Mothballed during the pandemic, empty lecture theatres across the UK’s universities were one of the sorriest sights of the last academic year.
As classes switched from stage to small screen, many wondered if the days of the lecture – synonymous, surely, with the uni experience? – were numbered.
That prediction, it turns out, was a little previous. Although some online lectures will remain, the in-the-flesh version is definitely making a comeback for the 2021/22 academic year.
And with it comes a new kind of lecture theatre-experience as unis across the country (and the globe) begin to refit and refurbish their lecture spaces for a range of uses from academia to Zumba. Says who? Well, the people who are building them, for starters.
If you’ve sat in an arena, concert hall or university lecture hall, the chances are high that Audience Systems, celebrating their 50th anniversary next year, installed it. We spoke to the company’s Nina Parmenter and Brian Dowling.
Nina: Our specialisms are retractable seating, lecture theatre seating, auditorium seating and flexible sports hall seating. We’ve worked with most of the UK universities and 40% of our business is export. Our philosophy is design seating for a long life – durable and serviceable, which doesn’t necessarily help us out in terms of repeat business but is good for our clients, and we believe it’s the right thing to do for the environment.
What’s at the top of an estates director’s wish list when they come to talk to you?
Nina: Being able to convert space for several uses is a strong theme of discussion, and, of course, retractable seating is ideal for this. For a long time, we have been offering chairs with foldaway writing tablets which can fit on retractable platforms.
Brian: It’s definitely flexibility. Ten years ago, a standard lecture theatre was a stepped room with lots of seats, and was almost exclusively used for lectures – it’s not an economical space.
Now there’s an onus on multi-uses – obviously as a learning space, but also as a revenue stream, or a community resource. It could be a formal learning space with seating and built-in tables one minute and then – by retracting those units into a wall or the floor at the press of a button, or simply pushing them – it’s a dance studio, a conference setting, a wedding venue…
What are the hottest new innovations?
Nina: Universities want to promote these rooms for external use, but also, they want to create a superior learning environment for students. So we have rolled out two new, high-specification chair designs – Recital and Evolve – which speak to the higher end of the market and really do make the space feel like a high-end auditorium. We’re seeing this trend a lot with universities and colleges in the US and Australia as well.
Southampton University Students’ Union was one of the first rooms we fitted out with retractable Recital T seats. This is a classic example – the space is hired back to the university for lectures, but is also used as a cinema, circus training space, Zumba studio and nightclub.
There’s a trend for spaces that can be used for a mixture of lecturing and small group work within the same session. We have brought to the market a couple of solutions for this. Converse combines long writing ledges with swivelling chairs, which, although fixed in place, turn through 180 degrees allowing students to collaborate with those in the row behind.
The second is Consensus, a system that allows a room to be fitted out with bench-and-desk seating arranged in pods to allow students to take notes from a lecture or hold mini-seminars within the taught session.
Are there signs that lecture theatres are coming back into use again?
Nina: At first when the pandemic struck, we were still working on projects which were already in progress.
It wasn’t until the beginning of 2021 that we began to feel a lull where people were not initiating new enquiries.
Brian: The whole country paused during the pandemic, and it was, I’d say, interesting, when everything went online. But the orders and the enquiries are coming in again and we can only assume from that that universities are expecting the students back in full force sometime soon.
Nina: Looking at our pipeline now, I can see we are working on seating projects with 35 different universities.
Brian: Social distancing might continue to be a requirement in the future – but our products are pretty much set up for that anyway. So on our retractable systems, for example, the seats are in banks that can fold away, lever open and spread the students around. When it comes to standard, traditional, stepped lecture rooms we’ve always used removable bays of seats so they can be taken away in rows.
Sustainability is the big buzzword on campus – how sustainable can a lecture theatre be?
Nina: We’ve noticed a rise in interest in refurbishments. Some of these are about replacing upholstery with something easy to keep clean – a vinyl or a treated soft fabric, for example. But others are institutions who might have, say, a well-used, 15-year-old, retractable seating unit which will still run for a good 15 more years, but the seats are starting to look worn. So, rather than replacing the whole thing, we are replacing seats, carpets, and trims, for instance. This isn’t just a cost-saving exercise, there’s the environmental aspect to consider.
Brian: Most of what our product is made from is steel, which is highly recyclable, so by reusing retractable understructure, we would typically save four tonnes of new steel from being produced.
What’s been your favourite most recent project?
Nina: The lecture theatre at the Oculus Building at the University of Warwick, where we had a lot of challenges thrown at us through the project and we had to adapt as we went – moving as the design moved. But I just love the look of the finished lecture theatre – we’ve kept the lines of the seating really super-clean because the glulam [glued laminated timber] ceiling in that space is quite something; the light in the room works wonderfully. And the interior needs no visual clutter from the seats. The multi-grey upholstery colour scheme with pops of orange looks fantastic, too.
“I just love the look of the The Great Hall at the University of Swansea… It’s a great example of how an auditorium or lecture theatre can also be a real showcase for a university as a whole” – Brian Dowling, Audience Systems
Brian: The Great Hall at the University of Swansea is another, it’s highly multifunctional. When it’s fully in situ it’s a very large, stepped lecture theatre with writing systems. It has the retractable system that can fall away, it has the flat floor seating which can easily be removed or reconfigured. It can be completely emptied – stowed away – quickly, with no trace of any seating or step systems and used for any number of events.
It’s a really impressive bit of multi-functionality used for lectures, ceremonies, conferences, formal and informal events. It’s a great example of how an auditorium or lecture theatre – something that has longevity and functionality – can also be a real showcase for a university as a whole. It’s the heart of an institution.
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