Giving students thinking space

Keri Beckingham explores the thought process behind the design of some of HE’s current building projects

Universities are investing in their futures by redesigning and expanding their facilities in order to meet the needs of all their stakeholders. Not only are they combining functional practicality and forward-thinking design, but they are ensuring that their offering stays one step ahead of the competition too. However, when it comes to designing facilities, what thinking and feedback is involved, and how can universities ensure that their spaces are also fit for purpose?

The thought process

The first phase of Birmingham City University’s £3.5m STEAMhouse concept was completed earlier this year. The project has been in development for three years and will see the creation of a new creative innovation centre that will bring sole traders, start-ups and local businesses together with academics, artists and citizens.

The University wanted to create a space that promotes curiosity, openness, inventiveness and productivity. Commenting on the thought process behind the project, Alessandro Columbano, Senior Lecture and STEAMhouse Academic Coordinator at Birmingham City University, said: “Increasing maximum visibility to the street frontage, even though it is not directly open to the public, can still engage with the Digbeth area of Birmingham in a visual capacity, giving the street a new dynamic to it.

“Other ideas include opening up spaces to improve occasional encounters between the different users and encourage collaborations.”

DLA Design have been involved in Leeds Arts University’s current £22m building and facilities expansion project since 2014, working for about a year with the client to get a brief developed before starting on-site in 2017. The new extension is set to open in September this year, and Paul King, Project Architect believes that understanding how the space would be used was a key part of the project’s concept. He said: “For this project, it was very important for us to engage with academic staff in order to understand their pedagogy so that no area was left as dead space.

“The extension includes a series of spaces, as we wanted to create areas for students and staff to interact outside of teaching. In addition, the whole idea of the project was to be public facing, and big driver was to bring public into the gallery space and give students the opportunities to exhibit and perform.”

ABOVE: Image courtesy of AHR Architects

Design that’s fit for purpose

The University of Bath is currently building a major centre for evolution research. Named The Milner Centre for Evolution after Dr Jonathan Milner, who donated £5m towards its construction, it will feature offices, laboratories and a seminar room, and is expected to be completed later this year. As part of the design process, The Milner Centre’s Building Committee sought to understand how the building would be used to ensure that every aspect of the design flowed and that people could easily interact. Discussing their thoughts in more detail, Dr Nick Longrich, Senior Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology at the Milner Centre for Evolution, said: “One of our main inspirations was Pixar Studios, where all the shared spaces – meeting rooms, bathrooms, kitchens – are positioned centrally so that people have no choice but to run into each other every time they leave their office.

“Flexibility was also key. The needs of the building may change in 10, 20 or 50 years, so we tried to make the space as general-purpose as possible, to allow us to adapt as the needs of the group change.”

Being a specialist arts institution, there were some very specific criteria for the design of Leeds Arts University’s expansion project, which required the creation of some bespoke spaces. Commenting further, Graham Morley, Head of Estates, said: “The requirement of triple-height spaces for the film and photography studios had an influence on how levels and floors were constructed. The intention was to also create breakout circulation spaces for student interaction.

“Opportunities for repurposing and integrating adjoining existing spaces within the new-build scheme have also been taken. The new building has also been designed to support growth at the University and this will enable it to progress with its masterplan for the existing Blenheim Walk site.”

Key considerations

When it comes to building projects, there are many factors for universities to consider, such as sustainability and the needs of staff and students. At Birmingham City University they are committed to giving students the right learning experience, but as their STEAMhouse facility will be used by several different groups overall, this is reflected in the design of the building. Discussing this further, Alessandro Columbano said: “Firstly it is not just a student facility but one for the SMEs of the city. Therefore, it needed to be a space that demonstrated a sense of creativity, taking innovative design ideas in the layout and performance to encourage collaborations, creative exchanges and innovative ideas to emerge from.”

At Leeds Arts University, consulting with key stakeholders was a vital part of the design process, as was ensuring that sustainable features were included too.  Expanding on this, Graham Morley said: “The University consulted widely with all staff and students to make our building future-proof. The building will also have many sustainable features including solar energy panels and an urban roof garden, and will achieve a high BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) rating.”

Student feedback

Paul King believes that student feedback is something that universities certainly need to take on board when designing new function spaces, in order to ensure that the student experience is enhanced. He said: “In our experience, the process of collecting student feedback tends to be led more from the university’s side, but often they will hold focus groups with students to get their feedback. This usually involves selecting certain representatives from the whole student body, rather than throwing the invitation open to the entire cohort.

“Feedback also depends entirely on the project and the kinds of spaces the university is dealing with. Ultimately universities know what they want and how their spaces need to function.”

The University of Bath also knew that it was important to consider the needs of their cohort when designing The Milner Centre. Dr Nick Longrich commented: “We tried to keep students involved in the design process. They have been helpful in letting us know that they didn’t want open-plan offices which was the original idea – they vetoed that one.

“The overall vision came from us, but I hope they have a sense of ownership too.”

The end result

Although not all of the university building projects we’ve covered have yet reached completion, what do our experts think about the end results and the outcomes that will be achieved?

Alessandro Columbano, Senior Lecture and STEAMhouse Academic Coordinator, Birmingham City University:  “The space itself is a former car showroom that had been converted into several other different uses over the years. As much of it is to be durable fabrication workshops, we stripped a lot of it back to its core structure and opened up the building to let a legible and practical flow of spaces be carved out.

“It really opened up the building and you get a real sense of space, especially in areas where false ceilings have been removed. Then the final finishes were treated rather practically and it was strongly dictated by the functions of the workshops: extraction, reducing sound penetration, increasing natural daylight in the building.”

Graham Morley, Head of Estates at Leeds Arts University: “For students pursuing careers in the creative arts, it is important to have access to specialist resources that will allow them to develop their practice fully, providing a breadth of experiences. The building expansion has allowed us to provide a broader range of courses, with facilities that match the high standards our students have come to expect.

“Our public exhibition gallery and coffee shop provide space for students and the public to socialise, whilst the increase in space will provide students with further opportunities to work collaboratively across the creative curriculum. Our new enterprise centre for students will also improve engagement with industry and the wider community.”

Dr Nick Longrich, Senior Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology at the Milner Centre for Evolution: “With the Milner Centre for Evolution, we were trying to create a building to bring our Centre together, to announce to the world that Bath was serious about evolutionary biology, and at the same time stay on budget.

“Trying to reconcile these demands meant we had to really think hard about our priorities and be creative in solving problems – but I think in the end working within these constraints may have resulted in a better building than if we’d had unlimited funds to spend.”

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