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What will the future campus look like?

October 14, 2021

By Travis Sage

From hybrid learning to social hubs, trends are changing how universities operate and are designed

This article first appeared as “What will campus look like next?” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 13.

Before the pandemic hit, the college campus was changing. Higher education was moving away from the lecture hall and toward project-based, technology-rich learning. University administrators were looking for opportunities to create culture on campus to attract and retain students to stay competitive. Then the pandemic hit. Colleges and universities embraced remote learning out of necessity. This sped the inevitable take-up for hybrid learning by both students and faculty. But remote learning brought many of the challenges facing higher education to the forefront.

Technology and hybrid education—combined with the need for collaboration and social environments—will shape the new campus. As administrators and facilities managers at higher education institutions plan for the new campus, they should keep the trends below in mind.

With views into a corridor that seconds as a gallery, this outdoor gathering space situated in a sunken plaza at the Kettering University Learning Commons in Flint, Michigan, offers students and faculty a unique place to host events or socialize between classes. 

Demand for soft skills

For years, employers have asked universities for independent thinkers with soft skills. They want graduates who can work in team and social environments. Organizations want talent that can collaborate, innovate, and solve problems. The push toward collaborative, team-based learning on campus continues.

The instructor of the future

It’s no longer about the lecture hall and dictation or recitation of facts and figures. Universities now see the professor as a facilitator of ideas. The educator connects the student with the resources, other people of similar interests, and the experts and researchers in the field.

A working example of this model is under construction now at the Kettering University in Michigan. Its book-free library will offer a place for collaboration. Everyone from the University president to industry partners, students, and professors can find resources, work together, ideate, and socialize.

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Caption: The new Kettering University Learning Commons provides students high-tech makerspace along with various types of meeting rooms, study areas, and spaces for gathering. 

Competitive marketplace

Competition puts pressure on higher education to deliver value. The community college model has been more successful in recent years because they’ve reached both down and up. They are integrating with local school districts and offering degree or associate programs that students could start earning credits toward in high school. They’re able to return a value that’s competitive with traditional higher education and often connect to local industries.

Classroom utilization

Classrooms are some of the most underutilized spaces on campus. The classroom might be scheduled for a few seminars in a day and then sit vacant for 8 to 10 hours. And now that both students and teachers have become comfortable with the idea of hybrid learning, classroom utilization as usual is likely to decline. Consider the carbon footprint of a new classroom and college planners are unlikely to add them to their want list.

On the other hand, the demand for a rapidly reconfigurable classroom, fully equipped for online virtual/hybrid participation in class activities, can drastically improve utilization. It allows universities to repurpose less adaptable spaces for other purposes. A great example of this are the new virtual learning classrooms in the Ferris State University Center for Virtual Learning. The facility utilizes various educational technologies, moveable walls, and lightweight staging systems to rapidly change from a traditional computer lab into a weekend eSports or Cyber Challenge competition venue.

To attract students and staff, and maintain their reputation, universities want to expand programs and offerings. But facilities managers are more likely to look at the existing academic spaces and increase utilization via hybrid learning rather than add classrooms. That could mean a student reports to a freshman seminar class once a month for a workshop with the other three weeks in a remote session with facilitated learning groups. There’s a lot more economic viability to these spaces when used that way.

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Social hubs and unique experiences

Colleges and universities must offer opportunities for social connection and collaboration that a virtual environment can’t match. In the near term, their hard capital investments are going to be in spaces on campus that can offer experiences that are not viable from your desktop at home. The social hub is one such space, combining housing, food and drink, and people.

These hubs are where life happens, campus culture flourishes and, if all goes well, out-of-class learning takes place. These hubs can also promote health and wellness. The design details for the social hub need to be informed by inclusion, diversity, and affordability to make sure these are places where all students are welcome and benefit. These spaces help establish the campus as the place to be, to balance the study-anywhere model. They help answer the question why should a student pay X amount in tuition if they don’t have a chair on campus?

Hybrid building types

Spinning off from this quest for collaborative space are new hybrid building types. The norm is shifting to buildings that integrate classrooms, housing, labs, retail, and office spaces into one building. They eschew the traditional “silos” of departmentally exclusive buildings. For example, we recently completed schematic design on a new, high-rise building for Douglas College in New Westminster, British Columbia, which stacks three types of student housing above and around two departments of faculty offices and numerous university-wide and departmentally specific classroom and lab environments. They all a nine-story atrium space with informal learning, social, dining, and collaboration spaces.

Universities will continue to focus their resources on the construction of project types that support collaborative, project-based learning and social interaction for soft-skills development.


To encourage curiosity, facilitate collaboration, and create a buzz that students want to be around, we’re seeing a trend toward transparency, visibility, and interconnectedness. What does that mean?

Visibility into and out from laboratories, collaboration spaces, and classroom environments puts those highly specialized programs into a place that appeals to students to explore. While visibility is a passive approach, it can spark new interests, ideas, and foster an environment where cross-disciplinary collaboration can thrive. This emphasizes and harnesses the energy from group project-based learning that students can only find in an in-person campus environment.

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Western Michigan University Arcadia Flats Student Housing in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Smaller apartments, more common spaces

Colleges want students on campus connecting with other students. So, the trend in housing is toward building student residences with more common spaces. It’s about making the private space smaller and more functional while giving more space to the social and common areas and activities.

Schools don’t want students in their room with the same three roommates all semester. Living on campus is about immersing yourself in academic life, it’s about discovery, social interaction, and fun. Schools want housing that’s closely integrated to campus and academic life to provide a rich and diverse social experience. While education itself absorbs dramatic change from technology integration, hybrid learning and a shift toward collaborative and interactive spaces on campus, a new and vibrant college/university experience is emerging to meet the needs of today’s student.

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  • Travis Sage

    Travis has collaborated on more than 100 LEED-certified projects (40 or more with Gold or Platinum certification), and he’s led several net zero energy projects and two Living Building Challenge Petal certifications.

    Contact Travis
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