Space to think?

What is the latest thinking and best practice around university campus design? And how has the pandemic shaken up our visions of engaging HE environments? Steve Wright quizzes UCL’s Professor Alexandra Marmot

Engaging learning areas, safe and intimate accommodation, welcoming social spaces: what makes a really effective learning environment at higher education level? It’s a question that occupies estates directors every day.

“It’s a challenging time to be thinking about this topic,” reflects Professor Alexandra Marmot, Professor Emeritus at University College London’s Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment.

“At present, many – if not most – HE students around the globe have a learning environment that consists of their tech tool wherever they are – in their bedroom, often, or elsewhere at home – but not physically in a place of learning like a campus.

Professor Alexandra Marmot


“They are not learning side by side with other students, nor are they falling in and out of personal relationships at the same time. And they are accompanied by their fears about future jobs and income, in an economically challenged post-pandemic world.”

Against this challenging and unfamiliar backdrop, it can feel difficult to plan – but certain principles hold true whatever the conditions, Professor Marmot stresses.
“What makes for an effective learning environment is a layered question, as it depends on the outcomes that are being sought and who is seeking them.

“For students, an effective learning environment – whether physical or virtual – is one in which they feel engaged with their learning and socialising; have access to the people, services and tools they need; and can meet with other students to share their learning, debate ideas, enjoy social interaction, and develop self-knowledge as well as knowledge of their subjects.”

The remote learning model is “less stimulating” than more traditional models


Other priorities then layer themselves on top of this basic need for student happiness and welfare. “The efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of the estate and infrastructure are essential in delivering great education while not costing the earth and permitting the institution’s reputation, education and research, to flourish. Students’ families, meanwhile, need to know that the environment is safe, and will help their child to find a decent future career.”

Drilling down a little deeper, Professor Marmot highlights ways in which the learning process can be encouraged and facilitated on campus.

“Learning can really be sparked off as a process of co-creation between the teacher and the learner, aided by tools, technologies, and physical space.

“Active learning is key – ensuring that people are motivated to learn, and finding innovative ways to stimulate reluctant students. For example, imagining future jobs and skills that will be required in a changing world, and building on students’ individual passions and hobbies, can help to fire up their learning.”

So: can these various, but complementary priorities be broken down into separate areas – learning, socialising, exercise, etc – or is it helpful to think about the university campus more holistically?

The creation of memorable university environments also needs ambitious clients, designers and facility managers who are all willing to stretch boundaries

“Each traditional university campus is a unique assemblage of learning places for specific disciplines,” Professor Marmot reflects.

“On top of that, it also provides access to all the world’s knowledge through its libraries and museums; to health and wellbeing, via its parkland, open spaces, sports grounds and gyms; to the arts, in its concert halls and theatres; and to sociability, in its student unions, cafes and refectories, and halls of residence.”

Another model, totally disrupting the traditional campus concept, is provided by those universities that are now (before and beyond the pandemic) providing most of their learning online, freeing students from the expense of full-time education, travel and accommodation costs.

“During the pandemic, even traditional universities have emulated this model, but most would agree it provides a less stimulating experience for all participants than the more traditional models,” Professor Marmot says.

Back to the bricks-and-mortar environments, though: is there a basic checklist to which planners and senior leadership teams should refer, when designing their university environments? Should aspects like sustainability and mental health top such a list, or does it not help to be this prescriptive?

“There is a wealth of knowledge, standards and examples of great university environments,” Professor Marmot confirms.


“In the UK, useful guidance comes from an alphabet soup of bodies including the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE); Jisc; Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE); Higher Education Design Quality Forum (HEDQF); Scottish Funding Council (SFC); Space Management Group (SMG) and the University and College Union (UCU), as well as from academic and professional journals, books, and international bodies.”

Minimum standards should, of course, be met – but, Professor Marmot argues, the creation of memorable university environments also needs ambitious clients, designers and facility managers who are all willing to stretch boundaries, using a mix of analysis and imagination, to create great places for today’s students and their future counterparts.

It’s also useful to consider what particular challenges and opportunities are presented by the design of HE spaces in particular, when compared to other types of spaces such as schools and workplaces. Is an effective campus essentially similar to those spaces… or does it present its own demands and possibilities?

“As they are presented in images designed to attract students, idealised university campuses and their buildings commonly depict images of smiling young adults working on sleek laptops and tablets in a colourful, multi-level university learning centre or library, coffee to hand, with trees and greenspace beckoning outside,” Professor Marmot reflects.

“This scenario has a lot in common with the latest workplaces of those globally dominant digital companies – Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft – that aim to attract the best and brightest young graduates.

“In fact, university teaching and learning spaces in most universities consists of a mixture of some innovative spaces for interactive teaching and learning, dotted between many traditional classrooms and lecture theatres, plus library or study spaces for solo study or group work.”

There are some illuminating examples of latest thinking and best practice in this area.

The classic, stepped amphitheatre remains a popular way to bring together different communities within the university


“All learning organisations – schools, colleges, universities, adult learning – continually reinvent their spaces in response to new needs, and new technologies,” says Professor Marmot. Recent trends include ‘makerspaces’ integrating digital and hands-on technologies, and digitally immersive environments.

“Elsewhere, a large stepped amphitheatre – for casual, formal and interactive events, either indoors or outside – finds favour in many universities as a way to share ideas between students, staff, local communities and industry.

“And we are also seeing new specialist spaces for labs, workshops and studios, many of them containing experimental robots performing previously laborious tasks with great speed and accuracy in disciplines from biological and medical sciences, to engineering, fashion, fine arts, film and architecture.

“In the pandemic experiment of this very moment, universities have tested to destruction remote tools that had been introduced gradually over the past few decades. We have all learned the power, effectiveness, and frustration of using the digital infrastructure for remote lectures and seminars, online breakout rooms, remote voting tools, digital libraries and chat.

“The success of remote tools is impressive – but most universities await with great eagerness the moment when face-to-face learning and socialisation are again possible, as part of a new delivery mix.”

Banter, beanbags and coffee

Ian Whittle, senior associate architect at FaulknerBrowns Architects,
shares his long-term love of the physical learning space

As an architecture student, I suppose I had an unconventional experience of campus life. We lived (mostly metaphorically but sometimes literally) in the design studio. The campus security guard was a regular visitor on winter nights: he knew we’d be there, and there was always coffee.

Lectures were a small part of the real learning, which came as much from the messy idea-sharing, banter and harsh critiques of the studio as from the carefully curated, precisely hour-long slide presentations of eminent professors. The contrast between my experience and that of my non-architect peers probably sparked my interest in making spaces which help people to learn.

Since then, Universities have changed dramatically. The first ‘social learning spaces’ like Glasgow Caledonian’s Saltire Centre, with their beanbags and primary colours, were new and exciting and changed how we think about the campus. Pedagogies are now more diverse and engaging, with stronger evidence for what works. The investment students are making has also given them the power to demand the spaces they want, and collaborative, workplace-like environments are in huge demand.

There’s a real joy in seeing the intense, inventive use of the learning spaces we create. Studios for mathematicians, social scientists and linguists to inhabit. To learn together and from each other. With much better coffee.


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