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October 20, 2020

Fostering Resiliency in Classrooms

Higher education classroom environments are commonly thought of as basic in nature: tables, chairs, an instructor’s station, and a teaching wall. In terms of how they are used, however, these spaces are quite complex and need to meet the demands of various programs, delivery methods, student demographics and capacities, academic levels, and pedagogies. Designing resilient classrooms addresses a wide range of conditions to meet the needs of the institution.

Classroom resiliency is the ability to feasibly adapt for changing activities occurring over various spans of time. Within a single class session, the delivery method may transition from lecture to group work and back again which requires classroom reconfiguration. Over the course of a decade, academic programs come and go, grow and contract. The result is ever-changing cohorts and class sizes, along with a need to continuously optimize room capacity. The dynamic higher education landscape requires classrooms to be resilient and support a shifting set of activities and demands.

The benefits of designing for resiliency are straight forward. In the short term, resilient classrooms support changes in delivery methods from one session to another, have less instructional downtime, and can accommodate a wider range of courses to increase their overall utilization potential. In the intermediate, resiliency simplifies renovations, resulting in shortened construction timelines and cost savings. Long-term, designing with resiliency in mind prepares for the unknown. Regardless of the time frame, resilient design benefits institutions and the students they serve.

How can classrooms be designed to foster resiliency? The following design strategies delineate ways to design classrooms that adapt to
and enhance the learning environments, now and in the future.

Mobilize Furniture

On the most basic level, furniture can be leveraged to create resiliency without other changes to classrooms, all the while delivering a cost-effective solution. Castors on tables create the ability to easily reconfigure furniture; however, this typically comes at a loss in instructional time. Instead, simple changes to furniture selection and layout create adaptability to support differing delivery methods. For classrooms primarily planned for lecture-style courses, deepening the student work surface in every other row
allows students a simple turnaround for group work. In group-oriented classrooms, maintaining an open edge on tables oriented towards a primary teaching wall allows for lecture style instruction to occur. Creating resiliency through furniture selection is easy.

Plan a Pivot

An age-old question in the layout of classrooms is whether the door is in the front or rear of the space. Institutions often have their own standard answer based on life safety concerns and disruptions, but these standards change with time. Strategic planning at the onset of design can promote a pivot potential from rear entry to front entry. Key to this is positioning the teaching station at a point that allows the classroom to pivot, essentially repositioning the door by moving furniture. The simplicity of this transition is further enhanced with strategic coordination of items such as overhead projection, light switches, power and data supplies, and writing surfaces. A well-planned classroom adapts to changing needs with ease.

Group Classrooms

Resiliency is maximized by providing strategic classroom groupings. Grouping classrooms in a linear fashion presents opportunity to adapt to changing class sizes. For example, what may begin as three 20-person classrooms can become two 30-person classrooms. This can be further enhanced with the use of movable partitions to change capacities frequently. The ability to quickly and easily adapt classroom sizes reduces offline time, increases utilization, and reduces future costs.

Clustering Space

While classrooms can be designed to be dynamic, some functionality may be unattainable using this model. To address this, strategic adjacencies enhance the resiliency of the classroom. For example, student study rooms next to classrooms provide breakout space for group work. Following the lead of multi-function rooms, co-locating furniture storage makes it easy to clear entire rooms or introduce a new set of furniture. Extending the beyond the classroom creates a cluster of differing spaces, each able to meet specific needs and ultimately increasing the collective functionality.

Embrace the Future

What comes next? From changing demographics to global pandemics, it is hard to know when the future is now. Designing for resiliency creates a framework to adapt to challenges not yet seen. This might begin by distinguishing that codes and standards are important but may not be the best references to optimize resiliency. They provide focus on life safety and are defined by past conditions, not the future. There are many initiatives, such as universal design for accessibility or LEED for sustainability, which provide
forward-looking guidance to create resiliencies. Going beyond the required minimum is critical to achieve an enduring level of resiliency.