The furnishing touch

Steve Wright learns how universities are using furniture and spatial design to enhance their learning spaces

When it comes to designing and upgrading their learning spaces, collaboration and flexibility top the agenda for many universities. Higher education institutions are learning that adaptable, flexible designs, and modal furniture within those designs, can reinvigorate traditional learning and social spaces, making them ideal settings for a number of student activities from quiet study to larger collaborations, from socialising via presentations to breakout periods. 

Leading contract furnishers Ellis Furniture were asked by Imperial College to supply, deliver and install the bedroom furniture at the latter’s Evelyn Gardens site. “Evelyn Gardens is set around a traditional London townhouse square, and, while the brief of standardising the furniture within a Victorian building with varying room sizes offered up a few challenges, we wanted to work with the beautiful panelling and fireplaces in some of the rooms,” explains Ellis’ Area Sales Manager Paula Gill.

Ellis worked with the Imperial Project team and the latter’s appointed architects BGS to produce a layout that was sympathetic to the various room types. “While we were working on the bedroom furniture, we also put some proposals forward for the common room areas. We took BGS’ computer-aided design and drafting layouts (CADs), looked at how these spaces would be used, and prepared some mood boards showing the types of furniture that could be used. These boards also showed how the spaces could be used for different scenarios – relaxing, studying, games, TV areas, and both collaborative and quiet spaces.”

Ellis’ aim was to give these common rooms a ‘wow’ factor – and to entice students to use them as much as possible, weather that be to study, socialise or relax. “We have developed ways to design spaces for socialising – communal seating rather than isolated chairs, and sociable layouts rather than isolated pods,” Paula explains. “It is important that students living away from home can develop relationships, both personal and educational.”

In September of this year, the University of Leicester’s £42m Centre for Medicine opened its doors to students and staff. A centre for excellence in both teaching and technological resources, the CfM is now the UK’s largest non-residential Passivhaus building.


Interactive space 

As well as exceptional research facilities, the building offers a variety of collaborative and flexible working spaces. The design team at Godfrey Syrett worked with the University to design teaching areas, breakout spaces, café areas and offices across five floors, creating an interactive space for students and staff.

“Built around two main atriums, the Centre for Medicine is a light and airy space,” explains David Hall, Godfrey Syrett’s Group Sales Manager. “The café space was supplied with a selection of high- and low-level seating, creating a seamless distinction between socialising and working areas. Classroom areas were equipped with easily reconfigurable tables and chairs, which can be pushed together for group working and pulled apart into a new layout for individual working or to create a test environment.


Plan and prep

Breakout and collaborative working areas required a significant amount of thought and planning. “A combination of desks and sofas was installed, along with semi-private booths, to ensure a balance between areas for collaborative work and individual, focused study. This choice of layout is a testament to changing student requirements when it comes to learning and breakout spaces.” 

Not far away, the recent refurbishment of Coventry University’s Lanchester Library has increased the variety of study spaces – and reinvigorated a heavily used and tired space. “We wanted a light, modern and professional work environment for all our users,” explains Kirsty Kift, the Library’s Assistant Director (Customer Experience and Service Innovation) and project manager for the refurbishment. 

“A survey showed us that users wanted a variety of study settings to mirror key times in their course profiles – for example, collaborative and group spaces at stage 1 where group work and peer relationships are being established; quieter space in year 2, and silent individual spaces for exam times and for stage 3 students and postgraduates.

“Furniture was used to signpost the desired environment of the floors as well as to aid navigation in a building that had previously looked similar throughout. Floor 3 features large group tables for collaborative work, as well as project rooms for group work and open pods with floor-to-ceiling white boards to encourage group discussion.

“Floor 2 largely consists of working-height desking, with low dividers to symbolise quiet study – but not excluding quiet collaboration. Floor 1 is designated a silent floor, with a two-tier individual study booth feature around the light well and greater amounts of individual desks with low dividers on three sides. Ground floor is a mix of working-height desks and collaborative features – meeting tables, high-backed sofas meeting pods to allow for collaboration whilst damping noise. We also created a postgraduate-only Reading Room on the Lower Ground Floor, with a mix of working-height desks, sofas and loose furniture for reading and quiet collaboration.”

Students taught in traditional classrooms with limited flexibility — row-by-row seating, stationary furniture — could therefore be failing to develop the skills necessary for today’s workplace

SOAS University of London recently completed the £17.3m redevelopment of the North Block of its iconic Senate House, with designs from Rock Townsend Architects in conjunction with Mace. The project has transformed an underused courtyard to create a multi-purpose space, through the addition of an ambitious glass-roofed atrium constructed between the existing Grade II-listed buildings. 

“Our designs had to balance the client’s technical, functional and spatial needs, in the context of the wider higher education environment and changing learning landscape – together with the influence of the Grade II-listed building on the possible solutions,” explains Rock Townsend’s Director Mark Gabbey.

“Principal aims included extending collaboration with other institutions; encouraging social and flexible learning; resolving the existing space’s over-capacity; and creating a student ‘hub’ that concentrated student-facing activities (registry, student affairs, counselling, wellbeing, etcetera) in one location.” 

Rock Townsend’s approach was to focus not only on how things ‘work’, but on how they ‘feel’. “Spaces for learning extend beyond the classroom and studio, and merge into social spaces and what used to be called libraries,” Mark explains. “The campus needed to accommodate students with a diversity of needs. Spaces need to be safe, comfortable and secure – but also inspiring and challenging, promoting innovation as part of students’ university education.

As Mark explains, SOAS were looking to minimise specialist learning space, instead creating highly adaptable shared space across subjects. “These ‘balance’ spaces comprise up to 40% of the area of a typical university and are crucial to the disposition of workspace solutions within a ‘big and tolerant’ building form. This strategy also has environmental benefits: as spaces are more flexible, utilisation improves significantly. The other vital reason for investment in social space is to ‘sell’ the place to students – thus helping to foster a feeling of community.”

Furthermore, Mark explains, SOAS’ curriculum delivery needed a range of spaces that might be defined as ‘core’, ‘flexible’ and ‘on-demand’ models. “The core represents the traditional institutional heart that represents the corporate identity of the place. Next, generic spaces for learning become flexible spaces for listening, testing, performing, experimenting. These spaces need to combine in the form of one tolerant ‘big’ structure – SOAS’ central courtyard space or ‘student hub’. The other spaces are the life of the place, providing exhibition, cafe, research, relaxing, study and sport: places to fill your lungs and exchange ideas.”

Using props 

Rock Townsend and Mace created a series of adaptable spaces able to accommodate various teaching and learning methods: the Listening Space, Ideas Space, Test Space, Make Space, Perform Space and Refresh Space. “At Senate House, the overall building form was seen as a holistic and fluid space; a ‘megastructure’. Within this big space, individual places need to be identified in character as ‘set’ designs employing scale, volume, colour and lighting. Then, each is arranged by territory through the employment of ‘scenery’ – the walls and screens that shape the space. Finally, the spaces are populated using ‘props’ and arrangements of furniture and fittings that fill the space and provide atmosphere.

Rock Townsend explored the activities that took place within the building and generated a variety of furniture solutions. Activities and their furniture solutions included email, online library, internet and general queries (high-level bench to establish quick turnover and access to all); peer-to-peer learning and quick meetings (high-level tables and stools for chats and quick catch-ups); small group study, meetings and general discussion (stools, beanbags and low tables, to encourage breakout discussions and small groups), and so forth.

Sean Corcorran is General Manager at Steelcase Education, who help schools, colleges and universities to create the most effective and inspiring learning environments, from classrooms and libraries to in-between spaces and cafes. “The physical environment has a huge impact on behaviour,” Sean observes. “Students and teachers need the freedom to reconfigure their learning space to the work at hand. Recent Steelcase research shows that 95% of students find a more flexible classroom design enhances their creativity and increases their motivation, while 84% believe that innovative classrooms increase their ability to achieve a higher grade.

“Students taught in traditional classrooms with limited flexibility – row-by-row seating, stationary furniture – could therefore be failing to develop the skills necessary for today’s workplace. We must use innovation in spatial designs to create unique, varied learning environments. 

Not every solution will work for every institution or teacher: innovation builds through thinking, making things, sharing, listening and trying again. It requires an open mind and a willingness to experiment. By enhancing learning spaces, we can build an environment that supports everyone’s ability to be creative, learn and grow.” 

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