Educational Design Trends: How Teaching Informs Better Solutions

  Design, Education
Dennis Stallings teaching students at NC State University

Academic environments in higher education are changing rapidly, reflecting the advent of new technology and shifting educational models that demand new space typologies. As both educators and designers, Chris Brasier, Dennis Stallings, Don Kranbuehl, and Paul Battaglia are immersed in dual realms, simultaneously teaching and learning as they are exposed to student needs that shape and reshape the design of higher education environments. Here, they discuss the major trends impacting educational design and how serving as teachers enhances their architectural solutions.

“In the broadest terms, teaching has made me a better architect – and being an architect has made me a better teacher. It’s incredibly rewarding to be challenged on an almost daily basis by young, curious, enthusiastic students.” – Dennis Stallings, FAIA

As clients look to enhance community on campus, integrate new learning methodologies and technology, and expand education beyond the traditional classroom, partnering with design firms who are actively involved in academia promotes the success of these objectives. Through teaching, designers are continuously exposed to new ideas in an environment of experimentation; they participate in intergenerational exchanges that promote new insights; and they remain on the cutting edge of design trends, methods, materials, and precedents – in turn enabling them to nimbly respond to shifting student and university needs.

Today’s students stand out as requiring a new type of learning environment. As digital natives, these students don’t just adapt to technology, they have an expectation that it will be integral to their educational experience. The pace of technological change impacts the built environment in multiple ways – it requires flexible design to allow for future advances, and it also increases demand for spaces that promote serendipitous, casual in-person interactions. By leveraging their personal experiences, our design leaders partner with our university clients to shape learning environments that promote student success – both academically and socially.

Enhancing Community On Campus

Despite the broad adoption of social networks, there is no question that the digital community is not a substitute for the physical one. Increasingly, colleges and universities are responding to the need to play a role in student socialization as a learning imperative.

The renovation of the East Campus Union at Duke University was largely informed by the goal to create a connective tissue of spaces that put students at ease through varied seating, layouts, and functions. The dining space was transformed from the traditional system focused on funneling students through lines into an ecosystem of food stations and seating options that enable students to find a spot that feels comfortable to them. For example, a student dining alone can choose a seat at a bar, rather than conspicuously occupying a six-top table. Chris Brasier, FAIA, notes that in designing for a positive social dynamic, the team leveraged our understanding of both the stressors and interests of students on campus today to create a true social center for Duke’s East Campus.

In the case of the Coastal Studies Institute, this shared UNC System facility is a campus in and of itself, located in a rural area of the Outer Banks on Roanoke Island. In its design, Don Kranbuehl, AIA, PE, leveraged the same core principles he teaches his students – the importance of the public and private realms; connection of architecture to place; and the relation of form and idea to site. Through this approach, the team was able to craft a facility that promotes collaboration and community in unison with cutting-edge marine research.

The Intersection of STEM and STEAM

A trend geared at graduating well-rounded students who can think critically and communicate effectively, the intersection of STEM studies with the arts creates unique programming challenges and opportunities. As noted by Paul Battaglia, AIA, both the arts and STEM disciplines drive the effort to develop integrated topics and curriculum, with the goal of helping students establish a creative mindset in conjunction with business and engineering principles – and vice versa.

Commonly reflecting programming that supports hands-on learning, research on display, and gaming as learning, these spaces must address not only what students are learning, but also how they learn. As a state-of-the-art library on an engineering campus, the Hunt Library at NC State features 100 group study rooms in a variety of formats – technology and gaming labs, media production rooms, creativity studios, and more. By providing opportunities for students to study individually or learn as a group in a variety of hands-on settings, this space fosters a creative approach to the STEM disciplines NC State is known for.

Advancing arts programming on campus was a core goal of the renovation and addition to Duke Hall at James Madison University. Today, the reimagined and expanded facility integrates STEAM design principles with extensive studio and hands-on learning spaces and emphasizes learning on display through the use of transparency into the lobby and sculpture courtyard.

“Design Thinking” Informs Space Typologies

Referred to by architects as “design thinking,” the growing adoption by other disciplines of common principles in architectural education requires different space typologies that facilitate project-based learning, collaboration, and peer-to-peer learning. These spaces emphasize the development of physical projects and prototypes, both individually and in teams, enabling students to bring their ideas to life, identify flaws, and develop new solutions.

Chris Brasier describes the prototyping process as one of the most powerful learning tools, with maker spaces empowering students to test the functionality of their ideas. The mindset behind design thinking informed the Engineering Building Oval at NC State, involving multiple, inclusive stakeholder workshops to define the desired types of spaces. The resulting design unifies the College of Engineering, with more than 100 classrooms and laboratories geared at promoting collaboration between diverse studies including biomanufacturing, advanced manufacturing, rapid prototyping, health systems in engineering, construction engineering and management, transportation systems, and other fields.

Learning Beyond the Classroom

With technology and student preferences blurring the lines between academic and social spaces, the concept of the classroom is undergoing rapid transformation. In addition to the “guide on the side” model of instruction, we are recognizing the need to craft new spaces for learning, weaving them into other contexts. Outdoor classrooms, living-learning models, studios, and gaming spaces create opportunities for students to learn how and when they choose to.

The new academic and performing arts building at Brightpoint Community College is an exceptional example of the integration of multiple courses of study and varied learning environments. In addition to the incredibly popular outdoor classroom, the facility informs through its design of the black box theater, classrooms, and study spaces for art, dance, and physical fitness programs.

In the Edens Quad renovation at Duke University, the design of a new living-learning environment reflects how great spaces can benefit both education and socialization. The programming integrates strategically located areas for group and individual study, collaboration, and gaming, promoting both interaction and academic achievement.

In conversations with each of our designer-educators, common themes emerged around the value of their involvement in academia. In addition to exposure to new trends and needs, Chris and Dennis both expressed their belief that innovation within our firm’s practice is better nurtured as a result of our connection to education. Evident in the Combustion Chamber, an initiative geared at fostering a culture of inquiry and design excellence, we seek to integrate an academic mentality of continuous learning and improvement. From reinforcing design principles, to remaining on the cutting-edge of materials and methods, to benefitting from intergenerational exchanges, each of these design leaders believes their involvement in teaching improves their architectural practice, and most importantly, benefits our higher education clients through more effective solutions.

Chris Brasier, FAIA, LEED AP, leads our Higher Education practice and serves as a design director within the firm. Additionally, Chris is an adjunct professor at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, serving as the director of the Architectural Engineering Certificate Program. To learn more about this topic or speak with Chris, please call 919.828.1876 or email

Dennis Stallings, FAIA, is a principal and design director within Clark Nexsen, guiding project vision and programming. He has also been a Professor of Practice at the NC State University College of Design for more than 20 years and was recently honored with a Teaching Excellence award. To speak with Dennis, please call 919.828.1876 or email

Don Kranbuehl, AIA, PE, LEED AP BD+C, is a principal and respected designer in the Higher Education practice. Don has served as a Professor of Practice at the NC State University College of Design since 2007, where he teaches architecture graduate studios. To speak with Don, please call 919.828.1876 or email

Paul Battaglia, AIA, was a principal and vice president of Business Development who joined Clark Nexsen in 2011. Paul left in 2022.

Photograph by Pat Rand.