Movable Walls

In May, I participated in the Bricks, Bytes and Continuous Renovation conference in Philadelphia, where law school classroom design was discussed (as well as law school building design in general).  The article below, which originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, raises some interesting thoughts along those lines.  I doubt there are many law school deans ready to embrace the idea proposed in the article.  But as law schools build for the future (literally as well as figuratively) we need to give more thought to the spatial implications of implementing best teaching practices.  I imagine (hope?) most schools do seek the input of clinicians when planning a new facility.  But what about spaces other than the clinic itself?  Are schools locking themselves into less-than-optimal classroom designs, by just trying to build a spiffier, better-lit version of the traditional classroom?  Or are law schools thinking seriously about the kinds of teaching and other spaces needed in the 21st century?  To give one example – a common objection to doing break-out groups is that they can’t work in large classes.  And the traditional large, tiered classroom is perceived to be a further impediment.  Those of us who have tried it know that neither the number of students nor the size or layout off the classroom prevents the use of this technique.  But wouldn’t it be even better if best practices were taken into account during the design process for any new or renovated law school building?  Another example would be whether/how law schools are designing spaces to encourage collaboration.  I’m sure other professors know of many other examples; those teachers need to be heard when new or renovated law school space is being designed. 

Wall-E: Reconfigurable Walls at Stanford Make Each Class the Perfect Size
BY Linda Tischler
Wed Apr 28, 2010

Chronicle of Higher Education

Can classroom design influence the quality of learning? Anybody who’s sat in the back row of a big lecture hall with empty seats up front can tell you it’s a perfect setup for disengagement–or for updating your Facebook page.

It’s a problem central to space design at the new Stanford building, and one that planners solved with a massively reconfigurable wall system that lets instructors create the perfectly sized space for each class.

The school’s second floor is, essentially, one large room, framed by a truss system that lets planners design a series of sliders, attached with a gizmo they call a “taco” to a beam-mounted C-channel. That allows teams to create instant studios, of the exact dimensions appropriate to the day’s activities. Need a cozy nook? Done! A wide-open expanse of space? Not a problem.

Additional support is provided by spring-loaded posts, which let classes put wall studs wherever they want.

“The system allows a modal shift between intimate and open,” says Scott Witthoff, co-director with Scott Doorley of the school’s Environments Collaborative, which designed the arrangement along with Dave Shipmen of Steelcase.

Check out the taco itself: it’s subtly branded with an abstracted “d” cutout as an extra, usable hole. That’s also part of the ethos, to expose how things are put together. That ranges from a support wall that exposes the masonry, brick, and stucco of the building’s previous lives to the edges on the tables that show their composition.

The dschool’s DNA is, after all, engineering, so the feeling that it’s all like something out of David Macauley’s “The Way Things Work” is no accident.

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