Better learning through design
Kim Renfrew looks at how the learning environment can be configured to promote health and wellbeing
Shifting the focus of building design so that it is person-centred can have huge impacts on both staff and student productivity and performance.
Design and engineering consultancy Atkins, which has worked with Bournemouth University and the Universities of Glasgow, Northampton and South Wales, reports this could add £20bn to UK GDP and reap benefits in as little as two years.
Furthermore, emphasising wellbeing among buildings’ users is vital in higher education where, says Atkins, commenting that the reporting of mental health issues has increased 500% over the decade.
We explore how learning environments can be optimised through light, air, temperature, noise, interaction and visual elements, improving the health, performance and productivity of everyone using such spaces.
The importance of daylight
The benefits of light are well-documented and include good circadian rhythm, which regulates vitamin D and mood. Caroline Paradise, head of design research at Atkins, notes, “We’re built to require a certain type and level of lighting to maintain a whole bunch of biological responses, so ensuring good daylight provision in educational spaces should be paramount because you’re wanting students to engage with the content they’re learning.”
Indeed, the effect of light on learning is significant: US research revealed good lighting – natural and artificial – influenced test scores, and students with most daylight in class progressed 20% faster in maths and 26% faster in reading than students with least light1.
There has been a shift to more open, centralised spaces, which influences light quality, observes Helen Groves, Atkins’ architect director and head of education, thereby “moving away from cellularised, dingy central corridors to a wonderful open space, which is much more about shared environment”.
We’re built to require a certain type and level of lighting to maintain a whole bunch of biological responses – Caroline Paradise
Illuminating dark spaces
Depending on the project, however, open-plan arrangements may not always be possible, says Paradise. In Bournemouth’s creative technology and media building, specific demands for video editing involved darker, bunker-like environments. Atkins offset these with lightwells, thereby enabling people to break out into brighter spaces. “You’ve got to balance the requirements of the functionality of the space, so it’s not just a blanket approach,” Paradise says.
Kingspan provides insulation and building envelopes to the likes of University of Surrey, National College for High Speed Rail and Cambridge. Kingspan says insulation thickness affects light levels, so installing materials with lower thermal conductivities in external walls reduces overall construction depth, allowing more natural light to enter.
“Research has shown that by using higher-performing insulation within rainscreen and cavity walls, it’s possible to reduce construction thicknesses and achieve noticeable improvements in internal natural light levels,” says Matthew Evans, head of technical GB at Kingspan Insulation UK.
Air quality and allergens
Studies show that poor air quality leads to lower exam results and higher absence rates2, so the quality of air indoors is paramount to health, performance and educational attainment.
Kevin Pocock, corporate sales business development manager at Mitsubishi Electric, comments: “A fresh air supply and the right temperature are key in supporting students to maintain health, comfort and academic success while at university.”
And this goes beyond the learning space. “These requirements apply to campus accommodation, libraries and cafeterias,” Pocock adds, explaining: “It’s crucial to ensure all aspects of the living environment – whether related to learning or otherwise – are designed with student health in mind.”
Floor surfaces can impact on respiration, too. James Harrison, regional sales manager Northern England & Scotland for Forbo, points out that, since students and staff spend most time indoors, choosing products with low VOC (volatile organic compounds) emissions is paramount.
Additionally, to help reduce airborne allergens, Forbo suggests choosing flooring that traps allergens within its pile.
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Keep your cool
To optimise learning and meet energy efficiency targets, thermal comfort is extremely important in the learning environment. With students from all around the world, from different environments, meeting the needs of each individual can be a huge challenge. This is evidenced in a report stating: “… students in the UK higher learning environments, who are from different cultures and nationalities with different thermal experiences and backgrounds, may have various thermal requirements inside the [learning space]”3.
Then throw age into the equation – the age range of university students is vast, with different age groups potentially needing different levels of thermal comfort. In fact, 20% of students are now over the age of 30, according to the latest HESA data just released4.
And, of course, universities are challenged, along with the rest of the world, on meeting energy targets and reducing greenhouse emissions.
Committing to standards such as BREEAM (Excellent or Outstanding) or Passivhaus enables universities to meet these challenges. Thermal comfort forms an integral criterion, recognising the relationship between this and health and wellbeing.
Evans talks about the merits of vacuum insulation panels that have a low thermal conductivity of around 0.007 W/mK, which is “up to five times better than many common materials”. He says that such panels have “made it more practical for project teams to create highly energy-efficient structures – particularly within the HE sector”.
Kingspan tells us about a project it worked on at Cambridge University’s Maxwell Centre, where 10,000m2 of pipe insulation was installed, limiting heat transfer from pipework into workspaces, and helping performance of both the centre’s users and the scientific equipment in the pioneering physical sciences and technology hub. “By limiting heat transfer from processed chilled water systems, the pipe insulation helps to ensure water is kept at the temperature required for the research equipment,” explains Evans.
Mitsubishi Electric found that “employees experience a 2% decrease in productivity for every one degree above 25 degrees Celsius – we can imagine similar drop-offs are experienced by students working in the library or in lecture theatres”, says Pocock.
To avoid this affecting the 500 staff and doctoral researchers in its biosciences division, Pocock tells us that UCL installed an effective heating/cooling system that also met UCL’s environmental aims.
According to WHO statistics, acoustic interference affects wellbeing and concentration, so reduced noise – from traffic, electronic equipment or even voices – is fundamental to efficient working and studying. Noise interference can not only be distracting for students, but also stressful for lecturers who are trying to teach, impacting negatively on wellbeing.
One aid to noise limitation is acoustic flooring, particularly spaces where noise pollution can pose problems, such as lecture theatres and libraries, which can help alleviate airborne noise.
Heating and cooling equipment can also cause noise pollution, and Pocock notes that “commercial ventilation systems need to be both efficient and super quiet,” to be of effective use in learning environments.
Walls can be insulated with sound-absorbing materials such as acoustic panels.
Engaging with environs
Self-determination and interaction with surroundings are key, Atkins’ research shows; indeed, Atkins found that 63% believe “sense of ownership or belonging” affects satisfaction with the building they study in. Paradise says: “Providing opportunity for people to choreograph the space for a particular exercise or a particular piece of work [means] there’s an opportunity to give people choice within the built environment, which gives them a sense of ownership over it.”
She notes spatial flexibility is important to students, who want “places for social interaction, the ability to use space for new clubs, for pop-ups; there’s increasing demand for those sorts of places to interact and make their own”.
Groves says Atkins approaches building design with a set of personas that accommodate this flexibility. She says: “We can talk about whether someone’s a focused worker and wants to dedicate to a particular space, come back every day and do the same thing over and over again, or those that are quite flexible, keen to move around and work in different areas.”
An important part of self-determination that Atkins’ research found involves the ability to exert control over the aforementioned lighting and ventilation, and Pocock concurs. “What higher education environments require are flexible heating and cooling solutions specifically designed to match an individual building’s needs,” he says. “They must be able to regulate temperature and ventilation within separate rooms of a building and provide centralised reporting and control.”
Atkins also found that visual elements, including plants, have positive impact. Living walls, like that at Nottingham University’s RAD building, combine many aspects described here: they’re visually pleasing, filter pollutants, keep buildings warm in winter and cool in summer – and can also reduce noise.
Perhaps the most important element in configuring higher education environments is understanding institutions’ links to the world outside. “Connection to the community is also important,” says Paradise. “It’s not just about educational outcomes; it’s about the experience as much as anything. Feeling a sense of belonging and ownership within a given location… the building can have an impact on that.” Groves adds: “Ivory towers don’t work very well for people’s mental health if they’re isolated from their communities. It’s very important for them to be able to feel part of where they live.”
A fresh air supply and the right temperature are key in supporting students to maintain health, comfort and academic success while at university
1 Pacific Gas and Electric Company for the California Board for Energy Efficiency Third Party Program
2 The Ventilation Problem in Schools by William Fisk
in the journal Indoor Air, cited in this BBC article:
3 Thermal Comfort in the UK Higher Educational Buildings: The Influence of Thermal History on Students’ Thermal Comfort (bit.ly/3auu28t)
4 Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2018/19 – Student numbers and characteristics
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