Wall-to-wall learning

Damon Jones explores how HEIs are revamping their fixtures and fittings to inspire a new wave of students

According to AUDEs Higher Education Statistics 2014 report, the university estates sector enjoys a formidable turnover of some £27bn – comprising a truly foundational part of HEI, reckon senior figures. “The university estate is, quite literally, the building blocks of our nation’s academia and future and should be supported and celebrated at every opportunity,” Sir Ian Diamond, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, has said. But a building is made from far more than mere bricks and mortar, and a substantial part of the sectors £2.5bn annual capital expenditure in 2013/14 was aimed at enhancing décor and furnishings to transform these assets into welcoming, commercially competitive facilities. As the report concludes, “Universities are in a different position where they are able to compete for students. One of the key elements of this competition is the provision of the right environment for students to learn in. Often cited as a key objective in the development of capital programmes is the need to improve the student experience by improving the environment.”

A landmark project

One recent landmark project which has endorsed this ethos is the £25m purpose-built Queen Elizabeth Teaching and Learning Centre at the University of Glasgow, which opened in 2015. Intended to facilitate the training of undergraduate medical and nursing students alongside NHS staff, the 5,800 square metres of floorspace within the building, designed by BMJ Architects, contain a mixture of facilities across four floors. These include libraries, conference facilities and a 500-seat auditorium. “A lot of thought has gone into its design,” explains Matthew Walters, Professor of Clinical Pharmacology and Head of the Undergraduate Medical School at the University of Glasgows College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences. There are various elements to educational practice, and the building covers them all. The ground floor has a really nice social space with an atrium; the atmosphere in that part is conducive to discussion and the exchange of ideas. Theres comfortable seating; the neutral colours of the walls and the whole building lend a warm, welcoming feel. For our students, its almost a home away from home. Theyll spend a lot of time there as its a very intensive course, and I think its quite important to create an environment thats comfortable for them.

The university estate is, quite literally, the building blocks of our nation’s academia and future and should be supported and celebrated at every opportunity

An aesthetic addition to the building designed to inspire its users is a thought-provoking sculpture, which will be suspended over the buildings atrium. The artwork, says Walters, is a human figure composed of keys, and suspended on a target. This acts as a kind of visual allegory on unlocking the mysteries of the human body, which is particularly appropriate given the genetics interest we have on the top floor of this building, which contains the Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre. This will undertake DNA research into the constituent molecules of the human body, and try to unlock the genetic secrets they contain. Logos of the centres commercial partners have also been etched decoratively into the glasswork installed in this part of the structure, which helps, says Walters, to crystallise in the mind that were seeking applied knowledge, and to develop real solutions for patients.

Another section of the centre was required to comply with entirely different design considerations – which were intended to create an authentic clinical atmosphere. The clinical skills area is configured in the same way as a hospital, explains Walters. Fixtures, fittings and tone are carefully controlled in this area, so that it closely resembles the professional environment in which graduates will find themselves operating. The space is used for intensive clinical simulations, which enact real-life scenarios such as cardiac arrests, using highly realistic mannequins. Theres the same trunking on the walls, pipes, hospital beds, diagnostic equipment that youd find on a ward – its set up to be as akin to a hospital as it can be, continues Walters. Simulation isnt just about having a mannequin that you can hook ECG leads up to; its about the whole immersive experience which allows a student to feel as if theyre in a clinical environment, and dealing with an emergency within it. Students come to feel at home in this environment in time, and learn to easily make decisions within it. Theyre not overawed or flummoxed by it.

Floor plans

One key element of this, which can be adjusted to serve many different functions, is the buildings flooring. Whilst clinical environments will typically be optimised to achieve maximum hygiene and ease of maintenance, floorings decorative and tactile attributes have important roles to play in many other campus buildings.

“A Universitys estate contains a wide and varied range of properties which present their own challenges,” says Sharron Kapellar, National Framework Manager at Forbo Flooring systems, which has provided commercial floor coverings, tiling and ‘total solution’ projects to several UK HEIs. These include The Hub at the University of Bedfordshire, Queen Margaret Universitys RE:Locate facility and a refurbishment project at Loughborough University. “Flooring is the biggest canvas and the one thing the student will always have contact with,” she says. “It can make a big difference to the environment, with colour, texture, smell and sound. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but can look good and give the ‘wow’ factor.”

Flooring is the biggest canvas and the one thing the student will always have contact with


Eliciting these types of positive response can create an important first impression, suggests Kapellar, in a competitive marketplace in which students need to be confident enough to enrol and remain on their course until its conclusion. Key to the design concept behind the flooring products which are ultimately applied in HEIs is a Universitys unique ‘story, suggests Kapellar – whether they would prefer ease of maintenance, to emphasise their green credentials, or realise a hospitality feel.

ABOVE:  Forbo Flooring has provided commercial floor coverings, tiling and ‘total solution’ projects to several UK HEIs, including a refurbishment project at Loughborough University

Different environments on campus – ranging from toilets to kitchens, receptions and catering spaces – require different solutions, and Forbo offer entrance matting, carpet tile, linoleum, vinyl, safety vinyl, vinyl tile and Flotex in sheet and modular format to suitably equip them. However, as Kapellar emphasises, making an apposite selection is important to avoid later expense. “After all,” she says, “it costs a lot to change a floor if it’s wrong; it’s not just a quick lick of paint to put right.” Another important consideration for many universities is the materials which are actually used. Forbo, says Kapellar, have invested heavily in LCA (life cycle analysis) to help guarantee the quality and provenance of these, and also the impact they could have on the health of a building’s occupants. “We also consider the environment indoors; none of our products contain harmful chemicals such as phatalates, which can be a cause of ‘sick building syndrome’,” she emphasises. “Every product has an environment product declaration.”

User-friendly space

Creating an inviting, user-friendly space was a prime concern for The University of Leeds, whose own £26m landmark development, The Laidlaw Library, opened in May 2015. Designed by ADP architecture, the building, located on the main campus, again explores the concept of using a main atrium as the social ‘heart’ of the building, through which students using its entrance and group study spaces will flow. The Library ran focus groups with students (both postgraduates and undergraduates) in the planning stages of the project, details Jane Saunders, Head of Access and Operations for the University library. We asked students what they wanted from library study space when working as individuals and in groups. When working individually they wanted quiet and no distractions; in groups they wanted furniture to support this – so big tables and study chairs, rather than soft seating. Also, what they wanted from any type of library space was a level of comfort – time and again students said that the quality of lighting, and of heating and ventilation was important. Another key need was for power so that they can work on their own devices in the library’s study spaces using the university’s Wi-Fi network.

To support these needs, a variety of IT-friendly fixtures were added to the space. Buzz bars in the raised access floor provide access to power though the building, which is fed into IT management solutions in the desks to avoid trailing cables and fewer floor boxes that get damaged and cause a trip hazard. Fixed PC positions are located throughout the building, along with leased laptops at ground level, which are accompanied by charger cabinets. Specified furniture has even been IT enabled, with sockets integrated into chairs and desks to facilitate greater connectivity.

ABOVE: Creating an inviting, user-friendly space was a prime concern for The University of Leeds’ £26m landmark development, the Laidlaw library.  

Design elements such as colour have also been utilised to encourage study, and subtly demarcate different areas within the building. “We’ve used colour to ‘zone’ spaces, in order to make the building easy to read,” explains Saunders. “Group spaces have one colour – a warm orange, whereas individual study spaces have another – a cooler lilac. We use red for the touch down print zones – these are spaces where we don’t anticipate people spending long periods of time. Our skills zone is branded separately in pink and has a more social, common room feel to it.”

 Top five flooring tips

1. Acoustics should enable clear hearing, benefiting the ability to learn.
2. Colour can help. Red is conducive to creating conversation within groups, whereas pastels are calming and quieting, violets can even take awareness to a higher level of thought, even into the realms of spiritual values. It is highly introvertive and encourages deep contemplation, or meditation.
3. Tones using LRV’s ensure clear boundaries, it’s not just for people with impaired vision.
4. Texture can also give demarcation to circulation areas and bring in another sensation under foot.
5. Entrances and exits with matting are welcoming but are there to help protect areas from dirt, reducing costs by up to 35% on cleaning and maintenance. 

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