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A New Wave of Spaces to Support Today’s Students

How Gen Z is shaping the physical landscape of higher education

We’re seeing a big shift in higher-education facilities. As new generations take over universities, colleges they bring a new set of needs, learning styles, and preferences. Education has always been a competitive market, but that’s being amplified by those seeking more personal connections while exploring an array of educational experiences. That puts huge pressure on higher-ed organizations to maintain student enrolment. How can they adapt?  

One way is to better align with the Gen Z demographic. Born after 1995, they’ve recently started attending colleges and universities. Tapping that market is crucial. Here’s a glimpse at the major trends we’re seeing in higher ed spaces right now, to cater to today’s students. 

Variety is the spice of life

According to a study conducted by Barnes & Noble College, Gen Z wants engaging and interactive learning experiences. They also want to feel empowered to make their own decisions. The worst thing you could do to this generation is confine them. 

How does this translate into campus design? DIRTT’s director of education, Jeff Covey, says variety is key. Giving students a choice of learning spaces, depending on what they’re working on, empowers students to take control of their learning. They thrive in untethered spaces that allow for increased flexibility of movement. When it comes to variety, it’s important to consider function and capacity. Think about a mix of open lounge areas, collaboration hubs, meeting rooms and outdoor green spaces. 

Douglas College

IMAGE CREDIT: Upper Left Photography

Fostering human connection

A variety of environments plays into another key factor. Gen Z cares a lot about relationships. They’re social beings and want to work together in teams. Although technology is like oxygen to them, they prefer actual face time to using the app. In fact, more than 74% prefer face-to-face connection compared to other forms.  The Barnes & Noble study also found that this generation craves an environment of sharing and co-creation. This shows us that environments that promote collaboration are a priority for Gen Z. 

We need spaces on campuses that allow students to create genuine connections with their peers.

Jeff Covey, Director of Education, DIRTT

Designing learning environments

IMAGE CREDIT: Desiree Benko

This goes for classrooms as much as it does the campus. A traditional lecture hall doesn’t lend itself to break out groups or social learning experiences. Quiet libraries where students can’t connect with one another won’t work, either. If a space doesn’t foster collaboration, it’s obsolete. Because of this, libraries are transforming from silent workspaces to community learning hubs. It’s a reflection of the co-working environments students will experience in the commercial world. 

Sticky spaces

Think about food and beverage options like cafes with places to sit. Resources like printing. Comfortable seating arrangements. Meeting rooms with integrated technology. Natural light to have a connection to the outside world. All these factors make the space comfortable and convenient. Students want to spend a lot of time in them. This also translates to better peer relationships and hopefully better grades because they enjoy their study environment. We want students to look around and see that a learning space can take on many forms while carefully supporting the business of personal development. 

University of the Fraser Valley

Ed White Photographics/ Chernoff Thompson Architects 

Really want to make your space sticky? Ride the wave of resimercial design. There’s a trend to bring the warmth and comfort of home into commercial spaces. Now, it’s happening in learning environments, too. Cozy seating nooks. Timber to add warmth. A Breathe®  living wall with all the benefits of biophilic design. Once students are comfortable and settled into a space they destress and can attend to the work at hand. 

Create sticky spaces with custom casework

IMAGE CREDIT: James John Jetel

Admission offices that wow

Let’s go back to the importance of student recruitment. Campuses know they have to catch the eyes of students – literally! First impressions matter. And it’s top of mind for our higher-ed clients. More and more, these organizations are revamping their admissions areas to show off their culture and project a welcoming environment. It’s all about attracting students to keep their admission numbers steady. 

At DIRTT, we’ve been seeing this translate to high-tech spaces (Gen Z are digital natives after all) and graphics that project the organization’s sense of community and purpose.  

Portland State University

IMAGE CREDIT:  Lincoln Barbour Photo

In a world of constant change, it’s important higher-ed environments stay relevant over time. In the future, there’s always going to be new kids on the block. That’s why building adaptability in higher-ed spaces is critical. Technology is a huge piece of the puzzle and it’s changes in the blink of an eye. As learning spaces look to the future, they have to be ready to evolve with those changes.

University of the Fraser Valley

Ed White Photographics / Chernoff Thompson Architects

Adaptability is key

How can learning spaces regularly adapt to advancements in technology, diverse user needs, changing curriculum, and evolving learning models? By building for generations to come with smarter, more adaptable construction. A modular approach means upgrades like modifying room sizes, swapping out tech or adding in electrical outlets. DIRTT also makes interior upgrades fast. Construction schedules can be condensed over winter holidays or summer months. It’s a win-win. Get a refreshed space without disrupting students and staff.  The ability to continuously improve your space while encouraging instructional creativity and innovation are essential for a truly adaptable future. 

The built environment has a huge effect on our day-to-day life. This is especially true in education. Choice is everything. Gen Z is acutely aware of what types of spaces will meaningfully and powerfully support their education dreams. Will your space be able to attract the students of today and adapt to the learners of the future?

University of Iowa Learning Commons

IMAGE CREDIT: Wayne Johnson, Main Street Studio

Resources and further reading

You Visit: How College Recruiters Can Appeal to Generation Z ↗ 

Barnes and Noble College: Getting to Know Gen Z ↗ 

Forbes: 7 Things Employers Should Know About The Gen Z Workforce ↗ 

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