How Educational Real Estate is Evolving

Real Estate Insight by Elaine O’Connor, Head of Fit Out, Project & Development Services, MEA

May 11, 2022

The educational landscape is evolving rapidly. The way in which schools, colleges and universities respond to these changes will go a long way to determine their success in attracting students, faculty, staff and funding in the face of ever-increasing competition.

Real estate is the third largest expense for most educational institutions (after personnel and IT) and forward-looking schools, colleges and universities are recognizing the crucial contribution that their real estate can play in their long-term success. 

How the design profession responds to the changing educational landscape, will define the look and feel of future establishments. While no single ‘one size fits all’ approach is likely to emerge, a number of interacting trends in the design of educational space can be identified at a global level, with many of these being applicable across the Middle East and Africa.

Focus on internal space. One of the most important trends involves a shift in focus away from the external appearance of schools and universities, with far more attention now being paid to the quality of the internal environment. Health and well-being are emerging trends across all sectors of the real estate spectrum and the education sector is no exception, with increased evidence that the quality of the internal physical environment has a major impact on levels of learning and performance.

Variety is key. Many factors will influence the quality of the learning environment, among them being light, acoustics, biophilia and the use of the colour palette. There is a growing body of research on neuro aesthetics in the education sector that suggests 1 in 7 students is neurodivergent and that successful educational establishments will need to offer an increasing variety of different physical spaces to cater for a range of different learning styles and abilities.

Classrooms are a thing of the past and are being replaced by designs offering a range of multi-purpose spaces capable of accommodating different activities at different times of the day or week. The same space that was used for immersive + active learning activities on a Tuesday morning may now double up as a collaborative meeting space on Thursday afternoon and a performing arts space on Friday evening.

These borderless classrooms will be linked together by flow areas to form a continuum of spaces for a large variety of situations (individual, group, formal or otherwise). The design of these areas needs to incorporate sufficient openness and transparency to showcase different combinations of teaching, learning, creating and research.

Inside / outside spaces. Innovative designs will incorporate a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces, with the boundaries between the two becoming ever more blurred. The harsh climatic conditions in our region will require the incorporation of climate control features in areas exposed to the elements, but natural ventilation may offer a preferred solution for more shaded and sheltered spaces.

Designing for experience. As with offices, hotels and other forms of real estate, the education sector is becoming increasingly focused on providing the quality of experience demanded by occupiers. Branding and image are important elements in creating the experience that will attract the best and brightest students and staff.

WOW factor. The pinnacle of the desire to create a special atmosphere and experience will naturally center on public spaces with much emphasis on the welcome experience, which is where schools and colleges will seek to create a real WOW factor. There is increased discussion in academic design circles of how to maximise the ‘curb appeal’ to attract students, parents and other stakeholders.

Edutec. Technology and digitization have had a profound impact on all aspects of the education sector, including the design and delivery of real estate. The recent COVID pandemic has highlighted the need to offer a range of hybrid styles of learning, requiring face to face and distance teaching simultaneously from the same space, with the balance between the two formats changing significantly throughout the day.

Sustainability and Net Zero. The drive and focus on sustainability and net zero carbon will be one of the defining features in the supply of educational real estate over the next 20 years. Those institutions that are able to demonstrate their commitment to net zero carbon emissions with a genuine sustainability strategy in place will be at a competitive advantage in attracting not only students and faculty members but also funding.

“While imaginative designs will certainly provide a wow factor, the truly innovative spaces will be those that enhance the underlying quality of education, learning and research being offered.”

One of the hallmarks of good design in the education sector, is the ability it provides for schools, colleges and universities to expand and grow their business, without requiring more space. In many instances, well designed real estate solutions have allowed educational establishments to do more with less space.

It is also important to recognize that value is a better yardstick than cost in relation to the design of educational facilities. While some successful design components may cost more to implement, these additional upfront costs will often be offset by lower operating costs and the higher revenues that successful establishments will be able to generate over time.

The education sector has experienced many of the same trends as other parts of the real estate universe over the past decade, including the recognition that real estate has an important influence on the physical wellbeing and ultimate success of its inhabitants. This truth applies equally to centers of academic excellence as to retail chains, hotel operators or office occupiers.

The most successful educational projects will be those that respond to the above trends through the creation of high-quality spaces that offer sufficient flexibility to quickly and seamlessly respond to changes in user demands. While imaginative designs will certainly provide a wow factor, the truly innovative spaces will be those that enhance the underlying quality of education, learning and research being offered.

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