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Open or Closed? Considerations for Collaborative Study Spaces

University Business, May 2011

Once administrators decide to focus on adding more group study areas to campus, a key question to answer is this: Should the spaces be out in the open or behind closed doors? "Rooms can be big and open, or they can be private rooms, which can be very modest," says Michael Prifti, managing principal of BLT Associates.

"I think there is general consensus that studying is by and large a much more social event than it used to be, but there's disagreement on the degrees of socialization," points out Bryan Irwin, a principal at Sasaki. "Some say we've got to have food, others say students are here to study and we're not here to entertain them." Everyone, he adds, realizes the need for both kinds of spaces, but "the exact mix varies from institution to institution."

For Grand Valley State University's (Mich.) library, which is scheduled for completion in August 2013, the project team decided that right mix is about two-thirds of seating in very open areas and about one-third dedicated to quiet areas, reports Lee Van Orsel, dean of libraries.

"Students like to see and be seen," says Sarah Felton, an architect with Shepley Bullfinch.

"We've seen libraries that carved out up to 60 or 80 rooms for students, and then great open spaces were going empty," Van Orsel notes. "Great open space is the norm for us; that's how kids function. And then we'll create retreats and havens for those who need it to be quiet."

"Students like to see and be seen," says Sarah Felton, an architect with Shepley Bullfinch. She sees transparency and accessibility as important aspects of collaborative learning spaces, and closed rooms without visual connections to the surroundings to be problematic.

One issue can be lighting. With campus planners focusing on LEED principles, maximizing outdoor and natural light is a key piece, says John Michael, vice president and general manager for Business Interiors by Staples. With the goal being to bring the outside in, buildings tend to have fewer internal walls and fewer tall visual blocks.

The library renovation team at Bentley University (Mass.), on the other hand, was intentional about creating mainly private spaces. In fact, says Phillip Knutel, executive director for academic technology, the library, and online learning, "having collaborative work done out in public spaces was the last thing we wanted to do." The team even had an acoustical engineer on staff to help seal off the collaborative study rooms acoustically from the public spaces in the building. He says containing noise is a huge challenge in libraries, since today's students "seem to have fewer compunctions than any other about talking on their cell phones."

While creating 24 private collaborative workstations was more costly, and took up more space, than public group study areas would have, Knutel says, the approach "offered more privacy for student teams working in a competitive business school environment."