Building 21st Century Learning Environments

What if construction were designed to support ongoing change?

GUEST COLUMN | by Betsy Maddox 

CREDIT DIRRT img.pngWe’re 17 years in to this century yet we’re still seeing newly built learning environments that pay closer semblance to those constructed around the time of the industrial revolution. At the same time we’re seeing dramatic changes to the way we educate and learn, rapid advancements in technology, and other hurdles difficult to predict. Education interiors must be flexible and adaptable or they’re outdated before construction even ends.

We’ve had misguided and fleeting fits and starts of evolution in these spaces for our students. Remember the surge in open classrooms within school buildings around the 1970s? Students were encouraged to collaborate, overhear their neighbors and move around. The interpretation and physical manifestation of what students need was prophetic, but the curriculum lagged. Consequently, the open classroom concept was short lived.

Until now, estimates were the best a builder could offer.

Now, we see the pendulum swinging back to the open concept, but this time curriculum drivers are echoing spatial needs. Architects and designers are charged with creating the perfect mix of spaces that support different sized groups, various levels of collaboration, emerging technologies and future flexibility within those spaces. It’s not enough to have the prescribed number of classrooms to accommodate a certain number of students.

As a result, we’re seeing a significant shift from a teacher-centric model to a student-centric model. Instructors are now facilitators and coaches. Students are no longer empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge; instead they’re active participants in their own learning. For an example, catch a private screening of “Most Likely to Succeed,” a documentary highlighting San Diego public charter high school, High Tech High.

At the same time, public learning institutions are under a tremendous amount of pressure to spend money prudently; these are your tax dollars at work. In school design and construction, you often get one shot, one bond referendum, to make your community’s dreams come true and ultimately to positively impact the lives of generations to come. Once the project is set in motion, you sit with eyes winced and fingers crossed, hoping you got it right. You hope the end result will still be relevant the day the doors open, let alone 40 years from now. Flexibility within that space becomes critical in order to avoid the space becoming quickly outdated and ineffective.

But, what if the construction was fundamentally designed to support ongoing change? What if you could embrace the ignorance of not knowing what the future holds?

A client of mine once said, “You’re not driving the same car you drove in the 60s, you’re not using the same computer you bought five years ago, why should we build buildings the same?” He’s right.

A prefab construction method, or manufactured construction, responds to these challenges. How does it impact the way we design, build and use learning spaces? Manufactured construction always mitigates labor, the biggest construction expense. When manufactured construction is backed by end-user controlled technology, it becomes extraordinarily fast while tailored to the school’s exact needs. Projects are created custom and charged according to the amount of materials used, not according to deviations from a standard offering. With this model it can actually cost less.

These manufacturers use CAD-compatible software to create interactive 3D environments for you to explore before finalizing an order. The same software integrates all phases of a project, complete with instant and detailed data manufacturing, delivery, installation and reconfigurations. Instant and detailed pricing (with no surprises or contingency fees added) makes budgeting and scheduling easier and more accurate. With limited budgets and timelines, this predictability over costs and completion times is essential. Until now, estimates were the best a builder could offer. The 3D nature ensures stakeholders actually understand the space and are better equipped to make confident decisions quickly – further reducing time.

User requirements are considered right from the beginning and included during all stages of the design process to ensure the space seamlessly supports the needs of diverse user groups. From acoustic management, to integrated technology, to incorporating natural light and writable surfaces, you get the freedom to build an environment that helps elevate performance and outcomes.

All components of your custom order are manufactured in a controlled off-site environment for consistency and quality, and they can arrive on site in the sizes specified with finishes already applied, within four weeks of finalizing your order. There are no off-cuts, drywall dust or indoor air quality issues to worry about, just fast and clean installation that can have your space complete and ready for students by the end of summer or winter break.

This approach supports the ever-changing needs of your organization by allowing adaptability for the future, full integration of technology and equipment, and the surfaces become functional learning areas (think writable, tackable surfaces). Faculty members can meet students wherever they are in their learning sphere, whether it’s high-tech or low-tech.

In my travels throughout North America, the excitement around this new approach to construction is palpable. Educators who’ve used it comment that it’s fast, cost-effective, minimally disruptive, and their technology is seamlessly integrated and permanently accessible for servicing and upgrades. Although the initial draw is often aesthetic appeal, school teams quickly learn from experience that manufactured construction is a cost-compelling and more practical approach with multiple benefits. It’s faster, cleaner, provides better communication in the planning stages and allows for accurate budgeting.

Betsy Maddox is an Education Specialist at DIRTT, a leading technology-driven manufacturer of highly customized interiors including build-outs in both primary and post-secondary institutions. Besty is particularly interested in sustainable environments that support learning outcomes.

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