A new wave of higher ed spaces to support today’s students » DIRTT Environmental Solutions

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How Gen Z is shaping the physical landscape of education

The DIRTT education team has all hands on deck for our annual Connext event in Chicago. Every year, we get together to show how DIRTT is disrupting the world of education. We connect with industry professionals and share our take on the latest industry trends.

At DIRTT, we’re seeing a big shift in higher education facilities. As new generations take over universities, colleges and community 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.1 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.2 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.

University of Arizona College of Medicine University of Arizona College of Medicine

During our Connext 2019 event, we’re demonstrating variety in higher ed using ICEreality. In our fully-immersive experience in virtual reality, participants will walk through and experience a full-size college building as if it’s already been built. They can interact with the file and make changes to the design. The virtual mockup curates a mix of meeting spaces, high-top tables, workstations, writable surfaces and integrated technology. It was created to embody what we’re seeing in our clients’ spaces.  Generation Z is speaking loud and clear – and we’re listening.

Education space in ICEreality Education space in ICEreality
Designing learning environments Designing learning environments

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.3  The Barnes & Noble study also found that this generation craves an environment of sharing and co-creation.2 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, DIRTT director of education

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 work spaces to community learning hubs. It’s a reflection of the co-working environments students will experience in the commercial world.

Sticky spaces

This trend is all about providing convenience to students. The term “sticky spaces” refers to the goal of creating a place that students want to stay in. This is especially important in common study areas. How do you do that? Making these areas social is important, but there are other ways, too.

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 Toledo University of Toledo

Really want to make your space sticky? Ride the wave of resimercial design4. There’s a trend to bring the warmth and comfort of home into commercial spaces. Now, it’s happening in learning environments, too. Our education display at Connext 2019 is based around this resimercial movement. Cozy seating nooks. DIRTT 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. 

Connext 2019 micro tour
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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 we’ve noticed 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. Here are some examples of admission spaces we’ve created for our clients with the goal of standing out:

University of Alabama Campus Visit Center University of Alabama Campus Visit Center
Portland State University Portland State University
University of Alberta Student Innovation Centre University of Alberta Student Innovation Centre

Flexibility is king

In a world of constant change, it’s important that higher ed environments can stay relevant over time. In the future, there’s always going to be new kids on the block. That’s why building flexibility 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.

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 flexible 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. This is 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 flexible future.

Connext 2019 is a great chance to show DIRTT’s strengths in this area. This year, we changed the aesthetic around our space to show our clients how easy ongoing maintenance is. This process only took a few days of construction time on-site.

Learning space at DIRTT Chicago Learning space at DIRTT Chicago

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?

Sources and further reading:
  1. You Visit: How college recruiters can appeal to Generation Z
  2. Barnes and Noble College: Getting to Know Gen Z
  3. Business News Daily: 7 Things to Know About Working With Gen Z 
  4. DIRTT: Bring comfort to your work environment

DIRTT is a global leader in industrialized construction. Its system of physical products and digital tools empowers organizations, together with construction and design leaders, to build high-performing, adaptable, interior environments. Operating in the commercial, healthcare, education, and public sector markets, DIRTT’s system provides total design freedom, and greater certainty in cost, schedule, and outcomes. Headquartered in the US and Canada, DIRTT trades on Nasdaq under the symbol “DRTT” and on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol “DRT”.