Design’s time in the sun for HE

Clever design of a university’s built environment can become the unique selling point that helps attract and retain the best students and staff

By Lucy O’Driscoll, Principal and Oliver Kampshoff, Principal HASSELL

At a time of heightened competition between higher education providers, the growing availability of online learning and more discerning students, the key to gaining the competitive edge for universities can lie in something that might seem a little last century – the investment in ‘bricks and mortar’ to deliver significantly enhanced place-based university campuses.  

Now more than ever, clever design of a university’s built environment can become the unique selling point that helps attract and retain the best students and staff while delivering improved outcomes in learning and discovery.

Gone are the days when students sat back and waited for an invitation to join their favoured university. De-regulation of the Higher Education market and higher fees are driving far more discerning and demanding students and families who are actively weighing up what competing institutions have to offer for their significant investment. A particular focus is the quality of the university environment and the student experience on offer.  This is of even greater significance for overseas students, who are looking for extra support while they live and study in a foreign country.

As an international design practice with studios in the UK, South East Asia, China and Australia, HASSELL shares its expertise in the education sector across geographic borders. Individual projects are always designed to suit local requirements and the local context but there are some significant global trends that reflect the enormous changes we are all witnessing in learning and research environments and the technology that supports them. 

Establishing an exciting and engaging campus-experience has always been a priority for universities, but in today’s highly competitive market it’s critical. University campuses need to provide the best amenity, services and social opportunities that make the campus so vibrant and appealing that students will travel in, even on ‘non-contact’ days. 

The campus must become more than just a convenient collection of buildings for learning and research. The spaces between the buildings are just as important. This is where people relax, bump into each other and socialise. Universities must also look beyond the campus boundaries to connect more meaningfully to the surrounding city or town – embedding the campus as a vital component of local life. 

This was something the University of Brighton understood when it approached HASSELL to develop a master plan to unite the university’s five campuses.

ABOVE: The University of Brighton wanted an approach that would enhance the individual strengths of each site while supporting a more vibrant and connected campus

HASSELL worked with the university to establish a long-term program of upgrade and rejuvenation for the campus. We also suggested short and medium term ways to breathe fresh life into the campus and create a more immediate sense of vibrancy, community and connection with the town. 

Equally, the spaces within learning buildings are being transformed with diverse settings for student learning – something HASSELL helped another beach-side university achieve, albeit in slightly warmer climes. The Collaborative Futures learning facility at the University of the Sunshine Coast dedicated more than 30% of the building’s space to informal learning environments. These areas sit between formal learning spaces and include a range of settings that support individual and group work as well as socialising and relaxing.

Attractive and comfortable informal environments that flow from the more structured learning spaces foster opportunities for spontaneous learning and collaboration. These technology enabled informal spaces support the student to remain on campus and optimise peer to peer learning and social engagement – an appealing alternative to studying home alone.

Similarly, the formal learning spaces are also being transformed to support the changes in curriculum and teaching method moving away from the ‘sage on stage’ approach to the ‘meddler in the middle’. This is important to continue attracting the best and brightest staff and students, but also to enable more effective learning while optimising the use of space.  

There has been a big shift away from didactic teaching with static furniture in rows to more collaborative environments with flat floors and group tables that can easily transition between lecture, team and individual modes within the learning session. Learning spaces must be technology enabled to share, transfer and project content, readily interacting with the multiple devices the tech-savvy students now have at their disposal. 

Another challenge for higher education, particularly for vocational subjects, is giving students access to ‘real world’ experience. Design needs to support the shift to ‘hands-on’ skills development through problem-solving.

Rather than formulaic practicals giving students the recipe to bake a cake (for example), students are now given the cake and asked to work out the recipe. This approach develops problem-based enquiry and skills in the laboratory. The design of these spaces needs to accommodate this approach with labs that are flexible to diverse group sizes and needs, but which also provide students with safe informal access to laboratories for individual and team projects.

The Advanced Engineering Building (AEB) at the University of Queensland offers a diverse range of learning spaces modelled to align with the curriculum. This includes computer intensive studios, practice-based collaborative spaces, research labs, and large engineering test platforms for hands-on working. The building is driven by a research-led education model in the method of learning enquiry and in the colocation of the research and learning community to optimise exchange and mentoring. The central atrium supports circulation and collaboration space on all levels for researcher and student engagement and to make all research activity visible.

ABOVE: The AEB’s central atrium supports circulation and collaboration space on all levels for researcher and student engagement

In the coming years, the academic and research workplace will also become more agile and responsive to opportunities for interdisciplinary research and engagement with industry. The office and lab environments will need to be agile, flexible and adaptable to support and respond to the dynamic teaming of these collaborative initiatives, the equipment required to support them and the rapid rate of technological change.

Optimising collaboration between university departments and increasing accessibility and amenity while delivering significantly improved space usage will be key to this. A shift in thinking from ownership by specific departments each with their own allocated space to new paradigms of sharing and co-management of high quality space and infrastructure is required. 

These changes will be influenced by the trends in commercial workplace design to facilitate diverse modes of work and collaboration in activity-based settings, but will need to respond directly to the specific drivers of the research and discovery enterprise. 

The Flinders @ Tonsley engineering facility in South Australia provides flexible floor plates to support diverse activities from learning studios and labs to inter-disciplinary research clusters with industry/ start-up modules. The building was constructed as a framework for change with floor-plate fit-outs developed during construction and significant spare capacity remaining when the university moved in to accommodate the expected growth and change of the building’s population. This in-built flexibility increases the lifespan of the building and delivers a sustainable asset for the university. 

Now is an exciting and rewarding time to design for the higher education sector. The advances and knowledge in this realm are increasing exponentially, producing better facilities and experiences for students and staff and a more environmentally and competitively sustainable future for providers.


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