Rational design for HE

Jonathan Telling discusses how to maximise university spaces to achieve status and improve student experience

The national higher education league table, published by the Times Higher Education (THE), is determined largely based on student experience and is frequently consulted by prospective students when deciding which university they will apply to. League positions can have a considerable influence on a student’s selection and universities work hard towards improving their ranking each year. 

The quality of campus facilities is one important factor that students will consider and getting this right can help universities raise their league position and attract more students. Achieving excellent campus facilities however, can be challenging due to conflicting stakeholder space requirements and with the cost of space at a premium, there is a necessity for universities to be creative in their attempt to increase utilisation of their existing building stock. 

The rationalisation of campus space is one such way universities can help achieve improvements in their estates, through repurposing office space traditionally designated for professional services and academic support staff into modern innovative environments where space is allocated on need and not status. With universities increasingly under pressure to act as commercial entities, this rationalisation of space will also enable them to have cost efficient facilities with sensible overheads, allowing them to compete in the current market place.  

A modern innovative office should include a selection of work spaces where staff members select their working environment depending on the task in hand. This creates a more efficient staff force who are better equipped while reducing the overall space requirement as no person has a fixed desk.  

Typically these modern spaces would include quiet areas, private meeting rooms, boardrooms, breakout areas, touchdown spaces, media tables and quiet pods, many of which can be created using innovative furniture and IT solutions.

Senior university staff have typically worked out of their own offices, often scattered across campus dependent on which faculty or department they belong to. Students usually need to visit several different buildings to speak with their module leaders, creating issues with contact time. Rationalising space through reducing individual offices will free up space not only to create modern working environments, but when applied in large scale, will create additional space to be repurposed for teaching and learning facilities that would otherwise have to be newly built at great expense. This will also increase contact time between staff and students contributing to the overall student experience. 

Creating ‘help desks’ with fewer boundaries and more free space would enable students to easily access the assistance they need from teaching and support staff without having to move between buildings for different queries. This will help develop an inclusive atmosphere of student support and remove barriers that students can face when trying to access the support they need in their studies. 

All of this may require a culture change between senior staff, where the long standing tradition has associated having their own office with status and staff see this as a reward for leading in their chosen field. Careful strategic planning can overcome this and there are approaches available to help address these concerns to gain the buy in of end users from the start of the process. A modern ‘new way of working’ environment often means a paperless office. This culture change would also address workplace systems and processes, challenging and redefining these to allow migration to electronic workflow processes. A reduction in paper means a reduction in storage which equals further space savings. 

With universities typically using more paper than other offices, this change may impact staff across the board, but if adopted effectively, removes the need to have excess storage facilities and could result in significant savings. Any necessary paperwork can be stored in lockers in designated spaces instead of at each desk.  

Support staff have long worked out of open plan offices but there is more that could be done to ensure the most efficient use of space, such as removing fixed desks and moving to a ‘hot-desking’ environment. This change would also help estate departments manage their space providing flexibility to move staff to certain areas to alleviate any potential teaching space clashes. Annual leave, sickness absence and part time or flexible working means that fixed desks with PCs are an inefficient way to allocate space in an office environment. Touch down space and hot desks allow for the use of laptops and tablets which can often be much more suited to the task in hand.

All of these ideas can help universities maximise their existing space for teaching and learning, without having to spend vast sums of money investing in new buildings. It will improve the student experience and provide organisations who do not have the capital to invest in new buildings a better chance of entering into the ‘business end’ of the league tables.

Jonathan Telling is an associate at Capita Property and Infrastructure

W: www.capitaproperty.co.uk


29 October 2020 11am (GMT)

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