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Learning Spaces Design


VMDO Architects


Design Approach


Development In Learning Space Design A Balanced Design Approach Individualized Designs Focus on Collaborative Learning

6 11 14 17

Design Considerations


User-Centered Design Flexibility Fostering Connections Blended Learning Technology Functionality

Catalog of Spaces Active Learning Classroom Entrepreneurial Hubs Event Space Faculty Offices Group Study Room Laboratories Lecture Room Maker Space Meeting Room Music Room Seminar Room Distributed User Seating Outdoor Learning Spaces

Featured Projects

22 25 28 31 34 37

39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52



VMDO Architects

At VMDO we strive to create spaces and buildings that support and enhance student learning in all of its diverse forms. The academic spaces we design are carefully tuned to provide the maximum amount of flexibility for a wide range of academic uses, and each is tailored to meet the unique demands of its users. We see collaboration as an important ingredient in today’s learning landscape and strive to make rooms and buildings that promote dialog and the healthy exchange of ideas. We believe technology is an important tool in the modern day teaching arsenal, but seek to incorporate it in seamless ways that do not detract from the learning experience. And finally, we feel strongly that each learning space must be open, accessible and useful for the full spectrum of students that might use it.




01 Design Approach Development in Learning Space Design A Balanced Design Approach Individualized Designs Focus on Collaborative Learning


Desi gn Ap proach

Developments in Learning Space Design Learning spaces are evolving into increasingly dynamic environments that support a wide range of learning styles and pedagogical approaches. The classrooms of tomorrow are flexible, technologically advanced spaces that support discovery and experimentation like never before and allow students to collaborate with peers and instructors in novel ways.

At the heart of the American university experience resides a

New mechanisms for digital learning have also impacted notions

core tenant of higher education: organized, focused, outcome-

of information sharing, challenging prevailing spatial models

oriented learning. For much of history this learning was focused on

and their suitability for facilitating information delivery and

developing well-established academic skills and was achieved in

creation. Technological innovations are changing the landscape

two basic types of space: the classroom – a highly ordered, largely

of learning in higher education in diverse and novel ways, and the

inflexible space where instructors presented information to small

architecture of the spaces that promote continued educational

groups of students, and lecture halls – where large assemblies of

excellence is adjusting to suit these changes.

students would be addressed by a well-regarded speaker. Each setting successfully placed students and information in close

In an ongoing effort to identify the promising trends in higher

proximity but did little to enhance students’ comprehension.

education and implement designs for spaces that have the most

Each has allowed countless numbers of students to gain an

lasting impact on users, VMDO Architects strives to combine the

understanding of course content through knowledge delivery and

best aspects of traditional learning space planning with proven

consumption techniques that have been in practice for centuries.

innovations in active learning classroom design. We embrace the opportunity to include the most cutting-edge technologies

In recent years, however, learning spaces have transitioned away

available, while remaining dedicated to making places that are

from the static configuration of a “sage of the stage” toward

centered on the student experience – rooms, buildings, and

a dynamic arrangement of students and instructors, each

landscapes that are at once replete with necessary educational

positioned to engage in open, active dialogue in an environment

tools but don’t sacrifice the joy of learning in favor of institutional

that fosters the development of complex problem-solving skills.

efficiency and standardization.



Desi gn Ap proach

The collection of learning spaces on this page illustrate the broad spectrum of room configurations and sizes that make up our lexicon of academic space types. Moving from left to right, one can see the variety of room sizes necessary to accommodate a full range of academic uses, from small group study rooms to large lecture halls. Moving from top to bottom, the spaces range from more traditional room types to configurations that stretch the limits of flexibility and technological sophistication.


D es i g n A pproach

A Balanced Design Approach Current trends in higher education point to an increasing reliance on digital scholarship and communication. And while technology is at the center of improvements to the transmission of a vast and constantly-expanding body of information, physical interaction in real time is an invaluable component in the learning process.

We are intrigued by all the possible directions higher education

could earn their degrees while caring for their families.

is heading in the 21st century. With the advent of SCALE-UP

With this paradigm shift comes uncertainty about the future

(Student Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside Down

of the brick-and-mortar classroom. As remote, online learning

Pedagogy), distance learning, TEAL (Technology Enriched Active

opportunities increase, former models of learning are lessening

Learning)and MOOCs (Massive, Open, Online Coursework), there

in predominance. And while that possibility has a number of

is decreasing support for the model of higher education that has

appealing aspects, the role physical space plays in creating a place

long stood as a successful structure for training future scholars.

to gather, collaborate, and learn in cannot be overemphasized.

Advances in technology are allowing a growing number of people

It is our belief that the experience gained during interactions

to take advantage of a post-secondary education. With the advent

with peers and instructors is integral to the effective training of

of the internet, ever-expanding networks of wired and wireless

students and cannot be replaced or imitated. Research into the

internet access, and the ubiquity of affordable mobile computing

effectiveness of an education built around physical interaction

devices, there exists the possibility of nearly universal access

supports this claim. Indeed, a number of well-documented studies

to information. Individuals across the globe could conceivably

point to elevated levels of student achievement and retention as a

register for classes at MIT, American military personnel deployed

result of carefully crafted active learning spaces.

overseas could study online remotely, and stay-at home parents


Creating A New Heart Of Campus Life

“What sets VMDO apart from most firms is their ability to design function into the facility and follow through with the construction process to ensure that the architectural integrity, functionality, and client satisfaction are retained. These qualities together make the firm and their buildings truly outstanding.�

S i m e o n E. Ewing As s o c i at e V i ce Ch a ncel l o r U VA’ s C o llege a t Wise


Desi gn Ap proach

Individualized Designs When it comes to learning spaces, one size does not fit all. In order to embed educational programs within the spaces that will help students succeed, a deep and focused study of the particular institutional mission and its core values is necessary.

We develop a specialized approach to learning space distribution,

spaces are most needed. Similarly, when diagnosing programmatic

layout, and design with each client, focusing on the unique

areas ripe for architectural enhancements, we continue to drill-

aspects of that institution’s academic goals and educational

down into the details to discover what amenities are needed to

philosophy. This sensitivity is achieved by carefully reviewing a

create a first-class environment for collaborative learning.

college or university’s mission, understanding its distinctive history, gaining familiarity with its degree programs and course offerings,

In developing a detailed space plan for an institution, we

and meeting with administrators, students, and instructors to

sometimes discover academic opportunities that can be offered

understand expectations for learning spaces.

in new types of learning spaces, such as by creating wholly-new spaces without precedent on campus or by combining facilities

Along with a comprehensive survey of the institution’s broader

for the shared use of multiple classes or departments. In all, a

academic goals, a more nuanced study of a program’s curriculum

creative analysis of existing facilities and an open dialogue about

and areas of scholarly focus can suggest key learning space needs.

collaborative possibilities enriches the landscape of learning at

Often, it isn’t until a methodical assessment of existing facilities is

today’s colleges and universities.

completed that we begin to see where new or improved learning



Desi gn Ap proach

D es i g n A pproach

Focus On Collaborative Learning Increasingly, the modern classroom is comprised of teams of students working together on projects that cross traditional academic boundaries. The success of these new learning communities relies on collaboration between groups of students and the fluid interaction amongst these groups and their instructors.

Recent research indicates a strong correlation between

Collaboration takes many forms. Groups working together

heightened levels of student aptitude and learning environments

towards common ends may benefit from a range of working-

that promote active, participatory engagement with instructors

group scales, from upwards of ten individuals to as few as two

and fellow students. When collaborating with groups of peers,

or three, depending on particular project goals and the aims

and with the expertise of professors within easy reach, students

of the instructor. Because of this wide range of possible team

display an elevated level of achievement, heightened mastery of

sizes, spaces purpose-built for active learning must take into

course materials, and an increased willingness to contribute to

consideration a wide range of seating and teaching permutations.

discussions. These students benefit from a kind of social learning

The ability for groups to organize in different configurations

– a method of knowledge creation and sharing dating back

necessitates a degree of flexibility both in fixed infrastructure as

millennia that was largely abandoned with the standardization of

well as mobile furnishings and interactive surfaces. Our planning

public education. This new take on an old methodology suggests

work establishes a range of staging options for each room and

a revised, more interactive approach to designing the spaces that

guards against obsolescence by anticipating future developments

host collaborative learning and social engagement.

in the ways active learning techniques are deployed.


“I think one of the things that has always impressed me about VMDO is that the very first thing they do … is they ask “what are you going to do in the space, what are the needs, what’s the complexity, the variability of the use of the space?” instead of initiating a proposal that says “this is what we can build for you.” Instead, it’s a matter of “what is it that you need?” D r. Ro nald H . B au e rle P rofe s s or E m e ri tu s o f B i o lo g y U ni ve rs i ty o f V i rg i ni a



02 Design Considerations User-Centered Design Flexibility Fostering Connections Blended Learning Technology Functionality


Desi gn Consi d e rat i on s

User-Centered Design Simply put, learning spaces are meant to allow students to perform to their highest and best potential and to minimize superfluous distractions. The room and its accoutrements are provided to support learning and teaching and should be secondary to pedagogical pursuits.

All too often, when students and instructors enter a new, state-of-the-art classroom for the first time, they are struck by the number of devices, screens, and controls at their fingertips. Technology is an important component in the complex assemblage of parts that constitute a modern classroom. However, it is our belief that technology should be construed as a necessary tool that supports learning in an integrated, not intrusive, way. Technology plays a vital part in how we all work and learn, but it is in service of something greater: an unprecedented ability to access vast stores of recorded knowledge to better understand and address today’s pressing questions.



D es i gn Co n si de rati on s


Mobile furniture is only one ingredient in creating an environment supportive of active learning. The educational model must be calibrated to take advantage of the benefits of dynamic group-based learning spaces.

A number of well-known manufacturers have become adept at marketing entire lines of furniture based on the premise that mobility translates into successful active learning space. Chairs and tables outfitted with casters and available in a range of styles and sizes allow for a wide range of combinations – from traditional rows in lecture settings to pods of grouped tables and chairs that permit group work of varying scales. Instructors and students are now interfacing in increasingly informal ways and doing so in settings that resemble dynamic, small group discussions that blur the distinction between teacher and learner. The spaces that accommodate this sort of interactive learning model must provide reconfigurable furniture layouts and a variety of presentation surfaces that are easily viewed and shared.


“VMDO created a dramatically enhanced landscape for VCU Honors College using very simple but effective tools. It’s not an overstatement to say that it has been transformational in how it has elevated the human spirit, stimulated meaningful conservations, and engendered a sense of pride among students.�

M ar y Cox , FA IA U ni ve rs i ty A rc h it ec t V i rg i ni a C o m m o nwe alth U niversit y


Desi gn Consi d e rat i on s

Fostering Connections Today’s learning spaces need to be accessible and welcoming for all students. They ought to be designed to accommodate a diverse group of users, each with their own set of distinct approaches to learning.

In order to truly re-imagine the classroom and embrace the kind of one-on-one and small group interactions that today’s students crave, learning spaces must be designed to facilitate collaboration and support the engagement of all kinds of users – both quiet and outspoken. Rooms should be carefully designed to avoid hierarchies that might unintentionally create the impression of preferred seating locations or the feeling of front and back tiers of seating. Rooms should also be designed to incorporate online participation – an increasingly common trend on today’s campuses.



D es i gn Co n si de rati on s

Blended Learning New scholarship on the effectiveness of teaching in the classroom indicates that utilizing class time to actively engage in assignments has more beneficial impact when coupled with a thorough review of course content outside of class.

With the increasing reliance on digitaland web-based resources, and because those resources can now be provided and accessed online, a number of instructors have decided to “flip� the sequence in which they review and present coursework. Historically, instructors have presented material to their classes when meeting together and then assigned additional work to be performed outside of the classroom to bolster what was reviewed as a group. Blended learning reverses that order. Once students have gained familiarity with a topic, the class assembles and actively works through problem sets collaboratively, bringing what had once been individual assignments back within the learning space, to be solved amongst groups. This approach to active problem-solving places new emphasis on teaming and relies on student and teacher interaction for effectiveness.


“The Greer Environmental Sciences Center creates a collaborative, student-centered learning environment with the flexible space needed for undergraduate research that goes beyond the typical discipline boundaries.� D r. S o raya B ar t o l A s s oc ia t e P ro fe s s o r o f B i o lo g y + Dire c t or of Un d e rg radu ate Re s e arc h Virgin i a We s le yan C o lle g e


Desi gn Consi d e rat i on s


The presence of technology in today’s classroom is a given. However, technically sophisticated equipment and software can become a barrier for users trying to access a learning space’s suite of digital tools. Careful integration of systems, and regular trainings, are keys to the successful implementation of digital teaching and learning strategies.

Increasingly, students are relying on laptops and mobile devices for access to course content and – occasionally – real-time class participation. More often than not, these devices are also used to fulfill the required projects assigned by instructors. This means that each participant in an active learning classroom has his/her own means of accessing data, often placing equal demand on physical and digital infrastructures. Power outlets, ample wireless service, and ways of sharing digital information seamlessly between students and instructors are critical components of an active learning classroom. Additionally, because tables and chairs are mobile and constantly being reconfigured to suit pedagogical demands, projection surfaces need to be equally flexible. Mobile screens that can be positioned alongside groups of students or multiple fixed screens that can be viewed from various locations within the room are common in active learning spaces.



D es i gn Co n si de rati on s


Functionality translates to a range of choices for students related to furnishings, accessibility, comfort, and flexibility. Learning environments, whether new or renovated, should offer a maximum return on investment and allow users of today and tomorrow to be supported in the space.

To accommodate all participants comfortably, and to ensure the safety and welfare of those using educational facilities, the design of active learning spaces requires consideration of a wide range of physical parameters. As noted, students often bring their own equipment with them, and each item must be accounted for in the selection and layout of furniture. Careful planning ensures that each proposed use of the space can be hosted without putting stress on the room or disquieting users.




03 Catalog of Spaces Active Learning Classroom

Lecture Room Maker Space

Entrepreneurial Hubs

Meeting Room

Event Space

Music Room

Faculty Offices

Seminar Room

Group Study Room

Distributed User Seating


Outdoor Learning Spaces


C a t alog of Space s

Active Learning Classroom A space built around flexibility and reconfigurable seating layouts. Active learning spaces provide the ability to stage a number of dynamic group settings for participatory learning and supplement analog teaching techniques with digital technologies. Mobile furnishings help reorient the relationship between groups of students and instructors, and encourage interaction between all participants.

Ca ta lo g of Space s

Entrepreneurial Hubs Spaces that support entrepreneurial partnerships in and among disciplines such as business, engineering, and health care. Featuring spaces that support collaboration and experiential learning, entrepreneurial hubs help foster innovators who translate research into new technologies that drive economic development.



C a t alog of Space s

Event Space Grand public spaces that host a variety of gatherings, from academic to social offerings. Event spaces often serve as the face of an academic program. They are called upon to represent an institution’s identity, often housing the events and artifacts most closely associated with a given program’s culture and mission. They are flexible spaces, equally suited to academic gatherings and large institution affairs.

Ca ta lo g of Space s

Faculty Offices Small, private spaces that can double as locations for tutoring and mentoring. Many faculty and staff are assigned rooms to serve as a home for their academic activities on campus. Often, these spaces are designed to support interaction and interdisciplinary research as well as accommodate groups of instructors that share common resources. Some instructors hold office hours to extend their ability to review course content and student development beyond classroom hours.



C a t alog of Space s

Group Study Rooms A small, technology-rich study space that can be used for a wide variety of pursuits. Group study rooms are in high demand on campuses around the country for their utility. They can be used as quiet study rooms, group research spaces for project-based team learning, or even meeting rooms for conferences and presentations.

Ca ta lo g of Space s


Specialized rooms equipped to support focused S.T.E.M. curricula. Labs are purpose-built spaces designed to host specific scientific and engineering exploits in highly controlled environments. Often, the infrastructure of these rooms places limits on their flexibility, but new models provide discreet areas for collaboration and group work adjacent to dedicated lab space.



C a t alog of Space s

Lecture Room A large space that can accommodate many students, typically in a stepped configuration. Lecture halls have traditionally been used to provide introductory courses to large numbers of students. They allow for little versatility because of the design parameters necessary to successfully shape an outsized room for adequate visual and acoustic performance. However, new approaches to grouping rows of seats in tiers permit new collaborative possibilities.

Ca ta lo g of Space s

Maker Space Maker Space – A communal space outfitted with a range of tools and fabrication equipment. Perhaps more than any other academic space, maker spaces capture the dynamic bridge being forged between learning and craft. These workshop-like spaces resemble woodshops of old, and are replete with both traditional tools (for welding, weaving, metalworking, and woodworking) and state-of-the-art digital fabrication devices like 3-D printers.



C a t alog of Space s

Meeting Room A space reserved for meetings and not typically available for general academic use. Important consideration must be given to the allocation of space for important administrative meetings that support curricular content and pedagogical enterprises. They range in size, but often accommodate a minimum of ten participants.

Ca ta lo g of Space s

Music Room Acoustically-driven spaces that improve internal sound quality while isolating musical activities from the surrounding spaces. The experience of performing and listening to music is unlike any other in academia. Spaces that help create conditions for optimal acoustic transmission are important to the development of one’s art. Rooms used to practice and perform require a heighten level of attention to finishes and construction, and must be shaped according to the specific types of music being performed.



C a t alog of Space s

Seminar Room A small room that hosts regular group discussions, usually led by an instructor. For many students, the seminar room is a place for intimate academic explorations with a small group of peers. These rooms are typically arranged to encourage face-to-face discussions – around a single, large table or in a small ring of tables and chairs.

Ca ta lo g of Space s

Distributed User Seating Informal groupings of tables, chairs, and comfortable seating options - dispersed throughout a building - that promote individual and group study. Oftentimes a building’s circulation space is full of potentially useful square footage and includes opportunities to capitalize on undervalued, “leftover” areas. Eddies in corridors, zones under stair landings and spaces between dedicated classrooms and their support spaces provide ample room to create comfortable, flexible areas for impromptu study and play.



C a t alog of Space s

Outdoor Learning Spaces Carefully designed landscapes that surround and intermingle with architecture and provide a much-needed respite from the confines of traditional interior learning spaces. The affinity many people have for the outdoors need not be limited to recreational activities. Conversely, many institutions take great pride in their local ecosystem, their natural amenities, and the special geographic location they inhabit. Increasingly, learning space design includes those spaces that immediately adjoin traditional interior spaces.



Feat ured Proje ct s

Featured Projects

The images found throughout this book feature VMDO designs for learning environments for the following institutions and projects: •

City of Charlottesville: Charlottesville Area Transit System Operations Center

Fauquier County Public Schools: Fauquier High School

George Mason University; Innovation Hall

Georgia Institute of Technology: Glenn and Towers Halls

Liberty University: Library and Academic Commons

Liberty University: School of Music

Liberty University: Science Hall

Liberty University: Innovation Hall Study

Radford University: Bolling, Draper + Pocahontas Residence Halls

Sweet Briar College: Cochran Library

The Richard Stockton of New Jersey: College Center

University of Virginia: Graduate Center for Jefferson Fellows

Virginia Commonwealth University: EPIC School of Business

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University: Pritchard Hall

Virginia Wesleyan College: Greer Environmental Sciences Center

Young Harris College: New Campus Center and Library

VMDO Architects 200 E Market St Charlottesville, Va 22902 434.296.5684

For more information on Higher Education work please contact:

For more information on Learning Spaces work please contact:

David Oakland, AIA, LEED AP

Jim Kovach

Joe Atkins, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Dade Van Der Werf, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Learning Spaces Design  

At VMDO we strive to create spaces that support and enhance student learning.

Learning Spaces Design  

At VMDO we strive to create spaces that support and enhance student learning.