Great estate expectations

Mike Entwisle, partner and education sector director at BuroHappold Engineering, discusses meeting the demands for high-quality accommodation

Universities estates are facing challenging times. A strong reputation and the provision of quality education is no longer enough for many universities. With the introduction of – and subsequent rise in – tuition fees, many students now see themselves as customers and expect a positive, healthy and engaging lifestyle, too.

The impact of this on the university estate is significant. University buildings and campuses must now offer great, aspirational spaces, featuring well-connected attractive buildings, plenty of green areas, more informal working spaces and places that encourage greater collaboration and interaction. Students spend so much time in these spaces, working long hours and living away from home, and they’re paying a high price for it, so it’s understandable they’re asking for more.

Challenging times

This desire for more comes at perhaps one of the most challenging periods our universities have faced. Brexit – and the uncertainty it has cast over us all for the past three years – has undoubtedly impacted the sector. International students and academic research, much of which is funded through EU grants, both bring valuable income to the higher education sector and Brexit has placed question marks over the future of both, meaning universities lack certainty over the longer-term revenue they will deliver.

Alongside this, the long-awaited Augar report has brought with it further financial uncertainty, chiefly thanks to its headline recommendation of a reduction in tuition fees. Lower fees mean less income, and less income means less investment.

But neither of these factors will stop students wanting an attractive lifestyle and high-quality facilities, so what can universities do to ensure they stand out in this increasingly competitive environment?

The state of our mental health is intrinsically linked to our surrounding

Focusing on performance

Our surroundings have a huge impact on us, both in terms of wellbeing and productivity, and as our survey programme of over 5,000 students has shown, students are extremely perceptive as to what ‘good’ looks like. However, many British universities have ageing estates with a high percentage of buildings from the 1960s and 1970s, many of which no longer meet the needs of today’s students and academics, whether in terms of environmental performance or their lack of support for new ways of learning and 21st-century student life.  However, with close collaboration and skilful design, it is possible to breathe new life into dysfunctional buildings.

For example, the University of Cambridge took an iconic brutalist 1960s building and transformed it into an examplar of sustainability and a vibrant place for the students and researchers who use it. Now renamed after David Attenborough, it houses a diverse range of facilities including laboratories, a lecture theatre, a museum and offices and is a centre for the university’s global conservation research institution.

Key to the refurbishment’s success was the understanding the development team built up of the needs of each group who use the building. They worked closely with a range of stakeholders to establish their objectives and requirements, resulting in a facility that really works for them – and so attracts more people to it. 

This work drove passive and low-energy design strategies to enable the building to absorb and release heat to aid internal conditions, especially during the summer; promotion of natural ventilation and daylight; and installing a green roof to promote biodiversity and improve the local environment. Meanwhile, a new atrium was introduced and internal floorspaces were redesigned to create open-plan workspaces that improve environmental efficiency, visibility and collaboration, meaning those working in them feel less isolated, and areas can be easily reconfigured for specific projects. While this might be the norm in many research environments, it is highly unusual in universities.

The building has been transformed into a light and airy environment to work and socialise, making it a popular and enjoyable space to spend time – it’s a place where students and researchers want to be. Importantly, this was done with a constrained budget and it’s a great example of how existing estate can be altered and improved to meet the expectations of today’s students. We are now working on an adjacent scheme which will form a critical part of opening up the entire campus, improving the environment for thousands of students, staff and the public.

By improving connectivity and creating environments that bring people together, we can create more supportive, and so more productive, places

Connecting people and places

It has become increasingly acknowledged that the state of our mental health is intrinsically linked to our surroundings and that expecting students to live and study in old, sub-standard buildings impacts negatively on their wellbeing. Social isolation is a big issue among young people today and university estates that do not encourage interaction are perpetuating this. By improving connectivity and creating environments that bring people together, we can create more supportive, and so more productive, places.

At BuroHappold, we have developed a series of tools which can analyse and predict the frequency of personal interaction, enabling designers to optimise this vital element of student life. The University of Exeter is a case in point. Recognising that its existing campus lacked a hub, and that there was a disconnect between some of its key facilities such as the main library and educational spaces, the university created The Forum – a development that brought new and existing buildings together within a galleried, indoor street space providing a wide range of learning, social and support facilities. Not only has The Forum improved the connectivity between buildings and made things more convenient, it has also created a central place where students can spend time during the day, bringing people together in shared social and learning spaces. 

Importantly for the university and its drive to attract students, The Forum goes beyond the functional by creating a ‘lifestyle’ that its users want to buy into. Its dining area has a rooftop terrace with views across the city centre and it sits beside landscaped piazzas which provide outdoor spaces to meet. It also has a 400-seat performance auditorium and specially commissioned public art giving it a style and vibrancy that many learning spaces lack. Crucially, it has become a key selling point for the university and a useful tool in its marketing armoury.

Future-proofing investment

Universities that are in a position to invest in new buildings must do so with an eye on the future to protect that investment. 

Creating appealing learning spaces that encourage interaction and collaboration is critical, but so is ensuring that those spaces have layouts that are flexible and can be reconfigured for multiple uses as future requirements change.

Newcastle University took the concept of a multi-use facility one step further with its Urban Sciences Building by making the building’s fabric and system integral parts of the environmental research that is conducted within it – it is a living laboratory. A host of technologies have been embedded within the building which support the ongoing academic work, for example sensors in concrete floor slabs measure the temperatures to enable monitoring of the thermal mass and associated night-time purging, and the soil moisture levels of the building’s green roof are constantly monitored.
A fuel cell is integrated into the building’s energy strategy, and its performance is the subject of continual analysis.

The result is a building that is not only amazing to look at and a pleasure to be in but also embodies and drives forward the innovative thinking that goes on within it.

Now, who wouldn’t want to study in a building like that?

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