Tomorrow's Project by HunterDouglas Contract
Tomorrow's Project is a discussion platform for prominent architects and designers to voice their predictions on the future of design. Every other week, we speak to design leaders who are developing ideas for smarter ways to live and work that challenge the norms in their sectors: healthcare, education, corporate, retail, and hospitality design.
Sharron Van Der Meulen
The Future of Education

Sharron Van der Meulen

Interior Designer and Principal,
ZGF Architects LLP

As Interviewed By:
Paul Makovsky

Editorial Director, Metropolis Magazine

Paul: How has education design evolved in the last five or ten years?

Sharron: Students are learning in a different environment today. A focus on collaboration, technology and sustainability are all key to modern education design. While independent study spaces are still important, the priority is on creating more spaces for students to interact with one another in small and large groups, as well as with professors. At Duke University, we designed a central atrium that also functions as a work/study area and social gathering space. Students can pull up a chair and plug in their computers, or meet in small conference rooms off the atrium space for impromptu discussion and study. Five years ago, spaces like this were primarily used for circulation and socialization. Today, our design efforts focus on extending learning outside of the classroom by incorporating features such as wireless internet and comfortable furniture, and create a place to sit, study and interact in groups. These areas become, in essence, a "learning living room" for the student.

Paul: What is the most important element in education design?

Sharron: Brand identity and functionality. Design solutions need to be responsive to the culture of the institution and unique needs of each project.

At Reed College, a liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon, we created dorms with a modern interpretation of residence life that fit into the surrounding gothic structures on campus.

The design solution helped reinforce two integral pieces of the college's brand: its architectural history and reputation as a contemporary educational environment. The aesthetic of the new architecture and interior design respects and celebrates the academic-gothic style of the campus while being scaled appropriately to create a welcoming residence for students, with modern amenities including shared student kitchens, community living room space, and separate apartments for upperclassmen.

A recent trend in education design is a shift back to using natural materials such as stone and wood, with strong accent colors that can support a branded identity. These natural materials are usually more durable, easier to clean, and produce less air pollution than [heavily manufactured products like] carpets or vinyl flooring. Adding accent colors with paint, fabrics, and other less permanent fixtures also allows for easy and cost effective updates.

Paul: How will technology change the way schools are built?

Sharron: Our ability to monitor sustainability today allows educational facilities to track energy and water use in real time. We're designing a residence hall at the University of Oregon where these metrics will be tracked visibly in the lobby, allowing students to compare their use to that of other floors within the building. These features are intended to serve as an educational tool for students, inspire friendly competitions between residence floors, and increase overall awareness about issues pertaining to energy and water use.

This ability to track building performance not only helps building owners and designers measure the success of individual projects, but also helps identify ways to reduce the carbon impact of projects on an ongoing basis. As a result of our recent performance monitoring efforts, ZGF has identified sustainable design strategies that are successful (i.e.: sun shading systems, daylighting, and underfloor air distribution systems) and some that are not as successful. We are using this knowledge to enhance the design of current and future projects.

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Innovation Poll
What do you think is the most important design element in education?
  1. Functionality
  2. Brand Identity
  3. Sustainability
  4. Technologically Savvy Design