Schoolhouse Rocks

July 26, 2005
Exploring the future of learning environments

The Entitlement Generation, Generation Why - whatever you call the latest generation of students, today’s young people expect a different educational environment. The notion of the old-fashioned, static classroom is rapidly changing. From environmentally responsive design to cushy lounge chairs, educational facilities are evolving to suit the way students learn.

Last August, Ohio University in Athens, OH, installed a learning center in its Vernon Alden Library. The Alden Library Learning Commons, which is open 24 hours a day, 5 days a week, features over 100 computers and workstations, study tables, and casual lounge seating so that students can easily collaborate on projects.

“It has been very successful. Close to finals time, you couldn’t find a seat in here,” says Lynnette Bush Clouse, Ohio University’s director of interiors/project manager, facilities planning. Designed by DesignGroup Inc., Columbus, OH, the center accommodates students’ changing needs: Workstations are large so that several students can share a space, and chairs can be easily moved or stacked. The project’s greatest success was that the facilities department got several departments to work together.

Several universities are creating these collaborative work environments. In response to the overwhelming success, Clouse is adding a café area (complete with anti-spill coffee cups and vending machines) to its learning center. “Computer Services has noticed a drop in usage, so they are considering an update to attract students and [create] a more inviting environment,” says Clouse.

Another trend is colleges partnering with companies to create technology parks adjacent to their college campuses. “This trend has been talked about a lot, but now it is actually happening. The bricks and mortar are being put in place,” says Mark Johnson, senior mechanical engineer, HGA, Minneapolis. The University of Minnesota, for example, is co-developing off-campus incubator facilities with private industries.

“Now, academia and private industry realize they need to form these partnerships to move forward,” says Johnson. Along with technology, flexibility will define future educational buildings. “Instead of cramming in little tablet arm chairs that are not conducive to moving around, almost every new table and chair is [now] on casters,” says Clouse. Educational facilities are adapting so that students can tailor their learning environment.

Green design is another direction in which schools of the future are heading. In addition to constructing new, environmentally responsible facilities, Ohio University also has a strong commitment to recycling and reuse. Explains Clouse: “We want to do the right thing.”

“In my humble opinion, the two areas [where] we ought to be most concerned about the quality of air are the two areas that we have probably done the least - healthcare institutions and schools,” notes Carl Smith, chief executive officer, GREENGUARD, Atlanta. GREENGUARD strives to raise awareness amongst individuals and institutions about the issues associated with indoor air quality. The GREENGUARD website ( offers a listing of certified products, IAQ-related white papers, and case studies to take educational facilities to the next level.

Some states are creating green design standards (such as California’s Collaborative for High Performance Schools) that address the improvement of schools. “At the moment, it has been a school-by-school type of approach, but we have a greater policy platform whereby we can get more schools all at once to start changing their building practices,” says Deborah Moore, executive director, Green Schools Initiative, Berkeley, CA.

The mission of the Green Schools Initiative is to improve the health and ecological sustainability of American schools. “We recognize that there are lots of organizations working in schools already in various capacities, but we also recognize that all these different organizations are very disorganized,” says Moore. The initiative ( is a resource center for facilities and design professionals which provides links and reports on ecological sustainability and children’s environmental health.

Recently, GREENGUARD has also turned its focus to facilities managers. “We have gotten into some of the specifications and standards that schools use, but we need to migrate away from being heavily dependent on architects and designers and move to [the] decision-makers,” says Smith. Rising concerns about indoor triggers and the increasing rates of childhood asthma is leading schools to address IAQ more strenuously. In addition to carpet, potential indoor triggers of asthma attacks might include cleaning solutions, floor waxes, paints, and adhesives. “The school administrator, the purchasing group at a school district - it has to be those people who see the value in addressing some of the indoor air quality issues,” says Smith.

Aptly, education is redefining the future of schools. “To the extent that schools start acting collectively, they can negotiate better deals and create a market for green products and bring down prices,” says Moore. While budgets are a major concern, Moore believes that with more education, school planners will understand the cost-effective aspects of green design and adopt sustainable practices.

Regina Raiford Babcock was formerly senior editor at Buildings magazine.

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