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Why choice and flexibility are gaining traction

We live in a world of hyper-personalization. Apps on your phone tailor content to your interests. You can design your own pair of shoes. Even our half-sweet, extra-hot, no whip coffee order is made just the way we like it. We tailor the things we touch and engage with daily. Doesn’t it make sense that the environments we spend most of our time in be personalized too? 

Workspaces and learning environments are not so different. K-12 education environments and office design tend to mirror each other in various ways. For instance, K-12 looks to the workplace to see what world they’re preparing their students for. Companies, on the other hand, look to K-12 to see what types of students will soon be in the workplace. So, it’s no shock when both of these environments run parallel trends. One that’s standing out today: more flexibility and choice. Can a work or school day be customized for each person?

People are vastly different. From the way we process and learn new information, to the way we socialize. Different concepts or subjects spark our interest. The methods we use to do our best work are also different.

Yet traditionally, education facilities and workspaces have been designed with a one-size-fits-all approach. With no room for choice or personalization. The same desk for every student. The same cubicle for every employee. The setup may work for some of us, but it doesn’t optimize everyone’s effectiveness or ability to perform their best. People like to have choices based on their own personal preferences. Facilities are following suit.  

Activity-based work in the corporate world

Activity-based work (ABW) is manifested in both workplaces and learning places. The Government of Canada recently adopted this approach from a corporate standpoint in hopes of making work more enjoyable for their employees. And what’s better, it should also increase efficiency1. But what is this approach all about? The Canadian Government defines activity-based working as “a design concept that recognizes that through the course of any day, employees engage in many different activities and that they need and can choose different types of work settings to accommodate these activities.”1

While concepts like “hot-desking” or “hoteling” strip employees of their assigned seat, giving them freedom of choice, activity-based work takes this even further. It lets employees choose what kind of environment they want to be in, based on the task at hand. It’s about providing flexible workspace options and empowering employees to make a choice. This type of design leaves it up to the user, for what they feel will be most effective at that moment. What do these environments look like? The Government of Canada has identified four different types of areas that should be included in a space. They should cater to the following tasks: learning, focusing, collaborating and socializing.   

How can we build spaces that check off these key boxes? Here are some examples of how DIRTT solutions can support these different types of areas throughout an office environment.

Learning Learning
Focusing Focusing
Collaborating Collaborating
Socializing Socializing

This fresh type of office design has the track record to back it up. Companies like Microsoft have transformed their corporate environments to provide this level of flexibility. "It’s about acknowledging that people work in different ways with different devices. We wanted to free our people up to work flexibly in an environment that also helps them work better. Activity-based working helps us achieve this outcome, breaking down the silos that big organisations tend to have," says Steven Miller, Microsoft Office Division Business Group Director.2 In fact, Microsoft notes this type of layout leads to an increase in collaboration and employee satisfaction. The flexibility empowers them. Explore one of Microsoft's offices that employs this design concept. 

Making waves in education

It’s not only the corporate world that is embracing new ways of organizing their spaces. The one-size-fits-all desk setup is not effective for most students. 

We can’t just line up students in rows and teach everybody the same way, at the same pace. That’s not working.

Leanne Meyer-Smith, AIA, LEED AP, VP of Architecture with Wight & Company 3

This idea that learning should be designed to support differences isn’t new in the education realm. It’s just gaining more traction. There are a dozen or so other acronyms besides activity-based work that support the same kinds of ideas. Project-based learning (PBL) and activity-based learning (ABL) are a couple popular ones. In activity-based learning, the learner and the physical environment must be viewed as active; moving through the space throughout the day depending on different tasks. To help the learner be more active, they must be engaged in authentic learning experiences.

CAST Tech High School implemented a layout with various types of learning environments for students.  Together with DIRTT, CAST was able to take a 1930s trades school in urban San Antonio and turn it into a high-tech learning place for youth pursuing careers in technology. This space will prep them for real world, corporate tech environments.  

You are not going to walk into two spaces in this building that remotely resemble each other. And the strategy behind that was to keep the students’ perspective fresh every day.

Heather Plank, from T. Donovan Creative, the designer on the project
CAST Tech High School CAST Tech High School

Technology-empowered learning

The theme of choice is showing up in teaching methods as well. Personalized learning (unique from adaptive learning discussed above) is about optimizing lesson plans and learning paces to meet the needs of each individual learner.4

How can one teacher deliver individual content to 30 unique students? Technology is at the center of this movement. Technology delivers the content to the students while providing a constant feedback loop to teachers who intervene as necessary. The data feedback also provides clues as to how the teacher can tweak the delivery of certain lessons to optimize the learning experience for the students. This makes tech-rich environments paramount.

Although the personalized learning model has been gaining steam in the past few years, iChoose Academy is paving the way in Arizona, where innovative teaching and learning methods tend to lag behind the rest of the US. At the middle school, each student has been assigned a Google Chromebook where a personalized learning platform guides them through their individual learning path.5

Together with technology, the physical space is key to the success of their personalized learning model. iChoose Academy occupies about 4,000 square feet, and the learning environments are divided into “The Hub”, “The Lab” and “The Shop”. The Hub is the largest and has the most varied groupings of seating options. It supports a classroom-type setting with training tables, a fluid learning environment with tablet armchairs, a café-style setting with high-top tables and stools, and a lounge area with a curved sofa and low tables. “The Lab” resembles a typical classroom the most, although still vastly different with training tables and plenty of markerboards. “The Shop” is what you would think of as a makerspace, with unfinished concrete floors and ceilings, large team tables and shop stools. The students move among these spaces throughout their day. 

The magic is actually happening!

Melissa Tannehill, Principal of iChoose Academy

Setting up these types of learning environments requires a fair bit of customization and thought. In addition, these areas need to be flexible to ensure this learning approach stays relevant over time. Making DIRTT the perfect solution for these types of environments. Here are some different DIRTT spaces that match the key areas for these learning environments:

The Hub The Hub
The Lab The Lab
The Shop The Shop

Where there is choice, there is empowerment. Choice within your environment. And a consideration that everyone learns and works differently. At DIRTT, we’re curious to see where this trend goes and the impact it has on students and employees.


Sources and further reading on the trend:

  1. The Government of Canada: Activity based workplace
  2. Lenovo – Think FWD: Activity–based working: Microsoft’s transformation
  3. Building Design & Construction: K-12 market trends 2018: Common areas enable hands-on learning
  4. Medium: What is Personalized Learning?
  5. Signals Az: iChoose Academy to Break Mold of Typical Learning Model in Humboldt Unified School District

Betsy Maddox

Betsy leads education-focused initiatives at DIRTT. She brings 20+ years of experience in the industry as a design and construction pro. Betsy helps educators adapt to changing learning needs by building better.


DIRTT Environmental Solutions uses its 3D software to create prefabricated interiors. Each space is tailored to our clients' needs. Manufacturing facilities are located in Phoenix, Savannah and Calgary. DIRTT works with nearly 100 construction partners globally. DIRTT trades on Nasdaq under the symbol “DRTT” and on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol “DRT”.