The Future Of The Campus Isn’t The Classroom

The most holistic educational experiences happen outside of the classroom. To make the biggest impact, target student-life facilities.

The Future Of The Campus Isn’t The Classroom

Student-life professionals regularly face the challenge of doing more with less. Over the past two decades, state-provided revenues for public institutions have steadily declined, while operating costs have increased. More often than not, budgets do not strike a balance between resources and needs, forcing institutions to find creative ways of addressing escalating expenses. This is where innovative architectural solutions become critical in supporting student life on campus.


When traditional academic programs are combined with co-curricular activities, new opportunities for hybrid strategies in finance and operations become available. Examples include hosting academic programs inside a residence hall, inviting physical education classes to use the bowling alley, hosting leadership programs in the student union, or blending student service functions into student-life facilities.

Successful facilities are designed to allow maximum adaptability.

Build for adaptability

Successful facilities are designed to allow maximum adaptability for unforeseen future needs. The “bones” of the building — such as mechanical, electrical, and structural systems, along with elevators, stairs, and major hallways — must be planned for flexibility to meet unanticipated future programs and to be more easily repurposed for future uses. Repurposing or reusing an existing facility is one of the most sustainable strategies available to us today. This not only supports a university’s sustainability goals but can also reduce capital costs.

In the past, when building programs were more stable and change was something measured in decades, not semesters, more abundant financial resources allowed campus buildings to be constructed with capacities and systems “just in case” they might be needed later on. Those days are long gone. Ever tightening capital budgets will force schools to adapt quickly to unforeseen changes in program or usage. Spaces will be designed with demountable and reusable walls, more open floor layouts, fewer permanent walls, and flexible mechanical and electrical systems. The future campus building will be repurposed many times during its useable lifetime, and facilitate those changes in a matter of weeks; as opposed to a matter of months or even years.

Listen to what the students want

The mission of student life is to create opportunities that enrich the student experience, engage and retain students on campus, and provide additional avenues for extracurricular learning. Most students see it more simply: They just want a cool and exciting place to chill, grab a bite to eat, or just to see and be seen.


A great student-life building embodies the values, aspirations, culture, history, and traditions of the university, both in philosophy and in form. These buildings are literally the brick-and-mortar representations of how an institution treats and regards its students, and creating a lasting beacon of institutional values can be an important tool in student recruitment and retention. Designing well-planned, open, and transparent buildings provides intuitive wayfinding, allowing students to see, locate, and identify services beyond the ones they are currently seeking. This kind of collateral discovery broadens the student experience as it showcases the full range of programs and services available on campus.

One of the most important services is provide great food — at the right price, offered anytime and at a convenient location. A 21st-century student-life building will offer display cooking, locally grown and organic foods, ethnic options, and a wider, more interesting range of venues. Universities that grow their own food and provide retail groceries will become commonplace.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “Every generation needs a revolution.” For today’s generation that revolution just might be sustainability. But focusing merely on environmental sustainability won’t be enough. The triple bottom line is this: Student-life facilities must go beyond environmental sustainability to focus on social and economic sustainability as well. To maintain long-term viability, student-life facilities must support the social fabric of the campus community and provide economically feasible services for decades to come.

Planning for green operations is the next step in the progression toward truly sustainable buildings. Tracking operational performance in terms of energy consumption, water use, landfill waste, and greenhouse gas emissions are important steps in achieving institutional sustainability goals. The next wave of environmentally conscious design will generate more power than they consume, harvest more water than they use, and become inseparably connected with their local ecosystems.

The next wave of design will generate more power than it consumes.

Establish healthy habits

Campus-life buildings have the opportunity to make positive and lasting impacts on the health of those they serve. Recreational sports are at the forefront of an emerging student-life trend focusing on personal health, fitness, and well-being. In the future, these aspirations toward holistic health will allow students to achieve higher levels of academic and personal development. This approach aligns the recreational-sports mission with amenities traditionally considered separate, including health and counseling services, sports medicine, exercise science, and nutrition. Successful student-life buildings will address the health and wellness of the campus community and enable students to learn and practice lifelong behaviors that promote physical, intellectual, and mental health. The focus on “healthy buildings” promoting “healthy lifestyles” in support of an institution’s academic and sustainable mission is here to stay.


Jeff Stebar joined Perkins+Will in 2002 and leads the firm’s global Student Life Center of Excellence. Over the past 25 years, Jeff has successfully led master planning, programming, and design efforts for a wide variety of college and university clients. As principal-in-charge, Jeff has led student union projects totaling more than 4.5 million square feet for clients around the globe.