Function and form

From modular spaces to roof gardens, Steve Wright tours the functional university spaces that don’t compromise on form

Across the UK universities landscape, bold new construction projects – and redevelopments of existing sites – are managing to marry form and function as never before, fulfilling a complex list of demands such as 24-hour access, sustainability, multi-functionality and more while optimising their aesthetic appeal and user experience.

Library helpdesk with a modern twist – University of West London

The University of West London has recently completed a major transformation of their St Mary’s Road Campus in Ealing. At the heart of the new development is the refurbishment and extension of the campus’ original library. Tim Wales, Director of Library Services, joined the University in January 2014 – by which time construction had started, although library layouts had yet to be agreed. “There was therefore a natural opportunity for review, including revisiting ideas from a student experience perspective,” Tim explains. “The Director of Property Services agreed that bringing in library-specific design expertise would help us maximise and re-articulate the space available. Nomad RDC [providers of user research and design solutions for university construction projects] were engaged to conduct a rapid student consultation exercise and to use the feedback to inform recommendations for the library interior.” 

Other suppliers and contractors also supplied their expertise. For example, 3M Library Systems helped to identify various options for siting the new Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) stock security systems and self-service kiosks, as well as working with the University’s IT department and security contractors to network and interface the equipment. Shelving supplier Bruynzeel Storage Systems, meanwhile, provided detailed advice for siting and installing the new automated mobile shelving units.

Bright modern book collection areas with clear design themes at University of West London

Students were also heavily involved in the project’s consultation and planning process. “Nomad came on site for two days to undertake both in-library student usage observation studies and one-to-one interviews alongside a #FutureUWLibrary social media campaign,” Tim recalls. “It was a great opportunity to check our ideas against actual student demand, and we made some important adjustments as a result – not least preserving a dedicated library helpdesk on the ground floor and factoring in ‘buddy study’ in our group study areas. The UWL Student Union were also engaged throughout the wider ‘Future Campus’ project and so were able, for example, to lobby effectively for 24/7 opening at an early stage.

Unsurprisingly, Tim believes that the finished project has optimised the student experience. “The Paul Hamlyn Library offers UWL students the modern library facilities they demand and deserve. 

The floor layouts, designs and furniture choices have been carefully chosen to support (and signpost) individual study styles, from quasi-monastic carrels on our silent study floor to the Dr Rami Ranger Pavilion, where students can practise their presentations in small, open-group areas using plug-and-play audio-visual facilities. The upgraded RFID stock circulation technology supports term-time 24/7 opening, so students can fit study around other commitments.” 

Sustainability also played a key role in the library design. “Stripping back the original building to its concrete core allowed us to improve thermal efficiency by installing the latest window-glazing products throughout, and to reduce energy demand with motion-sensitive lighting. A large proportion of the project focused on improving energy efficiency and replacing outdated infrastructure across the campus.” 

Nomad also helped to mastermind the new Learning Centre at King’s College London’s (KCL) Somerset House site. The new Centre is primarily intended to support K+, the College’s widening participation programme: however, it is also required to be flexible enough to support all students across the College’s Strand Campus.

King’s College London

As Vice-Principal (Education), Karen O’Brien was the driving force behind the new Centre, which opened in December 2015. “It consists of six innovative, interconnected teaching and learning spaces in the basement of Somerset House, which we use to promote the idea of a university experience to school-aged learners via summer schools, day visits, and special collaborative sessions with partners such as the Courtauld Institute next door.” 

Existing students were consulted on the plans (the President of the Students’ Union is a member of the Widening Participation Strategy Group): and the space will also be used as a place to engage local community groups and organisations that may be less likely to engage with other, more formal Higher Education spaces.

A workshop with Nomad’s teaching and learning consultants helped to establish some key principles: namely, that the space should be simple and flexible with practical solutions for storage, display and interaction; and that the emotional dimension was important – the space must support and inspire new students. “Our brief was to create a high-end conceptual solution that challenges the boundaries of traditional teaching and learning spaces,” explains Nomad’s Creative Director, Val Clugston.

King’s College London

Nomad’s design proposed six rooms, each one assigned a different type of activity. These include the 360 room, which can be converted into a 360-degree teaching space, or the ‘Build it’ room where modular furniture can be moved, stored or altered. All rooms feature a bespoke teaching wall system, comprising sliding panels faced with a range of materials. In the large circulation hall, meanwhile, Nomad have harnessed the architectural alcoves to create intimate, contemplative spaces. 

Nomad addressed the second, ‘emotional’ requirement via various graphic interventions, the most prominent of which they named Terra Incognita. “This was the term explorers and early cartographers used to describe an unknown place, which we likened to the journey that young people would be embarking on in this space,” Val explains. 

“Terra Incognita therefore became a map of the KCL world. All the subjects and major influences are represented by landforms or other natural elements. 

This graphic is installed on the floor, walls and ceiling of the main circulation space and individual elements are extracted and installed on the icon walls in each room, linking them with the central space.”

 “Nomad provided us with a unifying theme of ‘a journey through the mind’, which is also, visually, a journey through London, and which connects with King’s’ international expertise in psychology and neuroscience,” Karen explains. “When not in use for widening-participation activities, we are starting to use the space for experimental teaching sessions – writable walls, flexible furniture and multiple breakout spaces can all improve the way we teach.”

At the University of Bristol, meanwhile, work has begun on the transformation of a listed building into an outstanding new home for the University’s School of Mathematics. The Fry Building, as it will be called, will undergo a major £33m renovation and remodelling. The building was formerly home to the University’s School of Biological Sciences, which has moved to the new £56.5m Life Sciences building nearby. 

While the character of the Grade II-listed building will be preserved, new additions will include an atrium linked to a new 140-seat lecture theatre with a roof garden above. The development is a key part of the University’s 10-year, £525m capital investment programme. 

Due to open in October 2017, The Fry Building will significantly improve the experience for mathematics students, as the school is currently located across several sites.

Professor Noah Linden, Head of the School of Mathematics, says: “The Fry Building will provide an outstanding home for mathematics in the heart of the University’s precinct. We will have facilities for research and teaching befitting a world-leading mathematics department, in a unique Grade II-listed building, remodelled and refurbished to retain its historic character.” As well as a suite of lecture theatres, offices and tutorial rooms, there will be a wide variety of new spaces for interaction, carefully designed to foster exciting and creative mathematics.

University of Bristol

The University has selected Balfour Beatty, with its significant experience in the university sector, as project partners. The project is being managed by Capita Project Management, with architectural advice from the scheme’s original designers Wilkinson Eyre.

“The 18-month design stage involved extensive consultation with the School of Mathematics, with adjoining occupiers and with the broader University,” Patrick Finch, Bursar and Director of Estates, explains. “We also consulted widely with external stakeholders including neighbours Bristol Grammar School, the Civic Trust, English Heritage (now Historic England) and local neighbourhood groups.”

Sustainability has been a key project driver from day one. “We aim to achieve a BREEAM Very Good accreditation – challenging for a listed building renovation, but we are on track. Staying within the original budget has also been challenging, given significant inflation in the construction industry, the presence of asbestos in the building and an unwillingness by many contractors to take on the risk associated with a listed building. Having now agreed a construction price with Balfour Beatty, we would expect to work within it.”

Return on investment (ROI), meanwhile, will be harder to assess – but, as Patrick explains, the University uses a balanced business scorecard approach, with an agreed business case which is owned by the project’s Corporate Board and clearly sets out the parameters within which success will be measured.

Once again, students have had their say in the designs. “The School of Mathematics has involved its students in the design phases. Wider University consultation has also included drop-in displays, web-based consultation and dialogue with Students’ Union sabbatical officers on the Estates Committee.

“The renovated building will provide a range of excellent facilities for our students, from new lecture theatres through informal study areas to improved IT access and bookable work spaces. The student experience, both undergraduate and postgraduate, has been at the heart of the design.” 

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