From athletic facilities equipped to train championship-winning teams on the court and field to innovative learning spaces designed to produce the brightest and the best, colleges and universities are using facility design to their advantage in the competitive race to attract and retain the best students and faculty.

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The Importance of Research and Design

Schools are using residence halls and communal spaces like student unions, cafeterias and libraries as recruitment tools, says Kieren Corcoran, Patcraft’s director of performance markets. Prospective students and their parents take note of these spaces as they tour the campus with recruiters.

“In order to attract top students and faculty, the school must appear to be cutting edge and at the forefront of emerging and rapidly shifting technological advances,” said Dayna Hairston, interior designer and owner of Dayziner. “Spaces must appear to be sophisticated, collaborative, integrated and inviting. Perception plays a heavy role in this endeavor with dynamic, high performing, floor materials playing a key role in the overall aesthetic.”

This level of sophistication in terms of design is being seen on the campuses of both big and small universities and colleges, as well as vocational schools.

“The level of sophistication with regards to how these buildings are designed and maintained is at a completely different level, and over the past 20 years or so, it has changed dramatically,” said Ross Leonard, J+J Industries’ vice president of marketing. “You look at these college campuses—whether it’s a four-year school, a two-year college, vocational—and you essentially have a small city.”

With that comes a diversity of design needs, flooring included, says Leonard. “You’ve got the instructional space and the flooring that’s required for what may be very, very different than the flooring that’s needed for collegiate housing or public space, student activity centers, dining, admin or libraries. It really runs the full spectrum.”

In each of these spaces, the floor plays a crucial role by giving the entire space a different experience through color, type and material. As a result, no longer is vinyl composition tile (VCT) the go-to material for educational applications.

“It used to be you had maybe three of four different types of flooring categories to select from, but thank goodness we’ve moved on from the days where VCT was the default,” said Leonard.

Whether it be the weight room at a university’s athletic facility or a quieter heads-down learning space like a library, when selecting flooring, research is key, says Jonathan Stanley, Tarkett’s segment vice president for higher education. “I always would approach a specific area with a specific need and specific research so that the outcome of the environment and what the student or faculty experience is supposed to be in that area starts there in what I call a student-centered selection process.”

Referred to as a solution spectrum, this selection process for the right flooring for each application is made easier by manufacturer’s research and data.

“Manufacturers are the ones that bring the most informative research to the table,” said Stanley. “We are the most informative, so we have to pride ourselves in being able to bring as much great data to inform the user to make the best decision for the outcome.”

Designing for a New Generation of Learners

In addition to VCT and luxury vinyl tile, in the higher education learning spaces of today, designers are leaning more toward the use of sustainable materials throughout facilities like linoleum, bio-based and rubber flooring, as well as carpet tiles made with recycled content.

“Gone are the days of VCT in the classrooms,” said Hairston. “Opt for luxury vinyl tiles, planks or other resilient flooring in wood grains or subtle textures. These flooring choices are durable, easy to clean and reflect light nicely to help create an airy, open environment.”

Flooring materials that are sustainably sourced with low-emitting materials positively affect the indoor air quality, and according to Hairston, they can even be part of the marketing efforts to attract environmentally conscious prospects.

“Sustainability is now part of almost every campus community,” said David Dembowitz, Mohawk Group senior vice president, sales, education. “The current generation and their parents consider sustainability an integral part of everyday life. Red List-free flooring products allow students and faculty to feel more secure and confident about what they are walking on every day. We must look beyond recycled content to include a focus on reducing our use of chemicals and important resources like water, as well as the need for cleaning agents.”

Further meeting the needs of today’s higher education students, Lori McCracken, manager of learning spaces with Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State University, says it’s important to consider the fast pace and multiple angles from which this generation is receiving information and design for that. “Students are looking for more than a traditional classroom or space to learn in.”

Aiding in taking students from the traditional learning space and creating a unique learning experience, flooring is broadening possibilities and creating more active and engaging learning spaces. “If the flooring is antimicrobial, for example, students can sit on it which provides additional seating or different options regarding how classes can be taught,” said McCracken. “Different colors can provide pathways or guidance for how to setup a flexible furniture arrangement. A variety of textures and colors can change the entire experience in the space.”

Ranging from high and low engagement areas to collaborative, see-or-be-seen spaces, flooring is giving students the opportunity to be in areas that have a workplace-oriented look and feel, or in areas that are highly playful and interactive, says Stanley.

“Another thing we are seeing that creates a space where students want to be is making it less of an institutional kind of feel, and more of one that looks like a living room,” said Corcoran. This can especially be seen in student unions.

Corcoran saw the results of this first-hand with the work Patcraft did with Cal State, San Bernardino’s student union: “They did a renovation where they simply replaced the flooring, paint and furniture. They really blended the soft surface and hard surface in that space, and what they saw was an immediate increase in space. They went from about 3,000 to 4,000 a day using it, to 8,000 to 9,000 a day using it.”

Keeping the Spirit Alive

While creating spaces that prospective and current students want to use is important, colleges and universities are also keeping alumni in mind as they make design choices.

“Great design also assists with donor relations,” said Hairston. “Donors are more likely to contribute to a new, cutting edge facility that will house the next great minds of our generation. Being associated with an award-winning facility helps not only contribute to the community, but also plays a vital role in employee recruitment and attracting top tier talent.”

The nostalgia alumni feel when they return to campus for homecoming or to drop off their son or daughter is nice, but while some campus landmarks and spaces are a welcomed familiar sight, design should certainly not be the same as when they were a student.

“If you walk into that school and visit that school and it still looks like it did when you went to school there, that would be disappointing,” said Corcoran. “As an alum myself, when I go back to my school it is important for me to see that they are keeping up with trends and investing the money that I’m willing to give them in ways that make sense so that they can continue to recruit and still be a viable campus in the future.”

Branding is helping to create and sustain a sense of pride among students and alumni, and as manufacturer’s capabilities increase, there are more opportunities to create school pride and brand identity through design customization.

“A lot of universities want to use their school colors to create a sense of pride on campus, but they are doing it in a way that’s not so in your face,” said Corcoran. “If a school’s colors, for example, are yellow and purple, it might just be an accent strip in the carpet that is then accentuated with furniture or paint on a wall. But it’s very, very subtle.”