Collaboration and the Campus

Architect, Christoph Ackermann, looks at how design for higher education has changed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

At present, some universities struggle to create spaces that go beyond the practical requirements of students. Teaching and learning environments can often feel stale, underutilised and homogenised with a focus on one-way teaching.

One major outcome from the global pandemic is a shift in the way we interact. Covid-safe requirements and the emergence of online learning environments means higher education institutions are having to adapt, quickly. This has in turn impacted the role of designers and estate managers. A balance must be struck between creating places that encourage students to return to the campus, while keeping them safe. As architects, we aim for design concepts that go beyond simply providing the necessities, building in long term flexibility that offers choices for students, staff and operators.

An emerging concept is for multipurpose facilities on campus for both education providers and the local community. The lockdowns mobilised mutual aid and volunteer groups to help those in need. Communities have rallied around common, local, regional and national causes. People want to come together to support credible causes and university campuses offer a viable and safe place to do so.

Therefore, more consideration must be given to creating collaborative, mixed-use spaces. A siloed approach to delivering education facilities is outdated; single use classrooms and learning spaces facilitate one-dimensional teaching and impede collaboration. In modern university life, interdepartmental cooperation and peer-to-peer learning is more important than ever. Fresh, forward thinking designs integrate community and work spaces with outdoor and internal areas that can be used by anybody, at any time of year.

During the pandemic technology-based interaction was fast-tracked and normalised. This blended learning means that students who are physically on campus are there to attend classes in person, to socialise and meet their peers while – on the same day – attending online classes and workshops. Therefore students need a variety of spaces; to work individually or in smaller groups, and to socialise. As designers, we have established a number of key criteria to make these spaces truly successful.

Comfort and security is essential. Well-lit spaces with passive supervision, a managed level of ambient noise and temperature are highly sought-after. The Teaching and Learning Building for the University of Birmingham has carefully designed base illumination from ultra-discrete downlights, supported by a variety of decorative and task responses to create character and light levels tailored to activity.

The spatial hierarchy within buildings is equally important. Clear wayfinding with destination daylighting helps student to orient themselves and provides natural places for congregation and collaboration. The triple height central street in our recently re-imagined Alliance Manchester Business School connects all areas of the school, providing social and collaborative learning spaces as well as solving the complicated circulation routes inherent within the existing building.

Large flat open plan spaces with supporting FF&E provide flexibility to adapt and change. The breakout areas and teaching spaces in the refurbished Manchester Metropolitan Institute of Sport have been designed to accommodate group sessions or individual seating with varying levels of formality. The furniture can also be removed to allow the space to be used for events.

An agora that encourages social interaction and facilitates serendipitous encounters remains at the heart of every education building. This central space, designed for congregation, is occupied instinctively, such as the central atrium of the University of Manchester Engineering Campus Development that combines a central stairwell with seating, offering students a place for collaboration, meeting and socialising. Similarly, the location of catering makes a difference. Like a watering hole in the Serengeti, the social hub needs access to food and drink. In the Learning and Teaching Building for the University of Strathclyde, particular care was taken to place social and learning spaces within easy access to catering facilities, including dedicated ‘bring your own’ stations.

Post pandemic, designing flexible education spaces for a connected world is vital to the success of HE buildings as we witness the transition to a blended, connected and collaborative style of learning. Across our 60 years of practice, we have seen progressive design shaping our education projects and today, this approach is bringing them back to life.