Research environments on college campuses play a critical role in attracting top tier students and faculty and securing industry partnerships. With STEM career fields burgeoning, these facilities have become increasingly high profile, demanding design and technology that closely mirrors leading commercial facilities.
Whether preparing to design a new facility or renovate existing, institutions looking to enhance their STEM research and teaching facilities face a shared challenge: how to create a space that is functional, appealing, and flexible to nimbly adapt to changing research and workforce demands.
In the following, Clark Nexsen principals Don Kranbuehl and Jason Jones share how higher education design can learn from commercial science and tech facilities:
Design Labs with the Latest Tech, Flexibility for the Future
Cutting edge laboratory space is fundamental to goals for student, faculty, and industry partner recruitment. Research faculty and students alike want to work with the latest technology and equipment, positioning all parties for the best success. Building in flexibility is perhaps the most important in lab design for colleges and universities, as programs must adapt to what the economy and job market demands.
The Bioprocess Innovation Center located in Research Triangle Park, NC demonstrates how flexible casework enables rapid adaptability to new projects. Designers must work with clients to understand the goals for their lab space and the likelihood of changes in research, ultimately informing decisions about flexible casework, ceiling grids, and electrical and mechanical systems. For detailed tips on lab design, see our Top 10 Tips for Successful Lab Design.
Put Technology on Display
Putting learning and research on display supports a vibrant, connected academic environment. Depending on the lab type, the use of glass storefront allows students and faculty to see the research taking place within, fostering a sense of innovation and excitement. But ‘on display’ doesn’t need to stop there: the building itself can be a teacher by revealing its systems and technology. Aesthetically, this approach delivers an industrial appearance and reinforces facility identity as a space for science.
Consider Key Adjacencies: Research, Teaching, Collaboration, and Office Space
Developing a program that considers key adjacencies has a tremendous impact on the experience of all building occupants. To the extent possible, research faculty generally like to have offices proximate to their labs, for example. Students, in turn, benefit from a balance of public and private spaces that facilitate collaboration and interaction with each other and faculty.
In the University of Georgia’s Turfgrass Research & Education facility, labs, offices, and classrooms line a central hallway, while the headhouse and greenhouses are easily accessible from the teaching environments. This streamlined wayfinding supports the ability of students and faculty to engage, learn, and research.
Collaboration is central to scientific innovation and discovery – researchers from different fields may work together on something groundbreaking; universities and commercial organizations frequently partner on research; and students learn to problem solve together and with faculty. Intentional design for these facilities must create common spaces and include ‘amenities’ that foster collaboration, both planned and incidental.
One of our recent commercial S+T projects acts as a home for startups and prioritizes collaboration. An incubator space, greenhouses, labs, and shared amenities promote interaction between researchers and promote the cross-pollination of ideas.
Integrate Plentiful Amenities
Amenity-rich facilities appeal to students and scientists alike. In the commercial sector, informal indoor and outdoor environments serve an important purpose for collaboration and team building among researchers. In the higher education setting, these spaces encourage students to interact with each other and faculty in a casual forum and engage students beyond typical academic facility hours. These amenities include commons and conference spaces, dining such as cafés or restaurants, game spaces, rooftop patios, and more.
Strengthen Connections to Campus
Establishing a strong sense of place and community has never been more important. Today’s prospective students and faculty are evaluating both the quality of the facilities and the campus experience. Drawing on precedents from both our commercial, S+T, and higher ed practices, facilities can reinforce the campus community by design – through new plazas, quads, gateways, and indoor-outdoor connectivity.
In thinking about the most successful research environments we’ve seen on college campuses, they share the attributes above. They strengthen campus identity, feature state-of-the-art technology, and enable faculty and students to teach and learn in engaging, effective ways. Although COVID-19 has disrupted traditional learning for the interim, we believe the emphasis on physical facilities and the in-person experience will only grow in the long term. Developing vibrant spaces that support instruction in flexible ways will remain central to the ability of higher education to meet student expectations and future job market demand.
Don Kranbuehl, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C is a principal at Clark Nexsen with more than 19 years of design and management experience with an emphasis on the higher education and science + technology sectors. To speak with Don, please call 919.828.1876 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Jones, AIA, is a principal and the director of Clark Nexsen’s Charlotte office. With more than 26 years of design experience, his leadership has delivered successful projects for education clients in North Carolina and beyond. To speak with Jason, please call 704.377.8800 or email email@example.com.