In order to create a world class business school facility to recruit and retain world class faculty and students, you must manage three key factors to success – process, flexibility, and cost. Part 1 of a 3-part series.

Wake Forest University, Farrell Hall School of Business, Location: Winston-Salem NC Architect: Robert AM Stern Architects

The edict in the academic landscape after the pandemic is the same as it was before the pandemic: business schools must optimize their competitive advantage by providing students with facilities that support collaborative, cross-curricular education.

Technology is an even more important driver of classroom design than it was in the pre-pandemic world. Hybrid education in particular has a significant impact on the design of classrooms. Since virtual learning has been shown to be workable, the physical classroom needs to “improve its game” by providing the interaction that serves as the benefit of personal occurrence.

Curricula and courses are developing rapidly, so flexibility is a “must”. Academic departments, however, are rarely designed for flexibility.

Therefore, if you want to create a world-class business school facility to attract and retain world-class faculty and students, you must manage three key factors to success – process, flexibility, and cost. Setting up the right process is the most important thing.

Process makes perfect. Establishing a decision-making structure is of the utmost importance in any type of transformation project. Your organization is geared towards making academic decisions. You will likely find that a different “organizational chart” is required to make the many strategic and tactical decisions a construction project requires. Once you have your structure in place, it is important to clearly articulate the programming and design process and share it with all decision makers and project stakeholders so that the entire team can create a realistic project plan with dates, deadlines and deliverables.

This helps stakeholders understand exactly what results they can expect from the design team and when, and why their involvement is critical to the end product. Below are several process-related points to consider when planning and designing a business school project.

Reflect on the internal organization of the school. Colleges and universities are consensus-based institutions. Everyone has a voice and is used to being heard. One of the toughest conversations is when architects explain to business school executives the difference between the focused and linear process of planning and designing a new building versus the more iterative and democratic way they manage their programs.

An effective strategy is to have someone in college, preferably with close faculty ties, manage the involvement of stakeholders, such as: Ideally, this coordinator communicates with the interest groups on a daily basis and can advise each other in their common everyday language. Through the faculty representatives, the faculty and business school staff can provide input on pedagogy, learning environments, and optimal class size. It must be clear that the coordinator will have some additional duties from this role, which may correspond to a half-time or even three-quarter-time role. Hence, we have seen that some institutions hire outside consultants to help with this decision making and organization. It should be noted that this role is in addition to the role of the project manager of the university or the institutions within the process.

Vision = goals + decisions. Be clear and straightforward in setting a project vision, identifying goals, and organizing a decision-making structure. A common set of goals frames the conversation and provides designers and university leaders with a reference point for decision-making. A clear letter of intent can be very valuable months in the process when a difficult decision has to be made.

The design team facilitates, focuses, engages and guides the process. Often times, a steering committee is tasked with setting goals and making critical decisions to ensure that stakeholders who need to contribute are invited and involved. The rule of thumb is to limit the number of committee members. Nine is generally appropriate; It’s a number big enough to encompass a range of opinions, but still small enough to accomplish something with so many people in the room. The odd number also ensures a single vote to aid decision-making if necessary.

Get out of the comfort zone. Agreeing to alternative approaches can be organizational, political, and logistical, as planning a new building is a process that most users have probably never gone through. However, given the rapidly changing pedagogy and increasing competition, the next generation of business schools is demanding meaningful thinking about the future.

Design team leaders can articulate emerging design trends in business schools, share benchmarking data, and identify alternative classroom configurations to help educators and administrators think beyond their previous approaches to learning environments. 3D drawings, photos of existing installations, visits to peer facilities, and classroom mockups are all tools architects use to help educators imagine possibilities for their new spaces.

Ideas take time to drain away. One of the most important things to remember is that design takes time. Even if executives can bring all the right stakeholders into one room for the vision meeting and project team leaders have clear project goals, the stakeholders need time to process and review the information. The business school faculty is used to analyzing data, but needs to incorporate “thinking time” into the process and schedule.

It’s never too early to talk about the budget. Technology and furniture for business schools often cost a lot of money. It’s best to talk about your technology and furniture budget earlier in the design process rather than later to avoid a “sticker shock”.

The projected costs should be compared with benchmark data from peer institutions and be aware of the “gray areas” that can creep in and question the budget. One such culprit is blinds, which can sometimes get lost between the tough construction costs and furnishings. Everyone wants light in their classrooms, but digital media is best viewed in light-controlled environments.

Flexibility vs. decision avoidance. In response to digital technologies and evolving teaching methods, flexibility has become the mantra of educational design. Basically, flexible classrooms can allow educators to teach multiple styles in a single room. In practice, flexible classrooms can be less effective than well-designed classrooms and can be more difficult to maintain and pay for at cost.

It is understandably difficult to reach consensus on a preferred spatial organization, so many business schools rely on general flexibility to avoid decisions rather than providing valuable adaptability for real needs.

Part II of the series The underlying calculation of an extraordinary business school design – flexibility will explore strategies to maximize the flexibility of business school learning environments while minimizing capital expenditures.

Doug Neri, AIA, NCARB, is the Associate Principal / Director of Education Practice at GFF. He can be reached at [email protected] Jon Rollins, AIA, NCARB, is a Director at GFF. He can be reached at [email protected] Kevin Smith, AIA, is a partner at RAMSA and can be reached at [email protected]

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