The estate of play

Overcoming the challenges of construction and design of university estates was a key theme at March's Higher Education Estates Forum

Over 100 stakeholders working in UK higher education estates, including contractors, project managers, architects and estates teams as well as suppliers and manufacturers, came together at March’s Higher Education Estates (hee) Forum to discuss the evolution of the higher education estate, and to source solutions for the challenges they face operationally and in terms of construction and design. 

The forum also explored the social impact the built environment has on students in terms of health and wellbeing, and how this approach is leading concepts when developing projects.

Delegates had the opportunity to network and conduct one-to-one meetings, where they were able to discuss the latest innovations and industry trends that the higher education sector is experiencing. Over the day-and-a-half, more than 900 meetings took place. That said, it wasn’t all hard work and no play, as on the evening of the first day delegates were able to relax during a gala dinner where a table magician and after-dinner speaker provided some light entertainment.

The seminar programme included a discussion of some of the latest projects in UK universities and how these projects will impact on the future of higher education.

A number of presentations at the forum discussed the impact of urban design on our health, with Dr Caroline Paradise, Associate Director at Atkins, indicating in her research that “sustainable design is human-needs based”. One of these key needs is a connection to nature, giving designers the obligation to create greener, cleaner spaces that have been proven to be beneficial to both our physical and mental wellbeing. Paradise demonstrated that this type of design, which includes exposure to natural light and better air quality, leads to increased performance in the workplace and lower levels of absenteeism.

“It was a great opportunity to meet with HE estates colleagues and share valuable knowledge and experience across the sector.”

This sentiment is at the heart of Lancaster University’s latest design plans, with Vicki Mathews and Jason Homan, Development Managers at Lancaster University, explaining that “better wellbeing produces better learning outcomes”. Lancaster University is currently developing a Health Innovation Campus (HIC), which is located beside the University’s Bailrigg campus, and is due for completion in 2019, and which “aims to drive advances in technologies, products and ways of working to improve health and healthcare”. It’s intended that this will improve the quality of life for both students and local residents, and also benefit the local area economically. The project was developed as a result of student feedback and will not only feature more physical space for students to engage with the outdoors, but also more innovative study spaces. The impact of social spaces on wellbeing is being taken into consideration, so Lancaster is developing technology-rich study spaces rather than bars in order to highlight the importance of a community-based living/working experience. This will greatly benefit the students’ performance academically and also help them to manage better socially in what is for many of them, a new and daunting experience.

University of Northampton Waterside Campus also has similar views in terms of how the environment affects wellbeing. They teamed up with local businesses to improve local facilities, for example creating a new fitness centre. Their belief is to create new ‘future-proof’ spaces, such as creating more shared workspaces and abolishing the idea of a traditional office to create a more learning-focused environment.

A current trend in construction within higher education estates is prefabricated student accommodation. Rory Bergin, Partner in Sustainable Futures at HTA Design, discussed how the offsite construction and prefabrication of student accommodation is not only more cost effective, but also better for the environment, leading to the conclusion that sustainability and wellbeing are closely linked. Prefabricated student accommodation is also more reliable in terms of finished quality and certainty of delivery, enabling projects to be completed in a very short time period.

The forum also explored the social impact the built environment has on students in terms of health and wellbeing, and how this approach is leading concepts when developing projects.

Nick Cullen, Head of Research and Development at Hoare Lea, added in his discussion that prefabrication is the future of construction and that technology is pioneering the evolution towards this mode of production. This approach to creating new buildings has the added advantage that they can be designed and tested offsite before installation, leading to better standardisation. While this method of construction is still being developed and improved in the higher education sector, it will inevitably lead to more efficient and sustainable designs that will cut capital costs considerably.

Yet there are some key aspects in design that cannot be ignored. Paul Holt, at Manchester Metropolitan University believes that we must understand the needs of the students in order to get these projects right. His approach to design reflects the view that the architect is the person creating the space, not using it, so it is essential that every project is student-led in terms of research.

Osama Khan, Director of Learning and Teaching at Southampton Solent University and Ian Pratt, Director at Scott Brownrigg conducted a joint presentation on ‘Designing Out the Challenges’ in higher education estates. They argued that the relationship between space and learning is hugely under-researched and believe that learning should be a “collaborative activity”. Using a recent project designed by Scott Brownrigg as the case study for their presentation, they discussed the 10,000 sq m Spark Building, which was designed with the concept of a collaborative design process in mind. Pratt commented that “From the architect’s perspective it [the Spark Building] reflects the importance of putting the user at the centre of the design concept”. The original concept of the Spark Building was to promote interdisciplinary activity and collaboration, with those using the space being able to rearrange the teaching rooms flexibly and according to their needs. With this in mind, they considered elements such as furniture choice very early on in the design, arguing that it should not be considered as an afterthought. The building, situated at the north end of the Solent campus, has not only become a campus landmark but is also a product of the research into how learning spaces are evolving. Indeed, it won the Best Student Experience category at the Education Estates Awards in November 2017.

“Delegates had the opportunity to network and conduct one-to-one meetings, where they were able to discuss the latest innovations and industry trends that the higher education sector is experiencing.” 

The evolution of learning spaces is a topic that was also brought up by Aaron Taylor, Partner at Stantec. While corporate workspaces have changed in order to adapt to technology and the ways in which we work, so too have university workspaces. This creates multi-purpose spaces that can be used for both “earning and learning”, and designers need to therefore question the fact that “as the models of learning are changing, how will this manifest itself in our education estate in the coming years?”

Feedback from this year’s event has been extremely positive; Gareth Box of IID Architects said: “It was an invaluable window into the HE construction sector”, and Rebecca Lord of Leeds Beckett University added: “It was a great opportunity to meet with HE estates colleagues and share valuable knowledge and experience across the sector. The event was thoroughly enjoyable and I would highly recommend the forum to other HE estates professionals.” 

You can download the seminar presentations by clicking here.