Make your mark: innovative campus design

Sophie Waterfield explores why a smart environment could now be one of the best ways to make a good first impression on potential students

Prospective students have spoken. Following the UCAS submission deadline in January, teenagers across the country are waiting to hear whether they have been accepted into their university of choice after months of deliberating over different aspects of courses, locations, reputation and lifestyle.

However, perhaps unbeknownst to some universities in the UK, over a third of students may have rejected them due to the quality of its buildings and lack of facilities. According to research led by the London School of Economics (LSE) Estates Division and the Higher Education Design Quality Forum (HEDQF), out of 1,000 students in the UK, 76% ranked campus facilities as either ‘quite’ or ‘very’ important.

The Russell Group universities, which includes Oxford and Cambridge, lead the charge in terms of desirability, with their students being more likely to describe their buildings as inspiring. It’s also no surprise when existing data shows capital expenditure on the estates has been the highest amongst these universities during 2001 through to 2011.

“Between 1996 and 2011, universities have invested a massive £27.5bn in their buildings and estates,” said Julian Robinson, director of estates at LSE and deputy chair of HEDQF. “This has resulted in some amazing buildings of world-class quality, incorporating innovative design, environmental sustainability, and flexible use.”

Universities have also been prioritising investment in their buildings and facilities, classing them as important as smaller class sizes and bursaries for poorer students. Furthermore, 77% of universities also prioritised repair and maintenance of existing buildings when their expenditure options were restricted to estate-only items.

LSE is in its own process of renewing its main campus with an ambitious £400m programme of site acquisitions, new builds, refurbishment and public realm improvements. In 2017 alone, it announced the purchase of the Royal College of Surgeons’ Nuffield Building, was granted planning permission from Westminster City Council for The Marshall Building and was awarded a £32m grant from the Higher Education Funding Council. The University says it’s committed to procuring world-class architecture so that its estate is comparable with its international academic reputation.

LSE Marshall Building

But how does architecture contribute to reputation? Well, it may be less about past reputation and more about catering to the needs of Generation Z.

Forbes contributor, Christine Comaford, highlighted the main characteristics of the next digital native generation in her article ‘This Is What Generation Z Wants From The Workplace’. Interestingly, she comments that the upcoming students want “to be mentored in an environment where they can advance quickly”, and that “they want to have the tools to win”.

Transferring this logic to universities, this means that Generation Z is judging universities by their environments and facilities, as well as their links to their preferred industries. It could be less about lifestyle and cost, and more about the location and industry links. They have heard the woes from millennials and want to make sure they are set up for success; as Comaford puts it, they crave safety first.

Coventry University is taking this approach and has opened a new science and health building, which provides an exact replica of career environments for students. The £59m facility features hospital wards, an ambulance, operating theatre and running track, and trains students to care for a patient at every stage of their medical experience. This includes paramedics arriving at their home; their subsequent ambulance journey; their stay in hospital; and discharge and rehabilitation.

The facility incorporates two fully furnished terraced houses. One is fitted with top-of-the-range assistive technology, such as adjustable kitchen units and a shower that can be controlled by an iPad remotely. The houses aim to give students realistic experiences of working within patients’ homes and are equipped with augmented reality technologies to help them learn from different scenarios.

The building is not only about training for those on healthcare courses but brings all of Coventry University’s Faculty of Health and Life Sciences’ practical facilities under one roof for the first time. It also includes an industry-grade education-based laboratory, Lab+, that is able to host more than 250 students at once, and sports research and teaching facilities that host an environmental chamber that can simulate the altitude of Mount Everest. There is also a sports therapy clinic which is open to the public.

“It is absolutely crucial that we prepare our students for the challenges and situations they will face in their future careers,” said Professor Guy Daly, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Health and Life Sciences at Coventry University. “By investing in such incredible facilities as this, we are ensuring they are one step ahead when they go out into the world of work.”

Another interesting aspect of this facility (above) is that it is available to the public and potential future students. The city centre building will be used for teaching undergraduates, postgraduates and research, as well as playing an important role in the community. Some of the facilities will host elite athletes for training, community groups and public events, as well as give school children a chance to experience university life.

“This building is for the whole community and will have a lasting legacy for the city, region and further afield,” continued Professor Daly. “We hope it will inspire while bringing learning to life.”

This is a trend that is being seen not only across the UK – it is also playing a major part in campus designs in North America. In an article for the New York Times, ‘The Innovation Campus: Building Better Ideas’, architecture and design critic, Alexandra Lange, finds that universities such as Cornell Tech, University of Utah and York University, Toronto, are trying to create open spaces that link students with workspaces as well as bringing together different academic and vocational disciplines.

Lange commented: “Where once the campus amenities arms race was waged over luxury dorms and recreation facilities, now colleges and universities are building deluxe structures for the generation of wonderful ideas.

“They and their partners in industry are pouring millions into new buildings for business, engineering and applied learning that closely resemble the high-tech workplace, itself inspired by the minimally partitioned spaces of the garage and the factory.” Back in the UK, the University of Bristol is doing just this.

In November 2017, the institution submitted plans for £300m enterprise campus (below), situated in the city’s centre, which will be shared with local communities, visitors to the city and with business and industrial partners. The Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus is believed to not only make a large contribution to the economy but also improve the image of Bristol as a place to work, live and do business.

Professor Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Bristol, said: “For the University of Bristol, the new campus provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine the civic university. We are committed to creating a campus which both reflects our status as a world-class University and provides an open and welcoming space for the people and city of Bristol.”

Seven new buildings will transform the former Royal Mail sorting office, providing a mix of flexible research and teaching facilities, accommodation for up to 1,500 students and a range of commercial outlets. Teaching and research will focus on digital technologies, their application by citizens, organisations and industry, and the innovation they drive.

What is clear is that universities across the globe are rethinking university life through the discipline of architecture and design, and looking to their industry counterparts for inspiration. Looking to the future, we could soon be seeing academic institutions becoming more vocational, degrees providing the same real-world experience as apprenticeships, and universities providing more to the community through innovative campus buildings.