An educational building is more than metal, glass and stone. Like a living organism, it must mold itself to many uses. It must grow as enrollment grows, evolve with changing instructional techniques, and remain a welcoming presence that encourages gatherings. While the exterior is solid, the interior must expand to suit its varied uses.

Creating a flexible building presents many challenges, and many forces are at work. The demands and expectations placed on facilities are more diverse and far-reaching than ever before. Facilities must play host to, and act as a catalyst for, more events and activities than in previous years. A building's function, rather than its physical edifice, becomes its true value and allows it to evolve from a structure into a place. More communities are realizing that social spaces benefit students.

Students are less comfortable with the monolithic teaching techniques of the past; they demand — and benefit from — flexibility. Instead of sitting and listening to a traditional lecture, modern students are receptive to a bombardment of multimedia, coupled with hands-on and group-session learning. Technological advances such as high-speed Internet connections make information available at any location. New teaching concepts require different spaces and furnishings.

Community participation in facility funding and instruction also creates a need for flexibility. For example, business leaders who contribute to a building fund may want to rent the facility subsequently for a corporate conference. A space where students study computer science in the morning may host a CEO presentation that evening.

Forces of flexibility

Flexibility often is a result of forces placed upon a building's proposal and design, but it also is the result of people's desires. The envelope, or final form of the building, should be a uniquely appropriate response to the forces directed upon the design.

Administrators, professors, department heads, physical-plant representatives, lawmakers and design professionals participate in the process. Everyone's ideas and needs must be considered.

Physical considerations include the campus master plan, site considerations and access points (including dropoff/pickup and service entrances). Lab environments may demand large, unobstructed spaces. Lecture halls may need breakout rooms.

Educational considerations such as teaching methods (group study, multimedia, distance learning, individual instruction, lectures) and the needs of students requiring night classes also are forces of change.

Finally, there's orientation. Students and visitors need to be able to find their way around a building without getting lost.

The pilgrimage

A project path is similar to a pilgrimage. It crosses hills and valleys, occasionally wanders off the trail, and ultimately arrives at a destination. Often, the off-road forays are the most informative. Spirited collaboration between designers and users brings the most success.

By employing an interactive programming and conceptual design phase, the team can focus on production during construction documentation, rather than solving design dilemmas late in the game.

Good architects demand much from students and staff. As users of the building, students and staff know what they want, and they also may have a list of needs that far exceeds the budget. While respecting this, a designer must free them of predilections and expand their thinking to arrive at a solution.

Increased flexibility in a design may satisfy the need for multiple functions within the same space. Flexible spaces that serve multiple functions can reduce square footage and save construction costs.

Often, architects are faced with the task of persuading schools and universities to buy into the programming conceptual design process, which is the means by which all forces find a place within a uniquely appropriate solution.

This process may seem excessive at first, but ultimately it accelerates the schedule. Flushing out budgetary stumbling blocks during programming, before the first line is drawn, allows for smooth production.

Beyond the obvious

The programming process focuses on identifying project forces, and flushing out and lending order to the goals, facts, needs and concepts.

For example, a design team may find itself grappling with a situation such as this: A college needs a new building to earn accreditation. Plans have been underway for some time, but lengthy delays have left everyone frustrated. The building must house several departments with different needs, and it's obvious there's too little money to fulfill everyone's wishes.

A good design solution will go beyond the obvious.

When the programming process gets underway, the architects listen to various viewpoints and look into what the campus needs. Instead of reciting names and demands, the discussion centers on teaching techniques and types of gatherings. This allows the team to define the project's goals, facts, needs and concepts:

  • The goal may be to build the most technologically advanced facility in the region to attract and retain students, host new teaching techniques, and rejuvenate campus spirit.

  • The facts include a limited budget, despite a 20 percent increase in enrollment. The facility must be permanent and complement the existing campus. Classes will be held during the day and night. The facility will be self-sufficient, and there is an existing campus utility loop.

  • The needs are more complex. Classrooms must vary in size and arrangement, and all must have individual climate and lighting controls, as well as Internet connections. There should be a gathering place for socializing and studying, and the entire facility must be low maintenance.

  • As for the concepts, the facility must have maximum flexibility to accommodate many functions. The building must be attractive, functional and adaptable to future growth and technological advances.

In the end, the team creates a new program and facility that provides much more than it originally thought possible. Movable walls allow classrooms to be large or small, and allow the lobby, which doubles as an art gallery, to become a reception hall. Furniture pivots and folds to transform lecture halls into group-learning areas. Rolling pedestals, packed with technology, can be plugged into outlets and moved. Leftover outdoor space becomes an amphitheater for convocations and impromptu gatherings.

Students and staff benefit from maximizing flexibility. A programming process that determines the true needs of a facility, based on the potential activities that will take place there, is essential to this end.

Innovative design seizes opportunities to further enhance the performance capabilities of a facility. This approach is more appropriate than ever before in today's diverse, multi-modal society.

Van Slyke and Goode are founding partners of Goode Van Slyke Architecture in Atlanta. The firm worked on the Albany State University project (see sidebar).

Common ground at Albany State University

The Health, Physical Education and Recreation (HPER) facility at Albany State University in Albany, Ga., was conceived to answer accreditation issues. But calamitous floods in 1994 delayed the project two years. When the architects arrived to conduct the programming and design, frustration was rampant.

The wish list included 210,000 square feet of building. Unfortunately the budget supported only 107,000 square feet. Innovative solutions resulted in a facility that maximizes the flexibility of its uses through programming and design.

Instead of a separate competition-length swimming pool and diving well, one stretch-length pool was created. A floating stainless-steel bulkhead separated the diving area from the teaching area and shortened the surface area for competition use. This made it possible for the university to start a varsity swimming program. The community benefits as well. Loose platforms are lowered into the shallow end for swimming classes.

Natatorium seating is accessed from a raised catwalk that serves as the corridor to the athletic and physical-education departments' offices. This walkway also links natatorium seating to the bathrooms and a concession area. Swim meets can take place at the same time as large events in the gymnasium or fitness area.

Instead of separate varsity and classroom gyms, the design called for one three-court gym with roll-down separation curtains and a large bank of telescopic seating. Reverse telescopic seating on one side separates the aerobics area from the gym. This solution saves area and cost. A multitude of functions can occur in this gym at the same time.

Lobbies often are awkward and box-shaped, and seldom can be used except for big events. HPER's lobby is a long, open, double-height space resembling a street. This interior street, the lifeblood of the HPER facility, is used for registration, community events, exhibits and assemblies.

The fitness area is adjacent to the largest area of the interior street, which allows for extra floor space as needed. Multiple power sources allow for easy expansion.

Across the building's exterior on the street side, steps help orient visitors and serve as a popular outdoor gathering area.

Locker rooms for the pools also serve as general locker areas for the student body.

In addition to satisfying the diverse needs of the varsity and physical-education departments, the facility has become a favorite gathering space.