Space to learn

As UK and European universities prepare to compete for UCAS applicants, Nicola Yeeles asks, what could give them the edge?

More than a third of students surveyed in The Higher Education Policy Institute/Higher Education Academy 2014 study said they thought that their university should spend money on better learning facilities (though not better buildings, which ranked lower). Better sports facilities were, by way of comparison, much further down their list of priorities. Improvements to learning facilities may call for considerable investment from an already-stretched budget, but if the effects can be seen in the happiness and results of students then many consider that it could be worth it.

The first step is to prioritise improvements across the university. But doing this will mean anticipating student and staff use of campus space long into the future, going beyond the simple addition of extra plug sockets and considering how teaching and learning might also be different.

Creating for the future

Helen Newman, specialist education architect at global consultancy Atkins, admits that we cannot possibly know exactly how learning spaces will be utilised in the future, so instead of creating defined rooms we may instead consider the idea of creating spaces where exciting things might happen. “Students will come and inhabit that space and it will change,” she says. “Each cohort will bring something different.”

Newman has been involved in designing the new University of Northampton campus which will include a learning commons (LC) where the traditional divide between teaching, academic, student support and open learning spaces will be blurred through co-location and shared use. One example of this blurred approach to design is in the new timber-panelled research and enterprise building. Instead of prescribing areas for specific use through detailed design, Helen says: “We want that to become a burst of creativity so we’ve kept that quite simple.”

Along with leaving space for the students to be creative, Newman considers it important to make places appealing to encourage use. One of the key concerns of Northampton University is in encouraging use of the library. Newman adds: “It’s not just about creating a library where students go.The ground floors of all the buildings have a welcoming social learning space. We are creating the destinations, and there happen to be learning spaces off that.”

An inspiration for students

Perhaps in 20 years’ time, Northampton will be known as much for its new University buildings as more established places in the town. Indeed, many historic University buildings have come to embody the education they foster, and many new ones, too, are designed to inspire ideas and creativity in their students. In 2014, reaction to the fire which destroyed the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed Glasgow School of Art was akin to human elegy. One graduate posted online: “It is not replaceable, or rebuildable. The building itself defines art for anyone who ever studied there. It’s like someone has died.” The building itself had clearly inspired generations of students, and was, in the words of one, “haunted with the talents of so many skilled people.”

Improving student satisfaction

Atmosphere is all-important to the student experience, and yet it’s something that is impossible to measure. At Edinburgh Napier University, their Craiglockhart campus was extended in 2004 integrating £30m worth of new development within the site’s existing 19th-century buildings. Professor George Stonehouse, Dean of Edinburgh Napier Business School, says: “Craiglockhart has proved to be a huge success with students, staff and external organisations. In fact student satisfaction in the Business School is the highest in the University and I am sure that the ambience and atmosphere of the building contribute to this.”

Stonehouse sees the value of making positive investments in architecture to boost students’ learning and concentration. One stand-out building at Edinburgh Napier is an egg-shaped lecture theatre, which looks more like a titanium-clad spaceship than a classroom. Inside, students benefit from being close to the speaker because of the unusual oval design, and excellent acoustics were also a priority for the designers.

Stonehouse says: “The Egg is obviously the single most iconic part of the campus, but unlike many iconic buildings it embodies functional excellence. It fits the bill for high-profile events and keynote speeches, and is equally at home in its day-to-day job of providing students with a lecture room which has a real ‘wow’ factor enhancing their learning experience.”

Briefing architects

Every university has a brand to itself – the most fortunate are able to reflect that uniqueness in the buildings on campus. Some have become iconic: the University of London’s towering Senate House; Birmingham’s clocktower. For Edinburgh Napier, that was very much part of the thinking in designing the new campus. University secretary Gerry Webber explains: “What we asked architects BDP to do was to create an environment that reflected and embodied the core values of the University. We wanted something that was modern, innovative, open and inspiring – which is exactly what we got, particularly from ‘the egg’ and the atrium.”

He admits: “Before 2004 most of our buildings looked tired and old-fashioned. That’s because they were. The Craiglockhart project was designed to change all that, to symbolise the kind of university that we aspired to be, and to create a stimulating working environment for the whole of our community, staff and students alike. Ten years on, it’s still my favourite campus.” 

Forging relationships

Of course, good design is not just limited to learning spaces, and it’s clear that it can make all the difference to how students interact in their residences, too. One such hall of residence is privately owned, and sits next to the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. The vision behind the Bikuben Dormitory is to rethink the social environment of student life.

The architects, Aarhus-based AART, wanted to avoid the tradition of long corridors and regular floors, with lots of walls and divisions between bedroom and communal areas. So the building is instead designed on a spiral principle, with rooms situated beside common areas, and various different types of space (kitchens, workout rooms, laundries, gardens) shifting position from one storey to the next. Moreover, the kitchen and communal areas are oriented towards a central courtyard so that residents can look from one area to another.

By focusing on the social spaces, the architects sought to prevent the loneliness and lack of relationships that many students highlight as a problem. But perhaps most noticeable are the artistic features: the bespoke furniture, and the light installation by artist Viera Collaro in the lobby – the words ‘KNOWLEDGE’ and ‘PEACE’ shine in neon on the floor and ceiling of the lobby and light from the installation illuminates the dorm at night time. 

The university as a destination

No university is an island, and so its students aren’t islanders, either. With increasing pressure to engage with local communities, share facilities and attract corporate use and sponsorship, the buildings of our universities are going to have many uses. Many universities who’ve invested in new learning spaces are now able to generate new income renting them out to business, a valuable source of revenue to help pay for these huge investments.

What gives each university its local appeal for business as for students is often the sense of place, knowing that a rural Scottish university will feel different to a London campus; traditional civic buildings inspire a different pride to the thrill of walking into a brand new one. Helen Newman says: “The student experience isn’t just about the library or coffee shop. It is about creating the fabric of the city that you’re in, even if it’s a campus.” In February 2015, the University of Cambridge announced that it would be building around 180 homes at its huge north-west Cambridge development.

It’s clear that the future of our universities is going to impact not just on students, but will be the future of our cities, towns and villages too.  

Picture credits:
Pictures 1 and 2: Northampton University: Moses Cameron Williams architects.
Picture 3: The Bikuben Dormitory: ©Kollegiefonden.

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