How does ‘place making’ add to the university experience?

Nick Gregory from CPMG Architects says creating a community can benefit the university as well as students’ experience

Expectations surrounding the type and breadth of facilities that universities need to provide has shifted in recent years; potentially due to increasing tuition fees and the resulting financial burden that parents and students have to weigh-up and compare with other options such as apprenticeships.  

Designing a university campus is now as much about creating a small scale community as it is developing a functional environment that will cater to work, rest, and play. A number of factors have arguably contributed to this; firstly, an increase in the number of mature and international students who have different expectations to recent sixth-form or college graduates. With the development of colleges specifically for international students, it’s logical that parents want added reassurances around the quality of accommodation and the lifestyle that their child will enjoy.

Secondly, with limited inner city options, campuses are growing or relocating away from central locations, offering more space for development and therefore producing a need for unconventional amenities that students will otherwise have to travel for such as supermarkets and gyms.  

Ultimately, ‘place making’ or building a community is now an essential part of creating a university that students want to apply for, build a life at, and share their success with

This is quite clearly reflected in the evolution of the Student Union. Once purely a destination for a Friday night get-together or a quick snack between lectures, they are becoming central to a campus design and an essential part of the student lifestyle, especially with a population that is increasingly diverse in terms of age, background, and culture. This is all part and parcel of encouraging students to become proactive in the campus community, making them comfortable enough to maximise their time both for social and educational reasons.

A good example is the redevelopment of the University of Nottingham’s Portland Building. The wider project will see the original 1950s building become a dynamic hub, transforming the Student Union through extensive remodelling, refurbishment, and interior design.

‘The Studio’ has already been completed to create a performance space for 150 people. A flexible design was essential to host a variety of activities, so we incorporated moveable walls and a retractable stage. Not only has the brighter space made the facility more inclusive, but for the University it means one less under-used and therefore under-valued space.

The Studio at the University of Nottingham

The next phase of the project is a Student Services Centre. This provides an interesting combination of advice, information, private and social study space, again rethinking the role of the traditional Student Union to encourage students to take a more collaborative approach.

Part of this revision of the Union’s role is the recognition, both by higher education bodies and architects, that students are also enthusiastic and willing consumers. Therefore, keeping them on site, so they can spend their time and ultimately their money, is an important part of the modern design brief.

The Student Services centre at the University of Nottingham

Teesside University has recently recognised this fact, investing in the creation of a ‘living wall’ and large screen on one side of its new Student Centre as a backdrop to the new ‘campus heart’. This not only creates an enjoyable and engaging environment, but encourages students to congregate and socialise in the centre of the campus.

We’re also seeing the traditionally academic focussed areas, such as libraries and seminar rooms, taking inspiration from professional work places. There is a definite integration of social and learning spaces that prioritise collaborative engagement and idea sharing.

An ongoing project with Teesside University provides a good example. The campus library was is in need of complete rethink and refurbishment; creating a balance between quiet, private study, and interaction was crucial. Plus, it needed to be an integrated part of university life rather than an introspective space detached from the rest of university life. 

Teesside’s library refurbishment 

As well as the clever use of semi-open learning areas, the use of colour and a variety of furniture systems shouldn’t be underestimated. Again, this is something where lessons are being applied from the retail and office world.

At Teesside, interior design and the colour in particular, has been used to reflect the identity of the university and its values. Key spaces are highlighted to support wayfinding; something that can be daunting to new visitors.

Similarly, student accommodation continues to be a vital revenue stream at some universities. To prevent private landlords from dominating the market, the benefits of being in bespoke accommodation need to be made clear.

As the campus destination that most commonly blurs the lines between social and educational time, student accommodation has to support a positive experience and quality of life, arguably more than anywhere else on site.

Accommodation is an area where effective, efficient, and aesthetically pleasing design can truly add value and closely tie with a prerequisite for academic excellence. It not only helps to retain students and encourage those close to graduation to apply and live ‘on site’ by being aspirational, but includes design features such as improved acoustics and faster IT connectivity to support learning.

Ultimately, ‘place making’ or building a community is now an essential part of creating a university that students want to apply for, build a life at, and share their success with. To remain profitable and meet the growing expectations of pupils and parents, spaces that cater for life and work need to support both study and social interaction, recognising students as valuable consumers and assets to the success of the higher education sector and the cities within which they live.   

Nick Gregory is director at CPMG Architects:    

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