From classrooms and corridors to a new learning landscape
From classrooms and corridors to a new learning landscape
19 November 2018

thought piece: With the Education Buildings Scotland conference taking place this week, Hugh reflects on the recently-opened UWS new Lanarkshire campus and how it differs from other higher education projects.

A bold experiment went live in Lanarkshire at the beginning of September. More specifically the University of the West of Scotland’s New Lanarkshire campus located in Hamilton International Technology Park opened its doors to over 3000 students.

The new campus strategically planned and interior designed by haa design is noteworthy from an educational point of view because of the different ways in which space use has been conceived.

The move from didactic teaching in classrooms, to participative discussion in seminars and group working is radical and this change has been fully exploited to create a campus which is not only considerably smaller than it might otherwise have been (and thereby rendered affordable) but massively more flexible. The ideas it employs, though not new to education as a whole, are essentially new to universities in the UK (and possibly within the world), at least at the scale now being rolled out in Hamilton.

The ideas for this project were in gestation for some time and the concept gradually rehearsed with students, teaching staff and building managers, but it is only in the last months that it has become “visible”, and only now sufficiently real to have it tested in practice. Initial reactions are exceedingly positive.

At one level the new campus is what one might expect with cafeteria, library etc., but, setting aside the large amount of ‘office space’ that it inevitably incorporates, the experiment is as much about change and new ways of working as might be expected for an ‘office development’. Indeed, it was an astute property consultant who pointed out that the nature of learning and teaching is increasingly mirroring what is taking place in the conventional ‘workplace’: With advances in technology, the challenge now faced is one of debating ideas, rather than information distribution, and issues like flexibility, efficiency and the effective use of space over time are therefore indistinguishable from what has been paramount in office design for years.

Understanding this concept was the germ therefore of the Lanarkshire project suggesting that a “shell and core” office development was not just a viable starting point for the creation of a new campus but what could help to direct it in a radically new direction. In addition, there was the issue of cost, and most importantly, cost over time.

Both office and educational developments have come to learn the hard lesson that poor utilisation is simply unaffordable. It affects the build cost (calling for far more space than is actually needed) but, even more significantly, running costs which can dwarf the build cost in as little as a couple of years. Add to this ‘adaptation costs’, to meet our increasingly unpredictable world, or (where adaptation costs become unaffordable) the educationally significant missed opportunity costs of not doing what becomes obviously necessary, and the need to formulate a robust space-use strategy becomes overwhelming.

Out of this, and from an educational point of view, the logic for the new campus started to follow the same as that relating to the concept of agile working, namely:

  • good quality office space can fill the bulk of what is required as good quality learning space
  • enclosed spaces (at least where they are artificially lit and ventilated) are expensive to build and difficult to change.
  • flexibility translates rapidly therefore into the amount of, and the location of enclosed spaces.

Therefore, if the university was to have a project that was financially viable in the first place, plan for the future and also address the issue of an unacceptable under-utilisation, the focus had to be on the need or otherwise for enclosed spaces.

In analysing the changing teaching / learning process it was agreed that there was still a need for a certain amount of didactic teaching, or at least largish, ‘plenary’ sessions where acoustic isolation was necessary, but for the bulk of the other activities it was about “lack of disturbance”, where a certain degree of “buzz” was acceptable and even desirable.

Current office design, known variously as ‘smart working’ or ‘agile working’ rests on the theory that work can be broken down into various ‘work modes’. These then need to be matched with an equivalent spectrum of purpose-designed ‘workspaces’ and the trick is to help users to see that by moving around they can not only optimise the use of these different spaces but find places which exactly suit what they are wanting to do at any one time.

In educational terms not only does this logic hold in terms of efficiency, but it can play into the hands of the kind of ‘blended learning’ which is increasingly promoted in pedagogical terms. If information does not have to be handed down in acoustically separate lecture theatres, and the challenge is more about understanding, debating and working on this information, rather than receiving and regurgitating it, we then need fewer of the expensive, inflexible enclosed rooms and more of the open and semi-enclosed work spaces, where group working of individual study can take place.

This led to a hard assessment of the amount of enclosed space that might actually be required and to a strict zoning thereafter of “potentially enclosable” space compared with ‘structured open plan space’.

Providing for the enclosed space was costly but otherwise straightforward in design terms. Designing the open and semi-enclosed spaces proved slightly more difficult, at least in working with users whose default position remained the enclosed classroom. Understanding their position, the notion of ‘lack of disturbance’ or acceptable and invigorating ‘buzz’ had to be set against a bunch of over-lively students whose prime objective was not necessarily to sit in neat rows or apply themselves conscientiously to group discussion. The situation called for a careful analysis of noise generation and noise attenuation and thereafter a leap of faith that the new environment might stimulate a different set of behaviours, something haa design as designers had experienced often enough in organisations moving to ‘agile working’ but teaching staff had every reason to be sceptical about.

In final design terms what has been provided is learning / teaching areas separated from the main circulation routes by banks of storage units, interspersed with seating areas, and then broken up by fixed ‘fin’ walls with pull-out sliding screens, creating acoustic ‘micro climates’. Key in the designers’ minds was that the semi-enclosed spaces (i.e. the semi-private spaces) should always be perceivable as such, i.e. not thought of as private, so that behaviour might be adjusted accordingly.

The result of all this has been to create a visually and spatially rich environment with maximum adaptability: more than this, it has allowed a ‘kit of parts’ to be produced which can meet a changing set of circumstances, without the danger of tailoring the design to a specific set of needs that would inevitably change.

The overall feel is very different from ‘an institution’, no matter how sympathetically such a traditional “corridors” campus might be designed. There is little on which to base a conventional set of behaviour patterns, and hopefully much to encourage different mental attitudes in line with the changing, self-educating, team-working world of the future. If successful this project may just have ushered in a new era of university teaching.

Hugh Anderson
November 2018

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