Design for the Ages in School and Workplace Environments (Why Your Future Office Will Look Like Starbucks)

Design for the Ages: School and Workplaces of the Future

Corporate office buildings are becoming increasingly open, adaptive and devoted to experiences. Can K-12 school design foster the same innovative thinking and collaboration we need to succeed in a global economy?

The rise of startup companies has led to corporate offices that look more like lounges – with open spaces, soft furnishings, and bright colors – than traditional workspaces. And now, educational design is following the trend.

Present day workplace design is a far cry from the walled offices and cube farms of the past.

Present day workplace design is a far cry from the walled offices and cube farms of the past, and schools are following suit.

At the early part of the 20th century, schools and office buildings reflected our industrialized roots. Today, educational and office environments are becoming collaborative and cross-functional spaces.

Changing work styles and the influence of startup culture and technology are shifting the workplace from hierarchical workflow to highly interactive experiences. Today’s culture of connectivity, creativity, choice and comfort will be reflected in our office spaces of the future.

That’s the trend Gary Sebach, registered architect and co-author of the book, “What’s in Your Space,” spoke about at the 2016 Design Connections Education Conference and 2017 spring conference of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators.

Sebach’s presentation, “Designing for the Ages: Generational Trends in Education and Workplace Environments,” traces the evolution of workplaces and educational environments, as well as how K-12 environments can enhance the diverse ways students learn and prepare for our global economy.

Office of the future

In the past, Sebach says, office space was a location to get work done. The company provided the tools, set the work hours and the locations. Architecture reflected the workstyle and culture.

Sebach predicts that in the future, company offices will function as a home base to connect and collaborate. Employees will have greater flexibility to decide when, how and where to work, and will not be tied to working in the office. They will flow in and out, connected by social networks and cloud computing.

The percentage of an organization’s work classified as group work will continue to escalate, topping 60% in 5 years, he notes. To accommodate that, spaces will continue to be more open and flexible, with mobile furniture, work pods, comfortable environments and informal collaboration spaces.

A look back at corporate office and educational design

“If you look back at the history of classroom design, you’ll notice that school design reflected a culture of prescriptive learning, with formalized organization around teaching,” says Sebach.

“If you look back at the history of classroom design, you’ll notice that school design reflected a culture of prescriptive learning, with formalized organization around teaching.”

Starting with Baby Boomers, who were educated in the 50s and 60s and entered the workforce in the 1970s, you’ll find that classrooms and workplaces had a similar organization and workflow – a hierarchical arrangement of people and tasks.

The classroom evolved slightly for Generation X, educated primarily in the 70s and 80s. The whiteboard replaced the blackboard, but educational delivery and overall classroom organization changed very little. In the workplace, cubicle space began to dominate.

Millennials, born in the last two decades of the 20th Century, had smart boards and technology in the classroom, and educational instruction slowly began to change to encourage active learning. Technology allowed Millennials to work and explore differently.  Since entering the workforce, this generation has helped reshape workplace function, with technology and startup companies leading the change.

Sebach, who has designed schools as well as corporate offices for Fortune 500 giants including Cardinal Health, IGS Energy, and BMW Financial Services points to recent projects that highlight the growing connection between educational and workplace design.

Corporate campuses designed for creativity and culture

Cardinal Health Corporate Campus

The traditional design of Cardinal Health’s corporate campus belies a highly collaborative and open interior.

Cardinal Health, a $121B healthcare services company based in Dublin, Ohio, is Ohio’s largest company by revenue. From the exterior, Cardinal’s corporate headquarters may look like other office buildings packed with cookie-cutter cubicles. But the interior showcases a more modern approach to workplaces of the future.

Rather than tall cubicles with rows of walled offices, informal meeting areas and non-traditional workspaces create a progressive, open environment meant to inspire creative thinking. Cardinal’s smaller, two-to-four-person huddle spaces (complete with integrated technology) dot the facility, encouraging collaboration and creating a sense of intimacy within the larger space.

“We want employees to use the entire building as their work area. It encourages collaboration and creativity,” says Marino Colatruglio, Vice President, Global Workplace & Corporate Real Estate at Cardinal Health.

Convenience and lifestyle amenities—including a cafeteria, fitness facility, coffee shop, pharmacy, credit union and walking paths—contribute to the “workplace as experience,” trend Sebach describes.

highly collaborative and open interior.

One of many informal meeting areas at the Cardinal Health Corporate Headquarters.

Leaders at IGS Energy, a Columbus, Ohio company which markets natural gas in six states, wanted its corporate campus environment, a 134,000 square-foot, four-story building, to facilitate a culture of family and connection inside the workplace.

The building houses nearly 500 employees. Designed to encourage teamwork, with a focus on environmental and energy efficiency, IGS’ headquarters is Platinum LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified– the highest of the four LEED certification ratings.

Open office environment at IGS Energy

IGS Energy is an example of fostering a collaborative workplace culture through architectural design.

The IGS management team wanted the headquarters to foster a social dimension, according to Sebach. “We’ve moved from office as a building to workplace as an experience, an environment to foster the idea of community and brand,” he contends.

“As designers, we try to get at a company’s culture, then we design space to support that culture.”


21st century learning environments

For a look at how shifts in workplace design are parallel to shifts in educational design, Sebach points to Clark Hall, a non-traditional high school in the Columbus, Ohio suburb of Gahanna. The building, set in an urban-like area, houses retail on the first floor, while students and classrooms occupy the second and third floors.

Sebach says the goal was to create an educational environment that was not institutional. The design allows students the choice on how they want to work, where they want to work, and to some extent, even when they want to work. “It’s no longer cells and bells. We’re creating ways that teachers can give students more ‘customized’ learning experiences.”

Gahanna Lincoln High School's Clark Hall was designed to encourage collaboration and creative problem solving.

Gahanna Lincoln High School’s Clark Hall was designed to encourage 21st century skills like creative problem solving.

Similar to Clark Hall, the Marysville STEM Early College High School, another OHM Advisors-designed school, features collaborative and independent spaces for learning. A vacant middle school converted into an Early College High School STEM academy (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), the focus is on college readiness and specialized career training. The design also fosters a culture of connectivity and transparency.

According to Sebach, teaching now requires a student-led, project-based learning environment where hands-on problem solving and collaboration happen daily.

“When we design corporate buildings, we keep future flexibility and adaptability in mind. It’s the same for schools. With the Clark Hall and Marysville STEM projects, for example, we used drywall instead of traditional masonry walls in order to provide optimal flexibility in the future.”

Another feature, taken directly from today’s progressive workplaces are the innovation hubs throughout the Marysville STEM building that invite students to connect, communicate, and collaborate. The open spaces feature white boards, glass writing surfaces, flexible furniture, and integrated technology to inspire brainstorming and idea sharing between groups of students and educators.


Open, configurable classrooms at Marysville STEM High School allow teachers to float between groups of students practicing project-based learning.

Collaboration space at Marysville STEM High School

Students utilize a collaboration space at Marysville STEM High School to work on a group project.

Designing the future

Innovation hubs at Marysville STEM High School include white boards, flexible furniture, and integrated technology.

Innovation hubs at Marysville STEM High School include white boards, flexible furnishings, and integrated technology.

What impact will the future generations have on workplace and education design? We’re now witnessing the birth of Generation Alpha, which began around 2010, when Millennials started having children. Alphas will be the first generation born entirely in the 21st century and will number almost 2 billion by 2025.

Mark McCrindle, a generational researcher interviewed in the New York Times says Alpha will be “the most formally educated generation ever, the most technology supplied generation ever, and globally the wealthiest generation ever.”

Sebach points out that Alpha will be the first generation to have a hand-held computing device as standard. However, he argues that it’s too soon to know all the ways they will influence educational design (and later, workplace design).

Instead he says we should design 10 years in advance. “Anything beyond that is too susceptible to change due to technology.”



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