Smart Design Principles Boost Productivity & Sustainability

By Denny Crain

As times and technology change so do students’ needs. When faced with rising financial pressures and students’ changing preferences, colleges and universities continue to look for new ways to reduce operating costs while continuing to improve the educational experience. To do so, architects and designers face these design challenges head on, ultimately creating new trends and principles for sustainable institutions.

Schools and universities continue to implement more flexible spaces that can be used either for quiet individual studying or collaborative group projects.
Photo Credit (all): Remiger Design

Smart design principles can create visually impactful spaces that are both functional and efficient for student and staff use while improving the sustainability of a project. Any academic building can benefit from these design principles that are specifically applied to enhance the productivity of students and staff and the conservation of resources. Productive environments can be achieved sustainably by reducing the footprint of the building using space-utilization strategies, using sustainable materials that are long-lasting and flexible for future use, and installing energy-efficient lighting and utility alternatives.


Productivity to a university and building management team is synonymous with a quantifiable output, result or rate of efficiency. For almost any institution, the motivation behind increasing the rate of productivity is to positively affect its bottom line and the students’ performance and satisfaction. The design of a space can impact the users’ health, wellness and comfort and ultimately their productivity. Improving the ergonomics of a workspace, controlling the air temperature and the level of natural light are just some of the ways in which universities can satisfy students’ comfort levels. By implementing a variety of design principles to address factors in the physical environment, institutions can increase the overall productivity of not only the students and staff, but also the building as a whole.

Design Trends

An important consideration when implementing a sustainable, productive design in a school setting is the trends that are important to students and staff. A new generation of students, raised on smartphones and tablets, have different styles of working and preferences than the generations of students who came before them. How these students experience the world around them is pushing the boundaries of design for school campuses across the country. In order to keep this new generation of students productive, architects and designers need to address the different ways in which they work and learn as well as their different mindsets and thought processes regarding school space.

In recent years, schools and universities have been implementing more flexible spaces that can be used either for quiet individual studying or collaborative group projects. This gives students the chance to personalize their space in unique and productive ways depending on the occasion. The aim of this design trend is to provide a balance between public spaces, private, semi-private and public areas to work. Adding furniture systems that can be adapted and adjusted for different users and scenarios will ultimately provide a long-term sustainable solution as design trends continue to evolve.

Sustainable Design

There are many important factors to consider when developing a productive, sustainably designed building. Sustainability can be considered in terms of space consumption, energy consumption and material life cycle. A truly sustainable facility will excel in all of these areas. Creating a sustainable space goes beyond declaring it a “green” facility; it includes flexibility for the long-term — constructing spaces that will withstand current trends and have the ability to evolve as students’ needs change in the future.

In regard to space consumption, a smaller physical footprint will lead to reduced overhead in terms of maintenance, utilities and other expenses associated with larger buildings. To create a smaller footprint, designers need to use the available square footage while still meeting the needs of students and staff. Traditionally, large portions of academic buildings would go unused throughout the day. However, if designed properly, these spaces can become productive areas for students to work and collaborate. A popular renovation strategy for getting the most out of underutilized portions of a building is to design multi-use and flexible spaces. Designing more than one function for a seldom-used space is a good way to reduce space consumption.

Schools and universities can decrease their energy consumption by using energy-efficient lighting such as LED fixtures. New LED fixtures come in a variety of color temperatures that create a more comfortably lit space with the added benefit of a return on investment in energy savings. Making lighting improvements can have a big impact on both the bottom line and student performance.

To read the entire article, check out the July/August issue of School Construction News.

Denny Crain is a registered architect at Remiger Design, a St. Louis-based planning, architecture and interior design firm specializing in the planning and design of commercial and corporate facilities.