The art of making

Architect Helen Newman looks at six ways universities can create better spaces for making and innovation

Many universities already have generous studio and workshop spaces for their Art, Design and Engineering students and researchers. However, with growing student numbers and shrinking space for universities to grow into, there is pressure to rethink how we use these spaces and make sure they’re providing the best value to students, researchers and the university.

Below are six ways universities can start to get more from their spaces for making and innovation.

1. Put your investment in high tech model making facilities

While these kind of purpose built, state of the art spaces require a large investment, they are often what excite students about joining a university, and what keep them coming back to campus throughout their studies. For example, the University of Melbourne’s ‘Fab Lab’ provides facilities to build accurate physical models of computer generated designs, using computer controlled laser cutters, 3D printers and CNC routers. While these facilities aren’t cheap, universities may find they provide greater value for money in the long term for attraction and retention.

2. Give wider access hours to studio spaces

Universities often find themselves with limited studio space that they need to ‘squeeze’ to ensure students feel they still get access when they need it. For example, fashion studio workshops are often timetabled by student year group, with final year students given longer daytime access, and other students given ‘out-of-hours access’. At the University of Huddersfield, studios have been designed to be always open, with the design for the building geared up to give 24 hour access to students.

3. Consider flexible studio spaces

For the University of Northampton, we designed flexible studio spaces which will allow them to combine graphic design, fashion, architectural technology, textiles and printmaking. This not only makes better use of studio space, but allows the university to be more innovative in how they teach Art and Design subjects, doing more project based teaching where students from different disciplines work together to make something they couldn’t have imagined alone. These spaces need to be designed so that they can expand and contract, to cater for small and large scale design and making projects.

4. Invest in virtual spaces

In this digital age, many universities are asking: Should we invest in spaces that give students access to specific course related software (Revit, animation, gaming and edit software, etc.)? Should we make sure every student has a laptop when they get to university? Or at least sufficient open access to computers on campus? Technology isn’t free, but it does provide the flexibility and access students need (or sometimes demand) and recognises the importance of virtual spaces to the next generation. Many universities are also investing in CAT 6 IT infrastructure to improve their download speeds and give students better access to specialist software. Others are using virtual desktop technology to give students and faculty access to software facilities on any device whether at home, on campus or elsewhere.

5. Create open, easy to access facilities

Universities want to encourage cross fertilization of ideas, and open up opportunities for students to learn new skills. The University of Northampton’s ‘creative hub’ aspires to take this to the next level, creating a space that will bring together tannery and fashion students. This open access approach will allow their fashion students to excel on the national stage, with their final submissions incorporating unique leather work.

6. Engage with the public and industry

Creating project based learning spaces – for the creative arts or 3D printers, Raspberry PI micro-computers, or access to engineering wood working tools – can be a great way of engaging with the public and industry. The ‘MakeSpace’ workshop at UCL’s Institute of Making offers a workshop space for students and staff to use, and a public programme of masterclasses and workshops with guest experts to allow the wider public access to this fantastic resource. We’ve used this space here at Atkins, and have found it equally as engaging for our staff and clients.

At the University of Wolverhampton, we’re creating an internal atrium spill out space that can be curated for events and exhibitions, used for professional CPD sessions and even ‘Saturday University’ for people with full time jobs taking weekend courses. These kind of internal and external spaces that students and staff can use to showcase their work, including digital screens for visual arts projects, is good for both university and individual pride, as well as generating public interest in the university’s work.

Above: University of Wolverhampton’s School of Architecture and the Built Environment

So, while universities are squeezed for space, maybe it’s in the areas where creation and innovation happen that they can actually get the most from their investment. The British have always been great inventors, and these kind of spaces are what take us from just learning about something to actually creating it ourselves, or making something entirely new no one has thought of. These spaces teach us that everyone can make, and it’s only through instilling this belief that we’ll find the next great British innovators.

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