Experiential Learning Space Design Process


The Regional Support Center (RSC) Educational department at the Frankfort, Germany, Consulate of the US State Department, contacted former Hampshire professor, Ira Fay, regarding the design and construction of an “escape room-like” training facility. The teachers/trainers had recently visited an escape room and began discussing how that experience could compliment the work they do. With many escape room companies out there to choose from, they realized that they really needed to find a “company” that would be willing to collaborate with them. It was also important to find someone who had experience working within an educational setting. Many escape rooms deliver ready-made rooms with few opportunities for shaping the experience to the needs of the customer. The RSC found Fay Games and learned about Ira Fay’s work as a game designer/educator/professor. They also learned about the Escape Room class he and I taught. After initial meetings between Ira and the RSC group, it seemed like a good match. Ira then asked me to join him as the “scenic designer.” Soon thereafter we were contracted by the US State Department to design an “escape room” that is now called an Experiential Learning Space. For obvious reasons, it’s probably not a good idea to have something called an “escape room” at the US Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany. Going forward, Ira and I split responsibilities. I would design the space and make specifications for equipment. Ira would manage the project on our end, design the puzzles, and create the puzzle flow. Over the course of the planning of this project three different building spaces were considered. What follows are my different iterations of the physical design that led up to the final version. I received a groundplan with dimensions and a video walk-through of the space—a cellar with support columns located, of course, where they were most in the way. While drafting, I had to continually convert my dimensions into metric – something I am not used to doing. After a specific theme was chosen, I began designing. The top three themes considered were “Steampunk Runaway Train,” “Space Ship Malfunction,” and “Time Travel.” The RSC required that it would be necessary for as many as 12 players per game. This is too many for an escape room. We determined that the game should be designed for two teams of six playing simultaneously – each team starting from different parts of the room. I presented visual research/inspiration and one or two possible groundplans for each. Ira followed with potential puzzles and puzzle flow:

Design inspiration research samples:

We proposed two versions of this theme. The first version would have two trains running side by side. Each team enters their respective mail cars and makes their way toward the engine (solving puzzles along the way) so they can stop their trains.

The second version has the group entering the coach/passenger car. Half the players make their way toward the engine and half toward the caboose–all trying to solve enough puzzles to stop the train.

Something goes awry in outer space on a space ship traveling a long distance. There’s a computer malfunction, and the crew is nowhere to be found. Teams must find the computer control room and reboot the computer in order to survive. Design inspiration and research samples:

With this theme the two teams move back and forth through four different time periods and settings: a Medieval Castle, a late 1800s Hat Shop, a 1920s Movie Studio, and a 1950s Office (think Mad Men first season). Each foyer room acts as a timemoving pod.

Medieval Castle

Late 1800s Hat Shop

1920s Movie Studio

1950s Office

Time Travel was the selected proposal. I began to adjust room sizes so each could accommodate six players. After discussion we added a “Briefing/Debriefing space” conveniently located. What follows is just one of at least six different plans we considered:

The above configuration proved to be too cramped, so we decided to drop one of the time periods and move the Briefing/Debriefing room elsewhere. Therefore, two more designs were presented:

At this point in the process the Consulate’s facilities team became involved. They had more knowledge about this building space, and it became apparent that there was a serious moisture problem. We discovered that completely mitigating the moisture would be cost prohibitive. But the facilities group, wanting to see this project move forward, suggested another building space that might work out better. Using a set of photographs with dimensions drawn over them I created a groundplan for this new space. My next challenge was to adapt my design to this new space which had four separate rooms
divided by a hallway. We now only needed four rooms in total: one briefing/debriefing/control room and three rooms for the game; the 1950s Office was dropped. The new space was also a cellar-like space being used for miscellaneous storage. Here is the design I presented for this second building space:

Unfortunately, the entire team determined that this space would have significant construction and accessibility issues, rendering it an unusable space. The facilities team proposed a possible alternative (third) location, an apartment complex that was being used for other purposes. We were able to secure two neighboring apartments. Once again, using a video walkthrough and a plan with dimensions, I designed the current version of the Experiential Learning Space:

While adapting the design to this new space, we found that we needed to adjust the Time Travel game again to accommodate the new room layout. We decided to combine the Medieval Castle and the 1920s Movie Studio. The Studio would be filming a version of Robin Hood (Douglas Fairbanks). A new room, the “Secret Room,” was created. So, one team begins in the Hat Shop and another in the Movie Studio. They must find their way to the Secret Room. Within the Secret Room both teams must
collaborate in completing final puzzles. Covid interrupted the construction timeline for this project, but as of this month (6/22) demolition has commenced. Today (6/28/22) I was told that a set of hidden pipes were revealed by the demolition. Surprise. So, I will be revising my design once again.