Question: When embarking on a new education project, what are the top priorities you consider in your design, and how do these differ from other types of projects?
Robert: At Perkins + Will we have developed a tremendous body of knowledge regarding learning environments, but we try to begin each new project with an open mind. Each project is different, with its own set of priorities, and it is important to understand the specific characteristics of client vision, site, program, pedagogy and environment to determine what makes it unique.
With the constantly increasing forces of globalization and digital connectivity, we feel it is important for design to recognize-and celebrate-the sense of place and identity inherent in each project. At the same time, design for education is different because it is universal: learning is something that we all experience throughout our lives. People learn best in different ways-some through conventionally structured teaching, some through individual study, and some in project-based, collaborative teams. Our priorities are based on learning as an outcome-understanding the interaction between teacher and student, among students outside the classroom, or perhaps over an internet connection-and designing spaces that truly support those relationships.
Question: What sorts of formulaic design solutions exist in the education sector, and how do you break those notions to produce more valuable facilities?
Robert: While many institutions have embraced innovative teaching and learning pedagogies, we still encounter space programs written around traditional notions of fixed classrooms, double-loaded corridors and outdated technology. We try to address this by reviewing recent innovations, visiting comparable facilities, re-imagining the program in the context of the institution's goals, and then evaluating a variety of design alternatives that respond to them.
Ultimately, a truly effective design solution should be transformative-it should give the institution a new idea of what it can be. For example, at the new School of Business at SUNY Albany, we conceived of the building as a series of overlapping courtyards around which instructional spaces were clustered. This design approach creates places within places that mediate between the scale of the overall building and the occupant to make for a more humane and social experience.
Question: Rapid changes in technology are quickly reshaping educational facilities. Has your design process had to change to keep up? How can you be sure your designs will still be relevant 10 years from now?
Robert: Successful educational design really has to be modeled in four dimensions. The three-dimensional matrix of technology that defines the 'Smart' classroom needs to be designed to anticipate the future (not an easy task) to provide enough flexibility to allow for short-, medium- and long-term change. As a global practice, Perkins + Will is fortunate to be working on a wide variety of educational projects around the world which serve as laboratories for new technologies. These approaches are shared across our project teams, keeping us on the forefront of innovation. In many instances, the buildings we design serve as change agents, helping to facilitate the kind of transformation the institutions envision.
At the same time, the overall building design needs to have strong "bones": a well-organized plan, durable materials, a robust modular infrastructure, and an environmentally responsive envelope all help to ensure a design will stand the test of time.
Question: What changes do you see happening in the future of education?
Robert: We see the future of education being influenced in several exciting ways. The continued development of digital technology, both in the classroom and in the hands of students, is transforming the conventions of space and time in education. Students have now grown up with an almost infinite network of information at their fingertips that creates expectations of a 24/7, "always on" environment. Institutions are responding with live video / audio capture, social media links, global distance learning technology and interactive learning sites. We also see that many institutions have to make do with increasingly limited funding, so such technology allows them more flexibility to provide content with less space need. With changes in learning / teaching methodologies, spaces now must serve multiple users, in a variety of seating configurations, to help optimize utilization.
Another trend we see is the rise of interdisciplinary approaches, in terms of both program and facilities. The traditional boundaries between disciplines have gradually been eroding, and opportunities to combine different and conventionally unrelated endeavors to solve programmatic and space needs continue to emerge. This may be partly the result of the enhanced connectivity noted above; with the breakdown of technological barriers, information is flowing in numerous new directions, over a multitude of networks, around the world.
We also see a far wider range of student demographic than previously. As the range of degree and certificate programs designed to support highly specific learning goals grows, the profiles of the students themselves are becoming equally varied, reflecting increased diversity in the general population. The campuses and buildings we design should reflect and celebrate this heterogeneity in terms of both facility design and pedagogical approach.
Finally, we are seeing a greater interest in sustainable design as a core value. While not all institutions support the LEED process, most have programs in place that focus at least on energy conservation, water use and waste reduction. Perkins + Will, being one of the first major architecture firms to sign on to the 2030 Challenge, has made a significant commitment to environmental responsibility, and we are pleased to find clients whose interests correspond to ours.
Question: Tell us something interesting about yourself.
Robert: I was born in the US but lived in 12 different places around the world by the time I was 30, including England, Iran (my first words were in Farsi) and Australia. I built a house in Canada by myself when I was 26, and I still play ice hockey once a week.