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Collaboration Station

Designing an effective group study space--whether it's out in the open or behind a closed door--takes a team.
University Business, May 2011

Professionals who have helped create inviting places for groups to study on campus have vivid memories of the uninviting study spaces of yesterday. “When we studied as a group, if we studied as a group, it was typically in the dining hall,” recalls Jeff Vredevoogd, director of Herman Miller Education. Michael Prifti, managing principal of BLT Architects, remembers studying amidst the library stacks by himself or sitting “in a rectangular six-seated desk that really only held two people.” And Mike Briggs, president of Bretford Manufacturing, says the set-up for collaborative work may have simply meant having chairs on either side of a table and, if you were lucky, a pop-up for electrical.

“I’ve seen students seize any corner, conference room, any floor, any hallway,” says Elise Valoe, a researcher for Steelcase.

But within the past several years, more attractive collaborative study spaces have been appearing on campuses. Perhaps it’s in part because, with expanded wireless coverage and mobile devices, an individual can study anywhere, which may mean more space in libraries and student centers for officials to play with. In addition, planners are taking “traditional pass-through spaces” in buildings that may have contained a few benches and a planter and creating engaging spots where students might meet to study, says Vredevoogd. With the stronger emphasis on learning in the past five to seven years, leaders are looking at how classrooms, labs, dining halls, and other places might sway student success. “The research shows more learning takes place outside the classroom than inside the classroom,” he explains.

With more team assignments being asked of students, they need places to meet—even during class time. “One group may go out into the hallway or public space,” says Vredevoogd. Pulling people out of the formal learning space provides a chance to connect and share ideas. As Bryan Irwin, a principal at Sasaki, puts it, in the past, “scholarship was a solitary activity. The market demand and the information age has forced the change. A person needs to be cross-disciplinary and collaborative and everything needs to be team based,” he says.

Take the field of teacher preparation as an example. The conceptual framework of The College of William & Mary’s (Va.) School of Education puts an intentional focus on collaboration “within our classes and between our classes and the field,” explains Associate Dean Tom Ward. Because teachers collaborate with counselors, psychologists, and others as part of their jobs, the school has long required collaboration within classes. That’s why, when planning for a new facility that opened in 2010, officials were sure to include open public areas designed for collaboration on each side of the building’s classroom level, as well as a learning resource center with several open areas plus an enclosed tech-equipped room for group study, he shares.

The business case for creating collaborative study areas revolves around recruitment and retention.

The business case for creating collaborative study areas revolves around recruitment and retention. “By creating informal learning and ‘casual tasking’ spaces, universities can attract and engage students, encourage student-faculty collaboration, and keep students on campus,” says John Michael, a vice president and general manager for Business Interiors by Staples.

Convinced of the need for intentional collaborative study areas? Then it’s time to think about where to place them and how to design them for maximum effectiveness.

When considering new construction or a renovation, the question may come up about how much space to dedicate to group study. There’s no single right answer. According to Herman Miller, research on hub zones—which Vredevoogd says refers to places where people can meet, greet, eat, refresh, or work, and tend to allow for collaborative work for up to 10 people—shows administrators are commonly allocating at least 20 percent of a facility to them, with student centers and libraries having up to 40 percent of space for them. He says they’re in every building type, but perhaps not by design.

In libraries, individual study corrals will always have their place, but group areas are growing significantly. “For the longest time, everyone was predicting the death of the library,” says Irwin. “If anything there’s been kind of a resurrection and reinvention of the library.” He views it as a common ground across all disciplines.

For a renovation and expansion of Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, finding room for a mix of new open and enclosed group study areas was easy once an addition with an automated storage and retrieval system was built. “It emptied out the existing library,” says Irwin, who is working on the project. Renovations are being done floor by floor.

When students using a Duke Link study room run out of space on the whiteboard walls, they have been known to continue writing on the window wall.

Duke University’s library also has new study space. Located on a lower level, the Duke Link has generated attention for its focus on interactive teaching and learning. With 10 classrooms and seminar rooms, 11 group study rooms, and numerous informal spaces, The Link opened in 2008 and was designed by Shepley Bullfinch with input from student groups, faculty, and staff. “The shapes of the rooms are all very non-symmetrical,” says Ed Gomes, senior associate dean of the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke. Gomes, who led the Duke Link project team, notes that the rooms weren’t designed for maximum occupancy. “We wanted to make a statement about the space. It was about creating an atmosphere in which people can experiment.”

Some institutions are experimenting by taking pieces of the library and scattering them throughout academic and other buildings, reports Irwin. Prifti of BLT Architects has managed projects with these spaces, most of which have an electronic whiteboard and a flatpanel screen, within colleges of business. At one college of engineering, he says, this space takes up a building’s entire floor while another floor handles recruitment and academic advising. He has also been benchmarking study center facilities within libraries and as dedicated, stand-alone buildings.

And then there are study areas connected to classrooms, which Irwin sees as an emerging trend. The spaces allow faculty to, say, lecture for 15 minutes and then break the class into groups to research a topic before reporting back to the class. The Link has a few group areas connected to classrooms. From one classroom, an instructor can observe four group study rooms at once on a single projection screen.

In residence halls and student centers, group study areas are also common, but as Shepley Bullfinch architect Sarah Felton notes, they’re designed to be “more social and less academically rigorous.”

In any facility, study spaces can be open or closed. Even public areas can be more or less private, as William & Mary’s education building shows. A more public area with a laptop bar can fit about 30 people working individually or in groups, and a more private area is down the hall. Both areas have moveable furniture, which students are encouraged to move, Ward says.

As Russell Carpenter, director of The Noel Studio for Academic Creativity, which opened in 2010 within Eastern Kentucky University’s library, knows, study space planning is a challenge. “Navigating the need for public and private spaces is something that you’ll have to negotiate and discuss within the campus culture,” he says.

Briggs, whose company handled furnishings for the Taber School of Business at Millikin University (Ill.) prior to his becoming president of the board there, points out that “while people have their group areas, you’ve still got to be able, at some point, to do what you’ve got to do on your own.” So the Millikin project included both collaborative spaces and individual computer work stations for anyone’s use.

'A 70 percent efficient building no longer makes sense. Some people get it, some people don't.'
 -Bryan Irwin, Sasaki

A Sasaki project with a public university system illustrates another challenge related to space planning: the perceived inefficiency of collaborative spaces. The design for renovation of a campus library includes wider hallways and stairwells with places for natural collaboration to take place. “That’s all wonderful, but when you get to the moment of writing up the program and submitting it to the system, they take their traditional space standards—which in their calculation makes this building only 45 percent efficient—and say, ‘That’s unacceptable, we’re not going to fund it,’” Irwin shares. With the need for these study areas, “a 70 percent efficient building no longer makes sense. Some people get it, some people don’t.”

At Millikin U, business school students can stop at these work stations in between classes to catch up on assignments or connect with others via social media.

As for components of group study spaces, often the best way to “get it” is to observe them in action. When Phillip Knutel came to Bentley University (Mass.) 12 years ago, he was part of the team that designed $22 million in high-tech teaching and learning spaces. Knutel, who is now executive director for academic technology, the library, and online learning, had five years to observe how the very different set-ups in the breakout rooms in the marketing and accounting areas were working. The accounting lab, with five collaborative work stations all in one large room, was more space- and cost-effective from a construction perspective than building four individual rooms for the marketing lab. Both designs had horseshoe-shaped custom conference tables attached to the wall to simplify the wiring process and offered large displays connected to a PC (plus laptop connections). When Knutel wanted to build 24 additional collaborative workstations as part of a $17 million library renovation, he opted for the individual room marketing lab approach. While more expensive, it offered more privacy for student teams working in a competitive business school environment.

At EKU’s Noel Studio, enclosed breakout spaces are both high- and low-tech. Besides being equipped with video cameras, monitors, and cameras, there are marker boards and manipulatives such as LEGOs that can be used to “introduce a problem to help a student think critically,” explains Carpenter. It’s all in line with the facility’s integrated model of communicating within a technologically-sophisticated space for collaboration and hands-on learning.

Thirty consultants are trained to help facilitate work, such as when education students are in the building to complete their ePortfolios. “The consultants will provide a guide-on-the-side approach to collaboration. They’re present, help students talk to one another, and provide guidance and support,” Carpenter says, adding that the consultants are paid graduate and undergraduate students.

Architects generally offer furnishing choices and recommendations, with nearly endless possibilities. But experimenting with a piece that doesn’t wind up fitting the space is not likely a wasted purchase. “If it’s not working in point A, move it to point B and it probably will work,” points out Vredevoogd.

At William & Mary, the selection process began very early with “the investigation of what we want to do and need to do,” Ward says. From that brainstorm with faculty and Sasaki, the team extracted the functional elements needed—particularly that the furniture throughout the building had to be easily moved. To ensure the right look and feel in the congregational areas rather than be limited by what public money would allow, the school raised private funds.

  • Flip-top tables
  • Tabletops that crank-adjust to different heights (to accommodate those in wheelchairs or who want to stand)
  • Boat-shaped tables that can be split into segments
  • Clover-shaped tables
  • Swivel/tilt office chairs and other furniture on wheels
  • Chairs with pop-up tablet arms
  • Soft, comfy seating
  • Privacy screens
  • Incandescent lighting

No matter what selections are made, their flexibility is key, and expected. “It’s really fun to watch how students create their own learning environment,” says Carpenter.

Observing and learning from how students are using a space is also important. But many are skipping this step during campus building projects. When Herman Miller surveyed campus planners through the Society for College and University Planning about construction activity, 84 percent reported major construction or renovation projects—yet just 22 percent of that group had any formal assessment plan in place. “Many are doing big things on campus, but only a few are measuring the impact on teaching and learning,” Vredevoogd notes. Regarding pass-through zones specifically, he suggests experimenting with chair types, and maybe tossing in some beanbags. “Plan your sandbox before you build your castle. There’s a lot of shiny objects out there to help you build, but they can be expensive. Before you make that huge investment, test drive these ideas.”

At Grand Valley State University (Mich.), Steelcase did a full research project with recorded observations and interviews in study area concepts at the existing library as part of planning for a new building set for 2013 completion. Two of the prototypes, says Valoe, were clover-shaped tables for group or individual work and a rich-media equipped space. The team learned that after 4 or 5 p.m., “the library takes on a whole new life” and collaborative social behavior increases. The environments allowed students to be “very fluid,” says Dean of Libraries Lee Van Orsel, with a mix of academic and social activity and a tendency to do multiple things simultaneously.

Measuring success goes beyond how busy a space is. “It’s not only whether or not people are in the seats but what they’re doing while they’re there,” Briggs says. Capturing where and how technology is being used in the collaboration process will help guide any changes that should be made.

Technology can also play a major role in room utilization efforts. At Bentley Library, a paper-based booking system quickly proved to be not enough in tracking group-study room usage. Now, Steelcase touchscreens mounted outside each room connect to large lobby LCDs. A web-based PeopleCube calendaring tool, Resource Scheduler, allows anyone to “know what is available in real time,” Knutel says. Students can book a space online; for impromptu meetings, a touchscreen wizard at each room glows green if available. Users must hit a button within 15 minutes of their scheduled time so the system keeps the status as unavailable. Initially, Knutel explains, “We had a lot of no-shows.”

At Duke, Link rooms must be requested for non-course use, with scheduling prioritized by how it relates to teaching and learning. Initially, it was just for work related to courses taught there, but now the space is a bit more broadly available, Gomes says. While “it’s nice to be the cool place to be,” not every request for the space is approved.

That demand is certainly appreciated by campus officials who allocate funds to collaborative study areas. “The more demand they have, the better,” says Vredevoogd. “The investment they’re putting into these spaces is paying off.”