledge across disciplines.
Many higher education institutions are building new facilities to foster innovation and better support workplace readiness, ensuring students can make an immediate impact upon graduation. Concepts like the “T-shaped professional,” where interdisciplinary curricula asks students to collaborate and communicate across disciplines, are being increasingly emphasized. As designers we must consider how design supports these learning environments to truly allow for cross-pollination of ideas and encourage innovation and exploration.
Co-Locating Disparate Programs
Interdisciplinary building programs involve deliberate sharing of physical space between departments that have often been historically separate. At the Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation at Santa Clara University, the campus is co-locating 13 previously disparate STEM programs into one building. Departments will be physically sharing teaching and research labs, project spaces, classrooms, and support space. Shared project spaces, to be located throughout the building, are designed with baseline flexibility along the simple lines of dry or wet lab inquiry. The intentional lack of program definition in these spaces will encourage students to make them their own and break down historical barriers between departments.
Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation at Santa Clara University
Shared buildings are not without their challenges. There is no one size fits all solution. At Santa Clara, teaching spaces still require some level of specificity, particularly in the sciences and engineering curricula taught in their shared spaces. The result is very careful and deliberate teaching lab designs and program pairings that will maximize flexibility without compromising productivity. For example, biology and bio-engineering are co-located in one shared lab with shared equipment. Unique, but less frequently used program-specific equipment is located in a nearby support or instrument rooms, in some cases shared by additional programs.
Finding a Balance
There has been a recent backlash against open office environments that went too far in their attempt to achieve the ultimate collaborative space and agreement they ought to be supplemented with a variety of quiet and focused rooms and spaces. Likewise, open and collaborative student spaces need to be balanced with an appropriate mix of huddle, focus and meeting rooms for more concentrated, undisturbed learning. Brain science confirms that breaks are required for deep learning and physical space should support that by providing opportunities for introspection and reflection. It’s critical to maintain a balance of private, quieter spaces within shared collaboration space.
Montana State University’s Norm Asbjornson Hall, which houses parts of the College of Engineering and the Honors College, uses an array of functional spaces within the 300-foot-long tapered Commons to encourage both incidental and intentional interdisciplinary interactions. The Commons acts as a “street,” widening as occupants travel from quiet spaces on the narrow west end to large, increasingly social spaces, including a large seating stair and a 225 seat multi-purpose auditorium, on the east end.
Montana State University Norm Asbjornson Hall
At the Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation, active, collaborative spaces are focused toward the interior courtyard, vertical circulation nodes and the main entries of the building. More private, focused meeting rooms are located toward the outer corners of the building where there are fewer distractions and less foot traffic. At both universities, the collaboration spaces were included in the net space program and designed with specificity in mind to ensure they reach their full potential.
The trend toward infinitely more interdisciplinary, collaborative and flexible space continues to advance. As designers, we need to provide a thoughtful balance between specificity in shared teaching space and diversity in engagement spaces that allow for optimal space utilization and student performance. As it is the case with a “T-shaped professional,” interdisciplinary buildings ought to exhibit the same breadth of experience as is desired from its users.
Amanda Hills is an associate principal in ZGF’s Portland office. With both a Master of Environmental Planning & Urban Design and a Master of Architecture, Amanda has unique insight into the broad concepts that drive and influence a project and can translate those insights into inspired and relevant interior and exterior architecture. She was an integral member of the design team for the Sobrato Campus for Discovery & Innovation at Santa Clara University.