How architecture can create inspired learning

Dark, uninspiring library spaces are fast becoming a thing of the past, says Nick Gregory, Director at CPMG Architects

When creating inspiring and engaging learning environments for students it is important to pay attention to the importance of high-quality interior design and architecture. The way in which students choose to study is shifting all the time, with a keen focus now being placed on shared spaces that enable collaborative learning. Architecture and interior design has a key role in creating inviting, flexible educational spaces that caters for these changing methods of learning and ensure that both institutions and their students get the best possible results.

Dark, uninspiring library spaces are fast becoming a thing of the past. Universities are increasingly investing in modernisation programmes as competition for student intake continues to increase. One such institution is Teesside University. Its library refurbishment began in 2012 and completed after five years of carefully-planned phased work which has fully transformed the library into a state-of-the-art immersive learning facility.

The Library refurbishment was one of the most complex pieces of work undertaken as part the university’s ‘Campus Heart’ programme, a wider redevelopment programme on which it has worked with CPMG for more than ten years.

The university’s brief was to reinvent the building to create an inviting and aspirational space creating informal, formal, individual and group study zones to inspire a positive learning environment for students.

To capture that, the final designs aimed to regenerate both the library’s internal environment as well as remodel the building itself, introducing new walls and ventilation systems and structural work throughout.

Combating the four-floor logistics

A key logistical challenge in any major redevelopment project is ensuring that services for students and staff remain as undisturbed as possible. In Teesside University’s case, this meant the continued provision of library services to the facility’s 10,000 weekly users while transforming all four floors.

Collaboration is essential in situations such as this. Maintaining an ongoing dialog between the institution and the architects is a key component of this, ensuring that the build can be completed in good time while still working around the needs of the key stakeholders.

The general lack of natural daylight which, along with the muted, monotone colour pallet, contributed towards a dark and uninspiring environment which needed addressing

During this project, the decision was made to undertake the refurbishment in four phases over the summer break, ensuring that the bulk of the work was undertaken at the time when library footfall was at its lowest. The phased approach also presented an opportunity to adapt the designs to include feedback from students,

Jim Marshall, assistant director (Capital Projects) at Teesside University said: “Having the opportunity to garner opinions and feedback from students while the project was still live was hugely important to the redesign’s final form. At the end of the day, the building is designed to serve them, so it was important that its functionality represented their needs.”

Critically, the library remained in use throughout the works, and the design team has worked closely with the university team to ensure that designs can be realised with minimum disruption to the ongoing activities in the building.

Fixing the problem 

Before the refurbishment, the setting struggled to respond to less formal modes of learning. Structurally, there were very definite zoning partitions which had segregated each level and key areas within the levels themselves.

Rather than encouraging creativity, this setup created fragmented learning environments with no clear flow, and also left no obvious collaborative learning spaces – something which had become increasingly more important to the student body in recent years. It was crucial, therefore, that the design introduced adaptable study environments for both group and individual learning.

Marshall said: “Without natural areas for students to congregate to work, the library wasn’t working to its full potential. However, while the need for collaborative areas was significant, there was also the need to accommodate more traditional learning methods, including silent study, so the redesign needed to reflect this.”

The general lack of natural daylight which, along with the muted, monotone colour pallet, contributed towards a dark and uninspiring environment which needed addressing. To combat these issues in tandem, the design revised the stratification of the building and introduced full-height windows on all four corners of the building.

The new layout means that the further up the building a user travels, the more silent the study areas become. The ground floor is designed to be the most sociable, with dedicated group study areas and a learning cafe, while the third floor comprises a silent study space and opportunities for individual study.

The design ensured that each zone was fluid, allowing all the necessary space for groups and individuals’ work stations, combined with ambience and acoustics they need in a logical and easy-to-navigate way. In addition, central partitions and enclosed spaces were removed maximising openness and legibility of the floor plates.

Incorporating nature into the building

Another key part of creating a more modern learning environment was to ensure that each level and area has its own identity. The design assigned each level with its own colour association that reflecting its intended purpose, following a seasonal theme that linked in with the colours used throughout the wider university masterplan.

The interiors have been designed using the principles of biophilia, building on our affiliation with nature. The design incorporate many natural materials, improved daylighting, and many references to the natural world – an antidote to the stark and dingy interiors in the buildings original guise.  Each zone is themed, with the natural narrative being carried through into finishes, colourways, furniture and lighting creating a series of individual destinations.

Further complimenting this theme, the full length windows in each corner of the building flood the space with daylight. Not only do they have the effect of pulling in more light, windows have been strategically placed to overlook the campus’ redevelopment, giving the library a strong connection to the landscaping.

Marshall said: “The windows have absolutely transformed the whole look and feel of the library. Previously, there were large areas of each floor that had no natural light at all, which was far from ideal and had the potential to make library users feel shut off from the outside world. The introduction of the corner windows, combined with the new colour scheme, has refreshed the entire building.”

The refurbishment of the building combined tried and tested construction methods with innovative design thinking to deliver the desired effect of a fluid, inspiring setting, and what this produced of this was unique. At the time of completion, Teesside was the only university library to segment its working areas in this way, and several institutions have begun to follow suit.

The feedback that the university has received from students has been overwhelmingly positive, with the library reporting increased footfall and significantly improved user satisfaction, while the response from other universities – many of whom have visited the facility and taken lessons away from its design – has positioned the building as a trailblazer.

Embraced by both the Teesside University community and the wider university industry, the library stands as a testament to the role architecture has played in enabling the students of Teesside University to reach their potential.

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