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A Q&A with Kenneth Gruskin on the importance of architecture in the future of higher learning

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Gruskin Group Principal Kenneth Gruskin shows off a model of the Kean Green Lane building.
Gruskin Group Principal Kenneth Gruskin shows off a model of the Kean Green Lane building. - (PHOTOs BY AARON HOUSTON)

Kenneth Gruskin is principal and founder of Gruskin Group, a Springfield-based design firm that designed Kean University's new academic building on Green Lane. We asked him several questions about working on higher education projects and about the features of the new Kean building.

NJBIZ: Is higher education a growth area for the design and construction industry?

Kenneth Gruskin: I believe it is, based on what we’re seeing, and not necessarily just because enrollment is going to increase. I think it’s because the industry is getting much more competitive for student tuition dollars — and not just competitive from brick-and-mortar universities to brick-and-mortar universities, but competitive because you have virtual universities, online universities. So now the decision for a lot of students isn’t whether … to go to this physical school or that physical school. The question is ‘Do I need to go to a physical school?’ (or) ‘Can I go part-time or attend a virtual university online?’ — because virtual universities have become much more palatable to employers and to the general public. It’s not considered a second-tier way of getting a degree anymore.

 NJBIZ: Why is design so important for a higher education facility?

KG: The styles themselves are important in communicating certain expressions … So I think a lot of thought has to be given to ‘Is it modern?’ ‘Is it traditional?’ or whatever it is.

That’s all part of their positioning of who they are, their brand expression, the promise that they’re communicating to the students, faculty and employees, because while we talk about the students all the time, it’s also about attracting great faculty. If you have great faculty, you’re going to attract great students, so this is also important to attracting and retaining faculty for research, teaching and so forth.

NJBIZ: What new features or functions do higher education facilities need to have going forward in order to stay competitive?

KG: Facilities are less about butts in seats and more about creating an engaging experience, so they need different types of classrooms.

Yes, you still need some lecture halls, but you may need flexible rooms. Instead of it just being tables that are all in a linear line, maybe you have chairs that can roll around and move … where every 15 or 20 minutes, (students) can reorganize … they can work in different corners of the classroom. So it becomes a collaborative learning environment where the teacher is less of the expert and more of what I call the tour guide.

NJBIZ: What are some of the most important features in the new Kean University building?

KG: (In) most academic buildings, hallways are just a means to get from A to B, but in Green Lane, for instance, hallways are just as important as the classrooms … You can have impromptu meetings, small classes. You can gather, you can study, you can socialize, you can have lunch. It ties everybody together; it’s more the glue that bonds people together and creates a total experience.

The reason the Green Lane building incorporates some of these newer ideas and trends is that Dr. Dawood Farahi, the president of the university, has such a progressive and innovative vision for higher education and building facilities that capture and support Kean’s mission to provide a world-class education.

NJBIZ: Are there any challenges associated with doing higher education projects?

KG: I think the challenge we see is that sometimes it can be done by committee, and like anything done by committee, it can be a challenge because the decision-making can be a difficult process to navigate (when) stakeholders are all over the place.

Timeframes are driven by the semesters. So sometimes when things drag on too long, they never change the deadline — they just give you less time.

Even though higher ed (projects) tend to have pretty good budgets, especially for their signature buildings, everyone always spends more than they have. … So even when someone is spending a lot of money per square foot for a very nice building, there’s always amenities they’re looking for that push it beyond, and you’re always juggling the budget to figure out how to achieve that.

The multipurpose gathering space feeding Design Studio classrooms in the Kean Green Lane building.

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Joshua Burd

Joshua Burd

Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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