VCU Academic Learning Commons Breaks the Classroom Mold

University Celebrates Opening of Innovative Academic Building

The new VCU Academic Learning Commons was dedicated on Thursday, October 24, 2013. The dedication ceremony was held at the new facility and speakers at the event from VCU included Dr. Michael Rau, President; Beverly J. Warren, Ed.D., Ph.D., FACSM, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Gardner Campbell, Ph.D., Vice Provost and Charles Piper, AIA, Principal, BCWH Architects.

Gone are the days of a static lecture by the college professor. University learning environments need to be flexible, collaborative and technology-rich to enable students and instructors to work together to explore new ideas, collaborate, discuss issues, and solve problems. At Virginia Commonwealth University, a new academic building is pushing the envelope of this new learning model, giving one of the nation’s top research universities new tools to educate and inspire.

Designed by KSS Architects of Princeton, NJ and Philadelphia, PA in association with BCWH Architects, of Richmond, VA, the new Academic Learning Commons features a combination of large-capacity lecture halls, classrooms, meeting rooms, and a bevy of spots and spaces for students to gather, touch base and mingle – inside and out.

In every classroom and meeting space flexibility and interaction are the top priority. To provide an opportunity for physical and intellectual freedom, classrooms have about 40 percent more square footage per student than in past models, giving instructors room to move around and interact with students. Lecture halls are proportioned as wide and shallow to allow for more intimate settings. Stepped configurations provide better views for both the students and the professor. With two rows per step and flexible furniture, small groups can collaborate in even the largest of lecture halls.

“When VCU set out to create this new building the concept of the ‘flipped classroom’ hadn’t been invented yet,” said Pamela Lucas Rew, AIA, partner at KSS Architects. “But that’s exactly what this new building does – it fulfills VCU’s vision of a truly interactive and collaborative learning environment for its more than 22,000 undergraduate students. To perfect this new model of classroom, the project team experimented with full scale mock-ups of furniture configurations and in-depth 3d modeling of the room proportions, scale and technology.”

A general undergraduate classroom building, the Academic Learning Commons is welcoming and bright in its public areas. At the edges of classrooms small meeting spaces encourage students to collaborate. A large courtyard allows indoor interactions to spill outside on warm days. Pursuing LEED Gold certification, vegetated green roofs provide garden views and help regulate indoor temperature and manage storm water.

Located at a crossroads of city and campus activity, the building creates a new connection between town and gown. Socially—students will use the public spaces as the new path through campus; architecturally the design integrates different levels of building scale to transition elegantly from the small-scale residential neighborhoods of “The Fan” district to the larger scale of VCU campus buildings.

The building is also the new home of the School of Social Work which occupies the whole of the third floor. One of VCU’s oldest and most celebrated programs, the School had occupied the Raleigh Building west of Harrison Street for many years. The new location sets the School in the heart of the academic community of the campus. The building provides contemporary office, conference and seminar spaces that foster a high degree of collaboration among faculty and students in the school.

“It’s an amazing facility,” said James E. Hinterlong, dean of the School of Social Work, “We feel it elevates the quality of the environment to the quality of the education we provide.” (, August 22, 2013)

The fourth floor of the building is occupied by the Office of Learning Innovation and Student Success, featuring a dynamic suite of spaces for the writing center, a highly-flexible, experimental teaching/training classroom and multiple student study and interaction spaces. It seems only appropriate that this innovative and state-of-the-art teaching facility should house this important learning center.

“This building vaults the undergraduate learning environment at VCU into a different league,” said Charles Piper of BCWH, Architects. “In every category the University sought to elevate the quality of this building to better advance learning, from the flexible classrooms, the student-centric common areas, the provision of abundant advanced technology and connections and the overall warm and inviting quality of the interior finishes and exterior gathering spaces. It is a place where students will not mind spending more time studying and working together.”

See more images of the new Academic Learning Commons here.

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