Designing Informal Learning Spaces: How New Furniture Breathes Fresh Life Into Dead Spaces

In Blog by Morgan Dix

Do you struggle with underused space in your residence halls? Do you have common rooms, corridors, and hallways that need new life? You probably need to create some informal learning spaces.

And maybe you just have old furniture that’s begging for a design upgrade?

If so, than perhaps you’ve heard about what some people are calling The Furniture Effect?

That’s the moniker used by administrators and housing officials to describe a strategy employed in residence halls and academic settings alike.

Here’s a simple description.

By simply adding new furniture, colleges and universities can renew spaces on campus that are not being utilized or are not contributing to the mission of the institution. These spaces may include corridors in academic buildings that have no seating areas, lounges that are not attracting students or outdoor patios that are sitting vacant.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what some schools are doing to refresh and enliven dead or underused spaces using furniture as a primary feature in their design strategies.

Designing Informal Learning Spaces (ILS)

Schools are using furniture to create novel spaces, foster collaboration, keep students on campus, create compelling destinations, and enliven lounges. And on the whole, the name for these configurations is “informal learning space.”

Ben Moreland, Director at the Education Space Consultancy, cites the following study when defining informal learning spaces:

”…non-discipline specific spaces frequented by both staff and students for self directed learning activities and can be within and outside library spaces.”  –A Study Exploring Learners’ Informal Learning Space Behaviors, Attitudes, and Preferences

An Alternative to New Construction

Indeed, this approach to the informal learning space is providing schools with an affordable alternative to new construction while solving perennial issues related to budget constraints, limited and underutilized space, retention, and student engagement.

The team over at Herman Miller Education puts is this way:

Change is a constant on today’s campus. It’s occurring in classrooms, libraries, residence halls, and is the very nature of learning and teaching. As this change accelerates, campus spaces continue to play a key role in attracting and keeping students and projecting a school’s spirit, culture, and image.

Embrace The Creative Potential of Informal Learning Spaces

At DCI, we work with schools to design inspired informal learning spaces. And we’d love to help you customize furniture that solves your respective space issue. I can’t emphasize enough the creative potential in this approach.

As architect Jane Smith notes in an article for College Planning & Management:

The results also set the stage for amazing, popular campus destinations in unexpected places, as in a boiler-room-turned-classrooms at the University of Hartford, or the unassuming loading dock at the School of Visual Arts [in Manhattan] that now looks like a fine-arts gallery.

informal learning spaces in student lounge

So let’s take a look at some successful examples of the furniture effect. And in many of these examples, the students had direct input into the design process.

Tailor It To Your Unique Needs

That’s important because every solution should be catered to the specific needs and context of your school’s challenges and opportunities. Getting feedback from students is a great way to help clarify and flesh out these parameters.

According one report from a UK school, these are factors that were important to their students: destination, identity, conversations, community, retreat, timely, human factors, resources, and refreshment.

These elements dovetail with the characteristics that Herman Miller Education identifies as universal hallmarks of informal learning space solutions:

  • Sustainable
  • Social
  • Stimulating
  • Adaptable
  • Healthful
  • Resourceful

Reimaging & Repurposing Hallways

hallway informal learning spacesMany schools are taking a second look at their existing hallways with new eyes and discovering the power and potential of repurposing those spaces.

Instead of relating to hallways as mere passageways, schools recognize their potential as attractive destinations unto themselves.

In one example of this trend, students from California State University, Long Beach collaborated with Herman Miller Education to redesign a hallway in an academic services building.

Altering the building’s infrastructure, the design established recessed areas in the hallway that were filled with blue and white upholstered seating, side tables and ottomans. “It’s a very well-used corridor,” Jackson says. “What they realized was it was just a pass-through — students could come in and do their business and leave. But now they see it as a gathering place. Before and after their meetings, they can sit and do their work.” Read the full Cal State case study here.

Coffee tables, comfortable chairs, and whiteboards were used to create informal learning spaces at Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA.

The school was renovating several academic buildings. And one aspect of the project was to create alternative study spaces for students.

Our rationale is that outside the library and outside their residence halls, students are looking for some small spaces to just get away and be able to study quietly,” says Rob Yelnosky, vice president for finance and operations at Juniata. “These are perfect for that.”

ILS Design – Do’s and Don’ts

And it’s worth stepping back and noting that both of these examples adhere to some of the key dos and don’ts of designing collaborative informal learning spaces for today’s students.

  1. DO make collaborative spaces intentional, not just accidental. Spaces that are simply “stuck at the end of a hall” won’t foster the type of collaboration and innovation that is possible through deliberate design. One approach is to strategically locate collaborative spaces en route to a specific destination zone.
  2. DO hide in plain sight. Collaborative spaces should provide a sense of limited privacy and separation while still allowing a view out. Furthermore, overly enclosed spaces provide opportunities for mischief.
  3. DON’T limit the benefits of collaborative spaces to only new construction projects. The same principles can be implemented in renovations.

residence hall informal learning spacesIn one project, working with UC Berkeley, we helped them identify some underused spaces and discover some unique opportunities.

With our Berkeley collection, we added collaborative purpose and intention to unused residence hall common spaces.

Creating A Dynamic Indoor/Outdoor Space

In Alastair Creelman’s article Learning spaces – from monofunctional to multifunctional, he highlights another compelling hallway transformation from the U.K.

At the University of Kent in the U.K., an innovative project called the Marlowe Foyer transformed a dead hallway into an indoor/outdoor matrix and also a food destination.

These solutions included transforming enclosed corridors into a cafe study area with colourful furnishings designed for group work and with a solid wall being replaced by glass panels that could be opened in the summer onto a patio area. Drop-down screens make it possible to run semi-formal seminars. The furniture is multi-purpose; you can quickly build a stage with it or the tables can be turned on end to become poster boards for exhibitions of student work.

Multi-Purpose Collaborative Spaces

Gateway Community College took the concept of collaborative spaces a step further. It designed a beautiful multi-purpose Integrated Education Building.

They designed extra wide hallways and corridors to ensure collaborative space as well as circulation.

And instead of hallways, they’ve cleverly dubbed these intentional spaces ‘Collabways”. Here’s an excerpt from the Herman Miller Education case study.

“We think of them as ‘collabways’ rather than corridors,” Perrone says. “The idea isn’t just to get people from point A to point B, but to provide convenient gathering places for students to connect.” The sweeping curves of Swoop Lounge Furniture make it easy for students to get comfortable whether they’re studying alone or working together.

Case in point: Just outside the entrance to the third-floor science labs is a circle of eight Eames Aluminum Group Chairs that invite students to take a break from the bustle. “So often on campuses, you see students sitting on corridor floors between classes,” Perrone says. “We like to provide transitional space in front of instructional space—a place for students to meet with peers before or after class.”

Uplifting Lounges

Lounges are a rich zone of renewal and innovation and a key focal point for the furniture effect. And that makes sense in this age of laptop driven learning. It’s much more dynamic than even 10-20 years ago.

This article from Peter Fabris over at Building Design and Construction reflects on the emerging role of residence halls as hubs and centers of a new live-learn culture where student lounges fulfill a central—and multidimensional—role.

Smartphones, laptops, and iPads make every space a potential study nook. “The use of technology is blurring the lines between living and learning,” says Adam Yarinsky, FAIA, LEED AP, Principal with Architecture Research Office, in New York. Study areas no longer require lots of desks or tables; plush sofas and chairs will do nicely, thank you.

Here are two examples of this in action from Arizona State and Cedar Valley Community College.

Furnishing a student lounge with new chairs and tables where students can prop up their laptops changed a vacant area into a popular gathering place at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Encouraging interaction among students was also the motivation behind a renovation of an underused student lounge on the second floor of an academic building at Cedar Valley Community College near Dallas last year. After replacing the older furniture with new sofas, a large-screen television, a pool table and a game table, the 3,200-square-foot lounge quickly began attracting students.

Do You Have Underused Spaces?

And what about you? Are you currently renovating any of your buildings or planning to do so?

Do you have dead or underutilized spaces in your residence halls, libraries, or academic buildings? Perhaps you should transform them into informal learning spaces?

If the answer is yes, then maybe some these solutions resonate with your current challenges and opportunities?

Let us help you save money and build school spirit. Enhance your student collaboration and learning with some creative and compelling furniture solutions.

(Photos via CC: jisc_infonetShayne Schroeder)