Enhancing the learning environment
Collaborations between universities and businesses are critical to ensure students receive a transformative education, where sustainability is a way of life on and off campus, and an essential foundation for their professional lives
We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.” This Winston Churchill quote is how Interface’s regional sustainability manager, Jon Khoo opened the global flooring manufacturer’s evening panel discussion at Regent’s University, London. The event, which took place on 28 February 2019, discussed how colleges and universities can promote student and staff wellbeing, embed sustainable practices and push boundaries in relation to campus development.
Each member of the assembled panel approached the issue of human-centred design from a different angle, based on their own area of expertise. Members included Oliver Heath, architectural and interior designer, Dr Alex Ryan, director of sustainability at the University of Gloucestershire and Prof John French, executive director of the Sustainability Business Hub and Accelerator at the Cambridge University Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).
Heath is a renowned advocate of biophilic design and he highlighted the need to take a holistic approach, incorporating the natural world into learning environments to increase wellbeing and create healthier buildings. He pointed out that not only does a connection to nature enhance concentration and boost our desire to learn, it also has huge benefits for mental health. This final point being key, with stress accounting for 44 per cent of all work related ill health cases and 57 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health according to a HSE study from 2017/18.
But where does sustainability fit in to designing happy learning environments? According to Heath the two go hand- in-hand. He said: “Biophilic design is the aesthetic embodiment of how we create sustainability, it is the framework of how to introduce nature into the built environment.”
Authentic learning experiences require the university to ‘walk its talk’ on sustainability
Working at the heart of the university environment, Ryan has first-hand understanding of what students want from their learning spaces and the environment needed for them to thrive. Her address to the panel outlined how students are now demanding action on sustainability, but authentic learning experiences require the university to ‘walk its talk’ on sustainability. She explained: “To achieve this we need whole institutional change through leadership and governance, student experiences, academic innovation, business operations, engagement and partnerships.”
Uniting all parts of the university and taking a collaborative approach is key. Ryan continued: “Sustainability is new knowledge – none of us know how to do it, the only way we can achieve this is by working together, through partnerships and learning from each other.”
Collaborations between universities and businesses are critical to ensure students receive a transformative education, where sustainability is a way of life on and off campus, and an essential foundation for their professional lives. French outlined the important role universities have to play in promoting sustainability and the huge opportunities for over 200 institutions across the UK to step up to the plate through working with the EAUC. He explained that students need to be educated in environmentally efficient buildings to encourage them to consider their own energy use. Putting this proactive approach into practice, French talked about the award-winning Enterprise Centre as one of successful projects at UEA. This low carbon building project not only meets performance indicators such as Passivhaus, but uses bio-based materials. He also highlighted the exciting zero carbon retrofit he is leading at Cambridge which incorporates the WELL standard, biophilic design and the circular economy.
Creating positive and inspiring spaces for students that encourage and embody sustainability is a challenge faced by colleges and universities across the globe. It’s clear that in order to succeed we need to encourage conversation and foster collaboration. By sharing ideas and design practices we can learn from each other to realise the end goal of enhancing learning environments for each and every student.
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