Designing Sustainable Facilities as Learning Spaces

"We have this expression here that the campus is another member of the faculty. In our planning and our design we need to always keep this in mind, because students will learn from and interact with the physical space. It’s not just a passive setting."
Jack Byrne, Middlebury College

For institutions that have made sustainability a strategic objective, the ideal approach is to involve both facilities planners and academic leaders in the planning process for new facilities and facilities upgrades, from concept to design to execution. This allows you to plan the facilities in such a way as to maximize their potential as learning spaces and as learning opportunities.

Jack Byrne, the director of Middlebury College's Sustainability Integration Office, offers this example. When adding a $12 million biomass combined heat and power plant, Middlebury College made a series of decisions early in the planning process with the intent that the facility would support student learning and faculty research:

  • The facility would be located near the student center and on the main quad
  • The operation of the facility would be as visible as possible -- in this case, the entire facade along one side was to be a glass wall

"We wanted students and faculty to see where their heat and electricity were being made," Byrne comments. "They can take tours, they can make it the subject of class projects and undergraduate research. The facility was designed not only to provide power but also to help students better understand the relationship between the thermostat in their room adn the forest the wood chips are coming from."

How to Avoid Missing the Opportunities

The learning opportunities presented by the biomass plant in the above example would have been missed if the facility hadn't been designed with the right expertise and input at the table. There may be a philosophical shift required to treat every facility as both a learning space and a learning opportunity, as well as a shift in process.

Byrne recommends assembling a program committee for projects of a certain scale. The program committee should include faculty, staff, students, architects, engineers, facilities managers, and the budget office. From concept through design to execution, their role is plan for:

  • Curricular tie-ins with this facility
  • Maximizing the academic opportunities presented by the proposed space
  • Educating the facility's occupants about the facility's sustainable features

By involving this program committee throughout the process, not only do you maximize the potential for the facility to support your institution's learning mission -- you also foster a greater sense of ownership of the facility; because those academic departments who will make the most use of the facility have contributed to the plans for it.

Three Additional Examples

What about those facilities and sustainable features of your physical campus that you have already? Here are some suggestions for integrating learning opportunities and learning spaces into these.


"Often," Byrne cautions, "the missed opportunity is you may have done something with sustainability, but have not interpreted it for students, staff, and faculty. Maybe your campus has rainwater collection off a building that you use to irrigate. But no one knows about it."

Byrne stresses the importance of interpretive signage that illustrates why and how a particular building is sustainable. In the rainwater collection example, you could offer a sign or a short video about how this is managed and why the institution chose to invest in it. "Or you could make it a feature in a class project," Byrne adds.

Providing an interpretation of the building's sustainable features and offering learning opportunities will also help to raise awareness of your institution's investments in sustainability, generating excitement and momentum for further projects.


Here is another scenario. If your campus has a lot of lawn space, Byrne suggests designating "no-mow" zones, areas where the grass is permitted to grow during the year. Then mow and maintain walkways and paths through the area, possibly adding study space or social spaces such as benches or a landscaped seating area. In this scenario, you are able to take a portion of your grounds and create:

  • Habitat space for pollinators and birds
  • Pathways for students, staff, and faculty to explore
  • Unique, outdoor learning spaces

In the process, you are also saving on staff time, gasoline, maintenance costs, and equipment costs, particularly over the long term. If your institution is a commuter campus with some grounds space, this approach can also be one factor in a strategy for creating social space on campus to better engage a demographic that is traditionally disconnected from the physical campus, from peer groups, and from campus services.


Byrne suggests that "Murmurs," originally developed as a municipal innovation, can easily be adapted to the college setting. Here is how the idea works. Picture a college student entering a facility. There is a sign or a small kiosk that reads "Murmurs" and includes a phone number to dial. (Remember that the overwhelming majority of college students bring a cell phone to campus.) When the student dials the number, they hear a brief (perhaps two-minute) recording of an alum or another student describing an experience they had in the facility where the student is now standing. For example:

  • If the facility is a recently repurposed environmental center but was formerly a more traditional classroom facility, perhaps the alum offers a reflection on how the facility has changed and their impressions of the environmental center.
  • If the facility is an athletics center, perhaps the recording tells a brief story of how the lacrosse team came to decide that a certain season would be their team's carbon-neutral season, and how they proceeded to offset their carbon use.

In both cases, "Murmurs" uses cell phones to:

  • Create a learning experience
  • Foster awareness of the role of both the campus facilities and the campus community in reducing the carbon footprint
  • Foster campus pride and connection with the institution's history