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How Design Can Enhance the Learning Experience
Walt Miller, Principal and Design Director for John Portman & Associates

A welcome shift in design for higher education has been the move from providing an environment where students are taught, to a focus on creating spaces that facilitate how students learn. For example, in designing the Academic Center at Georgia Gwinnett College, the architects were specifically asked to emphasize ‘students first’ and design for the way students learn today. From the round form that fosters community and sharing, to the more than 20 small, medium and large spaces dedicated to student group study, this building is designed to facilitate collaborative, interactive learning.

Like more and more higher education facilities today, the building accommodates multiple functions and must serve the needs of a variety of audiences. The design solution supports a flexible environment where the classrooms, laboratories and faculty offices encircle the three-story central space that contains student support functions. The design fosters student-teacher interaction to its maximum.

The Academic Center was among the first higher education facilities in Georgia to be designed specifically with the intent that 25 percent of the student body would be studying online. Technology designed and built into the facility demonstrates a commitment to virtual and commuter students by allowing them to customize their education with new modes of accessing information. Distance learning capabilities help people who cannot attend regularly scheduled classes on campus to receive instruction, continuing education, and professional development on their own schedules from virtually anywhere.

It was designed as the first building of a satellite facility for a consortium of institutions. However, from the beginning, it was intended that the Academic Center would one day serve as the icon for a new campus in the University System of Georgia. Today, this signature building is fulfilling its destiny as the academic center for Georgia Gwinnett College, a new stand-alone college, and the master planned campus is being built to eventually serve more than 20,000 students. The Academic Center’s modern design features a stately red brick façade that creates a visual link to Georgia’s traditional higher education campuses, while the aluminum, glass and sweeping open space inside acknowledge today’s non-conventional students.

Studies show that natural light boosts learning, and the Academic Center is designed to emphasize the benefits of natural light, while also taming


the sun’s effects in order to maintain optimum human comfort. Photocells in the building’s interior spaces allow for up to two thirds of the lights to be automatically shut off when the light level is adequately maintained through natural lighting. A glass curtain wall partially faces south but is designed with glass that gives a high transmission of visible light but a low transmittance of solar energy into the building. In areas that receive sunlight for most of the day, a frit has been applied to further reduce the amount of solar energy transmission. Internal pedestrian bridges act as shading devices to temper the penetration of sunlight into the building, saving on cooling costs.

Classroom buildings are not the only higher education facilities adapting to address the way students learn today. There has been a major paradigm shift in the way libraries are used on campuses. While they were once primarily places that housed collections and enforced quiet, individual study, today’s libraries offer opportunities for engagement and create learning opportunities for individuals, small groups and even large assemblies. The new Brooks Library at Norfolk State University, for example, is a modern library designed with today’s students in mind.

Conceived as a student-focused facility and intended to serve as the new heart of the campus, Brooks Library is positioned to create two new quadrangles to the East and West. The design includes a three story rotunda lobby, circulation desk, 24/7 Internet café, staff offices, additional functional spaces, and a small museum.

Technology engaged both onsite and remotely provides access to vital information for staff and students. To support variety in service delivery, library zoning is enhanced through furnishings. Where collaboration is desired, tables and carrels are either curved, waved or elliptical shapes, supporting interaction. In collaboration rooms, half-elliptical tables focus attention on large flat panel displays. These collaboration stations are fitted with software that allows multiple users to simultaneously share and collectively edit content they place on the large flat panel display, wirelessly.

In areas for individual productivity, rectangular tables with implied or translucent dividers establish ‘personal space’ configured to separate individuals, discourage conversation, and facilitate focused concentration. All tables have power outlets unobtrusively positioned beneath the table top for connectivity convenience. Building levels further zone library space, maintaining active collaborative spaces on lower levels and quiet spaces for focused concentration on upper levels.

Rejecting the trend of offsite storage for print collections, the library accommodates onsite access to the entire collection. Designed with flexibility in mind and being cognizant of expanding print collections, the library utilizes conventional open shelving as well as compact mobile shelving on every level, allowing for both endless adaptable shelving configurations and the complete browsing of a physical library collection.

The Brooks Library design is another project that takes advantage of the benefits of natural lighting and also controls


it as necessary. Though the supporting outdoor greenways have access to the campus’ wireless data network, students may choose to study indoors without missing out on sunshine. Twenty-five group study rooms distributed throughout the library are configured for technology access on their opaque walls and daylight access through full-height transparent walls. Low-emissivity glazing helps reduce energy costs, while additional energy savings come from ample access to daylight, reducing dependence on electric lighting during operational hours. Lights turn on when someone enters a room and turn off when the last person leaves. In certain areas of the building, window shades automatically lower at certain times of the day to reduce solar gain and to protect materials from the damaging rays of the sun.

Designed as an inviting space that will accommodate the University’s growing population, Brooks Library sets the direction for Norfolk State University as a ‘center for learning’ now and into the future.

Walt Miller, RA
Principal and Design Director at John Portman & Associates

Walt Miller has been an important member of the John Portman & Associates (Portman) firm since 1987. An accomplished designer and planner, Miller directs the design team in resolving how to implement Portman design philosophy and vision into functional spaces.

He has been a guest lecturer and critic at a number of prestigious schools, including the Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture where he oversees administration of the Portman Prize, an award created for the purpose of encouraging the school’s graduate students to develop a holistic design approach that ties the big idea to the small detail.

Prior to joining Portman, Miller was with the firm of Cesar Pelli & Associates, where he became a Senior Designer, responsible for schematic design and design development of major projects such as the World Financial Center/New York; and the Boyer Medical Research Laboratory building at Yale University.

John Portman & Associates


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