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Designing for Gen Z and Beyond

The next generation’s tastes, demographics, and political awareness are already having an impact on design, from educational spaces to workplaces.

Designing for Generation Z and beyond was the subject of a Think Tank on November 11, hosted by HMC Architects and moderated by Sam Lubell, executive editor of Metropolis. But before discussing the generational shift, some definitions are in order. Born after 1996, members of Gen Z are more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation, and according to Pew Research, they are on track to be the most well-educated generation yet. They are also digital natives who have little or no memory of the world as it existed before smartphones.

“A Gen Z characteristic is openness and honesty about who they are,” said Jon Richardson, senior project designer, principal, HMC Architects. “They’ve been exposed to the whole diversity of the human species. To that extent they want to influence the design of spaces.” For example, Richardson offered, “green design used to be an add-on; now it’s simply the way to do business.” Joel Peterson, director of facilities and construction, Glendale Community College, which has more than $330 million in projects in process, picked up on that idea and added: “Gen Z students are asking, ‘Why can’t we have more solar? Do we really have to use wood? Doesn’t that cut down forests? Why are we using so much concrete—isn’t it carbon intensive to produce?’”

Community Center entrance interior, with high ceilings and chandeliers.
HMC Architects designed a new community center for South Whittier, California, a growing community in Los Angeles County, with an eye towards creating a multi-generational hub for seniors, students, and everyone in between. COURTESY RYAN BECK

New education spaces could perhaps take more cues from our childhoods, Richardson said. “The first classrooms we know are in kindergarten, and how are they laid out? By activity areas. Then in first grade you’re introduced to this very rigid setup of rows and rows of desks with the teacher in front.” Maybe we could learn from our collective pasts, he continued, and make activity areas standard both in higher-education classrooms and in commercial offices as well.

Gen Z wants more than money, the panelists agreed. They want to work for a company that has a higher purpose. “Salary isn’t the main driver for this generation,” said Samantha Eklund, project manager, interiors, HMC. “There has to be something greater behind the company’s mission.” Then, in keeping with the word “beyond” in the session’s title, she emphasized the importance of design future-proofing: “We should always be envisioning the needs of the next generation.”

The pandemic was, of course, on all panelists’ minds. The much-anticipated “permanent hybrid” model led Richardson to say: “Do I need to come into the office today at all? Do I need to work quietly, or do I need to socialize? What’s the compelling reason to get me out of my bedroom and into my office?” The same goes for higher education, he continued: “Future-proofing gives people reasons to come back to campus learning.”

Eklund pleaded for eschewing the negative stereotypes about Gen Z, such as their affinity for screen-time, in favor of emphasizing their positive characteristics: “Gen Z wants to be bold; they don’t want to be labeled or put in a box. The flexible spaces we design in education environments speak to the fluidity that this generation is craving.”

The Think Tank discussions were held on November 4, 11, and 18. The conversations were presented in partnership with CertainTeed and GROHE.

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