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All in it together

A project to create new accommodation for Chelsea College of Art & Design is giving students the chance to collaborate with developers

The redevelopment of a derelict filling station in London’s Stratford High Street will provide useful lessons on collaboration for developers and educationalists alike. Alumno Developments, with its recently approved plans to transform the site into a thriving student complex and arts centre by 2016, are collaborating with interior design students from Chelsea College of Art & Design in a new way that offers real benefits for all parties.

A total of 48 students in 10 design teams will play a hands-on role in the development of their accommodation and facilities in Stratford. This will be the third time that the college has worked closely with specialist student accommodation developers Alumno. According to the London Legacy Development Corporation’s Quality Review Panel, this particular project “has the potential to become an exemplar for the design of student accommodation”.

“Our projects with Alumno have been a great success,” says Tomris Tangaz, course leader of FdA interior design at Chelsea, whose students will again be working with Alumno. “They show how education and industry can work together for mutual benefit.”

Following a successful pilot link-up with the Chelsea College, Alumno worked closely with them on the ambitious redevelopment of the former Southwark Town Hall into a complex with student accommodation, a publicly accessible theatre and café, and artists’ studios. When completed later this year, this development will provide light and spacious modern bedroom accommodation for 152 students, plus generous and adaptable communal areas. It will also feature a large shared common room/study area opening up a dramatic 360-degree skyline view from the roof.

As around 120 students will eventually be housed there, Alumno was keen to have representation from this group. Working with Chelsea students to develop the interior was their innovative way of achieving this. There was an initial on-site briefing for students and their lecturers, covering key elements such as appreciation of historical context, sensitivity to community, needs of students and mixed-use tenancies. Then, Alumno architects Jestico and Whiles and representatives from the college laid down a challenge to the students to come up with design concepts for the interiors of the roof-top common room, café and ground-floor entrance.

“The students went away and worked in groups to replicate professional design teams,” explains David Campbell, Alumno’s managing director. “We were really impressed with their ideas, which were very varied. Some focused on the exterior use, others on the interiors. Some were very conceptual, others had thought through construction details. Some had stunning visual images, while others relied on models or verbal explanation. The best of these will be incorporated into the interior design of the new buildings to provide facilities that closely match the needs and tastes of our prospective users.”

Tomris, head of the Chelsea course, comments: “We have worked with a number of voluntary and community bodies in the past but we were keen to have a relationship with a developer where the emphasis on the project was more commercial and in line with professional practice – we’ve found this with Alumno,” she says.

Her passion for ‘100% live projects’ and the benefits for her students is very evident: “Live projects motivate students – they can’t wait to get involved! We’re not simply about three-week projects – the whole ethos of our course is about promoting collaboration on projects. We believe that this is so important that we now assess the students in groups as well as individually. We make professional and personal development (PPD) an important part of every project.

“We use the ‘live’ project approach as a vehicle to teach all our skills. And we believe that personal processes and experiences are vitally important to the design process. This live project model – we call it simulated work-based learning – is much better than the work experience model. All our tutors are practising designers as well as teachers and we try to ensure that the experience the student gets is more about being a designer in the real world.

“For our partners Alumno, there are huge benefits too – the student involvement provides an important research tool. It’s very useful for them gain insight from the perspective of their end users.”

Students often come up with new ideas based on their own personal experience of the world and this can make a valuable addition to professional thinking. “Students take the brief away from the confines of the practical world,” says Tomris. “They don’t have the same restrictions on ideas as those involved commercially in the project. They can bring a fresh approach – they’re not so concerned with the difficulties facing a project. They can suggest things that other parties may not consider due to considerations of time, money or practical constraints.

“There are real insights young people can provide. Sometimes, when a professional has been in the same job for a number of years they may overlook things that have changed. They may settle into a mind frame and miss something – this is when the new ideas presented by our students can be so useful. The interior design industry always needs new blood and new ideas.”

Tomris is looking forward to what new ideas her students will provide for the Stratford development. Proposals are for 431 student rooms offering a choice of living arrangements and budgets, as well as a range of artists’ studios and a café/gallery space to bring added vitality to the development.

“What’s fed in by the students at this early stage is important for Alumno and the developers,” she continues. “The students can influence anything that’s on the table if it’s important or powerful enough.”

While promoting the use of students in live projects and inviting commercial companies to approach her college with collaborative ideas, Tomris has one important proviso: “Using students should never be about free work or exploitation – it has to be a mutual cultural exchange and be beneficial to both parties. I see this sort of collaboration as being really important for the future of education.”

Author Rebecca Dean is office manager at Alumno Developments W: www.alumnodevelopments.com