Rooms at the top

Timely, rather than timeless architecture is vaunted as a blueprint for HE success, but can bricks and mortar enhancements offer long-term growth?

By Damon Jones


University campuses necessarily offer diverse portfolios of facilities to support their eclectic student populations, and further highly specialised academic interests. Whilst enabling many types of research, these architectural assets have also, it has been suggested, become significant recruitment tools. According to a 2014 survey of 1,000 students led by the LSE Estates Division and the Higher Education Design Quality Forum (HEDQF), they could prove pivotal in cementing potential applicants’ choices. More than three quarters (76%) of respondents felt that a university’s facilities were ‘quite’ or ‘very’ important whilst weighing up where to study. Overall, they ranked as the fourth most important factor to them in making their selections, after considerations over course choice, and the location and reputation of the HEI.    


Colossal stakes are at play. The Association of University Directors of Estate (AUDE) noted in its 2014 Higher Education Estates Statistics report that turnover for the sector had hit £27bn, and annual spending (excluding residential outlay) had increased to £2bn. Investment rose by £170m, or up 9% from 2011/12 and, buoyed by funding from internal sources, a development trend had emerged which showed Vice-Chancellors backing new builds and utilitarian refurbishments. Across the sector, the AUDE discerned “Functional suitability and condition of buildings improving and the age of estate getting younger”. And students, it seems, may be compelling the realisation of this brand new university.

Jonathan Coulson, a Director at development strategy advisers Turnberry Consulting and co-author of architectural volume University Trends: Contemporary Campus Design, contends that “universities are having to become more student-centric.” Increased fees, he points out, are creating heightened expectations around learning, social and support activities, which the competitive marketplace creates more pressure to deliver. For more affluent institutions, of course, fees may also provide the means to concretise their masterplans, whereas others may face similar pressures, albeit with fewer resources. “The rise in tuition fees has certainly meant students expect more – they want an exceptional all round experience to add to the degree certificate they’ll walk away with at the end of their studies,” corroborates Ian Dunn, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience at Coventry University. “That means bringing academic, social, extra-curricular and employment factors firmly into the frame for each and every student, to ensure they’re getting value for money.”


Catering for a myriad of needs – often simultaneously – has encouraged universities to find new ways of using their premises, which defy conventions and overstep orthodox boundaries. “We’re already exploring the notion of ‘disrupting’ traditional ideas of academic lecturing to students, by engineering and adapting our learning spaces to be open and inclusive areas for the discussion and sharing of ideas – rather than a one-way flow of information from the lecturer at the front of the room to students sitting facing them,” explains Dunn.

Coventry’s Disruptive Media Learning lab has been designed to stimulate such new approaches. Opened in autumn 2014 on the top floor of the Frederick Lanchester Library, the facility includes a number of innovative teaching and learning spaces designed to inspire collaboration and innovative pedagogy, including an indoor ‘mound’, which resembles “an island in the middle of the lab,” says Dunn, “on which students can sit and study, while the world races on around them.” At the University’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME), a collaboration between the educator and the Unipart manufacturing group, students can gain vocational experience in what has been characterised as a ‘faculty on the factory floor’. “Students at AME study and work alongside industry professionals and researchers in a ‘live’ manufacturing environment, with a unique opportunity to engage with genuine industry projects,” elaborates Dunn. “The idea is that when they graduate, they already have front-line industry experience that they know is sought after by employers.”

“Flexibility is key,” advises Turnberry Consulting’s Coulson. “Boundaries are becoming blurred – in terms of disciplines, and between teaching, learning and physical spaces – and this is likely to continue.” Coventry’s High Performance Engineering lab, sited in its Engineering and Computing Building, offers a further example of this functional synthesis. Occupying an open-plan environment, the facility has been designed to encourage students from various disciplines to work alongside each other on practical, activity led projects – as they might in an actual factory setting. The building also contains a dynamic lecture theatre ‘in the round’, which has an ampitheatre design that brings students far closer to discussions, and can be split into two separate, semicircular arenas. 

“Fashions and technology will inevitably evolve, so to retain value and functionality the best approach a campus can take is to have a master plan and buildings that are designed to have the ability to adapt,” Coulson counsels.


Large-scale projects designed by world-renowned ‘starchitects’ can garner critical praise and possess the ‘wow’ factor, but less spectacular amenities are nonetheless greatly in demand. “Students expect good Wi-Fi everywhere, and comfortable buildings,” reports Russell Smith, the University of Bradford’s Estates Manager. “They will expect the small things, like conveniently placed electric sockets, so they can sit down, plug in their laptops and mobile phones, and recharge them.”

Access, too, is important. “What students really want are work areas that are well-equipped and with excellent IT provision, quiet where necessary, and as close to ‘always on’ as we can get,” adds Coventry’s Dunn. “Our extended opening hours and the staff support in many of our facilities have proved popular.”


Reconceptualising their educational spaces has helped universities to build a new generation of facilities, in the form of ‘hub’ buildings, which can house and combine a number of different functions under one roof. “A hub is essentially a mixed-used structure intended to be the geographical and psychological centre of student life, both social and academic,” outlines Turnberry’s Coulson. The Hub at Coventry University – for which Turnberry Consulting provided strategic guidance – was opened in 2011, and hosts a café, dining options, convenience store, medical centre, careers centre, bar, faith centre and informal study zones, and is open 24 hours a day. Similarly, the University of Bradford has consolidated several different activities within its three-storey Student Central Building, which was recently refurbished. Homing the Students’ Union, the facility simultaneously accommodates four bars, a patio terrace, nightclub, advice centres, study spaces and teaching rooms, amongst numerous other resources. Conceived to function with the J B Priestly Library, the building’s ‘Learning Mall’ fuses areas for social learning, group activities and career development. “There’s a flow from the library space to a more social learning environment, where students can have a coffee, tap on their laptops and conduct their research or dissertations, then go down and access recreational spaces. We’ve helped to create a link between work and social life,” comments Russell Smith.   

“The hub concept is still relatively new,” says Coulson, “but it’s very likely that we will see more and more examples in forthcoming years. And they will evolve to take on more functions. The blurring of boundaries that is already happening … will continue as distinctions between learning and social spaces, formal and informal interaction, become increasingly fluid.” Intersections with businesses are also becoming more frequent, and purpose-built new structures such as the University of Bradford’s award-winning £6m Bright Building, opened in 2013, can help to provide a ‘front door’ to access the commercial marketplace. Providing meeting, seminar and collaborative office space for SMEs, the facility has also utilised several innovative green technologies, winning a BREEAM ‘outstanding’ award and receiving a rare design stage assessment of 94.95%.


To ensure developments are relevant to real needs, it can be helpful, suggests Smith, to “keep your ear to the ground”. On a current project involving sports facilities, the relevant student rep running Bradford’s student sports body was involved, and their feedback shared with the design team. Seizing a further opportunity, students were also invited on a recent away day held by the estates team, in order to listen to their comments. Coventry University has decided to appoint dedicated estates reps, who are elected by students, for students, to voice their concerns to the estates team. Several surveys – including the National Student Survey – are also utilised.


Although it’s important to respond to contemporary needs, managers may also need to look forward and anticipate how succeeding generations may use, or adapt, their structures, to deliver value for money and longevity. “A university estate needs buildings that are compatible with their physical context, institutional programmatic needs and financial resources,” says Jonathan Coulson. 

“Universities have always been places of ambitious patronage and it’s important that they continue to be so, but campus buildings are more than photogenic showplaces; to be of lasting worth, they need to be in tune with the institution’s long-range mission and values.” Implementing this sagacious vision can prove particularly challenging due to the pace of technological developments, which sometimes result, says Bradford’s Smith, in even recently erected buildings becoming rapidly outmoded as users’ mores move with the times.

“It’s hard, as part of an estates team, to foresee what students want,” he says. “As data and information migrate online, could we see a significant expansion in distance and online learning? That might prompt a reduction in the size of your estate, because you don’t need the same physical space to service alternative styles of learning. The higher education estates landscape looks likely to change dramatically again over the next 10 years, just as it has over the last decade.” 

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