Delivering Flexible Learning Environments

June 13, 2019 by Edward Puentes, PE, Director of Higher Education

We’ve all heard the phrase “flexible learning spaces” when discussing new higher education facilities. While these flexible learning spaces are not new, it is becoming increasingly important to ensure that these facilities are delivered on time, on budget and is delivered how the end user desires.


Components of a “Flexible Learning Space”

Before we can dive into what is required to deliver a flexible learning space, we must first define the features of this type of environment:

·         Reconfigurable classrooms: This has and will continue to be key in providing a space that can be used for many years to come

·         Classroom-wide IT availability: As the parameters of learning environments continue to shift outside the classroom, hallways and wings of the facility cannot be overlooked. Being able to plug a laptop in while sitting in the hallway is essential.

·         Audio-Visual Components: AV is essential to a flexible, well-equipped classroom space and therefore a heavy emphasis must be placed on these AV components.

·         Distance Learning: While distance learning continues to grow on college campuses throughout the country, the design team must include this in their process. Need to bring in a guest lecturer from Italy? No problem when you keep this in mind while designing the space.

·         HVAC Flexibility: Designing the HVAC load with various occupancies in mind is key. Student headcount might not change, but what could change in the future is the amount of equipment being brought into the space. A regular classroom/lecture space turned computer lab possibility must be reflected in load calculations.  


Electrical Infrastructure Flexibility

Variations in classroom occupancies may pose significant changes in required amperage. A few items to consider with the electrical infrastructure:

·         Amperage Range: Electrical design must consider an amperage range necessary for a “traditional classroom” as well as a new, flexible learning space as well where every student brings a cell phone, laptop, etc.  

·         Reverse Cascade Effect: Reverse cascade effect will impact the size of conductors, the size of panels, and potentially transformers.  

·         Raised Flooring Systems: Raised flooring systems are a viable option for providing ultimate flexibility in the classroom.

·         Lighting: Lighting design must incorporate complex switching schemes as well as dimming capacity while all running in conjunction with lighting controls required by IECC 2015.


Technology Infrastructure Flexibility

The need for flexible technology infrastructure is at an all time high and we will only see this need continue to increase as technology improves. There are a few items to keep in mind when it comes to flexibility with technology design:

·         Raised Flooring Systems + Whips: Raised flooring systems can also apply for technology infrastructure flexibility by running whips throughout the space.

·         Wireless Access Points (WAP): WAP’s will be an integral component of flexible technology infrastructure as this accommodates classrooms, hallways and limited outdoor use as well

·         Robust backbone for Infrastructure: A robust backbone for infrastructure is key to delivering flexible spaces -whether simple or something much larger in the future.


Mechanical Infrastructure Flexibility (HVAC + Plumbing)

Mechanical infrastructure flexibility can dramatically impact the final delivery of a project and must be kept front of mind throughout the life of the design process.

·         CFM: Mechanical systems with the ability to modulate from a minimum CFM in a traditional classroom setting to CFM necessary for an advanced learning classroom setting based on a given demand is imperative.

·         HVAC System Applications: Different HVAC system applications such as VRF, chilled water or hybrids can be explored to provide various options for flexibility.

·         Plumbing: Running water to the building isn’t a problem, the challenge is often sewer lines. An option we often offer our clients is to consider looping sanitary lines. This allows the client to access the line anywhere without tearing up concrete. 


The evolution of the new learning environment has already taken place. It is the lessons learned and adapting to delivering flexible learning spaces that needs to be the focus for design professionals. Partnering with our institutional partners will continue to be key moving forward.

Edward Puentes, PE
Principal | Director of Higher Education