Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cover I: Education, Retail Sans Buildings

Richard Rife stands in front of Patrick Henry High School, which he designed.

(The following four stories are part of the cover package for the June issue of Valley Business FRONT, right. You can find the main story and other articles to do with the new emphasis on quality in building design and construction here or in our magazine.)


There has been strong suggestion from many in higher education that with the powerful trend toward distance education, buildings on college campuses could lose some of their importance in the future—maybe the near future. Already, some 38,000 of Liberty University’s 50,000 students study online. They don't need expensive classrooms, gyms, labs and dorms.

Retail, likewise, is undergoing a sea change with online shopping, as huge shopping centers, built in the last half of the 20th Century, sit half-empty with future hope draining. Often, the shopper identifies an item online, pays for it and either waits for the mail or picks it up at a local big box retailer, say Target. That reduces the huge, expensive retail space--often in a high-end shopping center--to a warehouse.

Virginia Western Community College President Robert Sandel predicts that “brick-and-mortar buildings will be used to facilitate learning technologies and social gathering, rather than be at the center of learning. High-speed networks will be ubiquitous, and thus most learning will move to adopt online content as a part of every class experience.”

Architect Richard Rife of Rife + Wood in Roanoke believes we need to pay close attention to both education and retail trends: “I think it's fair to project a reduction in [college’s] space needs … I think it's possible that a new operating model for colleges will emerge that has very little in the way of a traditional campus with dorms, athletics, student unions, etc. and the high overhead that goes with it. This sort of school would be a middle tier of schools between community colleges and four-year schools. Or community colleges might evolve to offer four-year degrees in this way. This would be a way to meet consumer demand for four-year degrees less expensively than continuing to expand current colleges or starting new ones.

“On K-12, I don't think you'll see space decreases … Public and private K-12 are still called on to provide socialization of children, build community, athletics and many other functions that are not purely educational. I think there's still a basic human need to communicate face-to-face and not rely solely on our thumbs. …

“Online shopping will undercut traditional retail. Retailers who survive will adapt to also offer online and some level of entertainment/human interaction as part of their business. Our South Roanoke branch of Valley Bank has a coffee bar, a flat-screen TV, couches and a fireplace for customers to use. I don't know what that has to do with someone's checking account, but the customers seem to like to come in and visit their money.

"Offices may shrink due to people working from home, but there will still be a need for meeting and training spaces. I think we just have a basic human need for direct interaction that digital will never replace.”

Says Gregg Lewis of SmithLewis Architecture in Salem, “The U.S. looks to add an additional 100 million people (to 400 million overall) over the next 40 years. Even if we can reduce the per-business or per-school square footage because of telecommuting or distance learning, my guess is we’re going to need more businesses and more schools (not to mention a lot more housing) to meet the needs of this growing population.

"Some of this is happening in building rehab but without the original building architects having considered this long-term outcome and making it easier to undertake this type of conversion.”

(Dan Smith photo.)

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