Wednesday 23 September 2015

Do universities need ‘iconic’ buildings?

In an article for the Guardian Higher Education Network, Alexi Marmot questions the benefits of buildings commissioned to make an impact.

Bath Spa University Commons - fit-out by AMA 
Spaces encouraging collaborative working
Ambitious university leaders bring together “starchitects” and wealthy sponsors eager to provide funds for flagship buildings. Starchitects play with the ideas of crumbling buildings, irregular shapes and angular geometries, rather than conventional vertical planes and rectilinear structures. Their designs hint that universities are organisations whose mission is to question traditional ways of thinking, to break down conventions.

Do such ambitious buildings really work for the staff and students for whom they are designed? What aspects of the new buildings stimulate better teaching, learning and research? Might more restrained and elegantly designed buildings meet university requirements just as well? Can unpretentious, cheap buildings erected rapidly by design and build contractors, satisfy users?

We need much more solid evidence to answer these questions with conviction. Research on “post-occupancy evaluation” – how buildings are perceived by those who use them – is still rather unusual, although it is always recommended. University estate directors have collaborated on a methodology for conducting post-occupancy evaluation through the Higher Education Design Quality Forum (HEDQF) – but few apply it.

National Student Survey results for 2015 show that 86% of undergraduates are satisfied with their learning resources (library, IT and access to specialised equipment, facilities and rooms.) Good news, but it does not illuminate whether particular buildings or features are positive.

Other research shows that the staff are generally less satisfied with their facilities than students are, which could mean they negatively impact on their research and teaching. But this year’s sector efficiency report led by Sir Ian Diamond rates 85% of HE space as good to excellent.

Radical shifts in the way students earn and digital technologies for teaching and learning - virtual learning environments, lecturecasts, online quizzes, webinars, skype tutorials, flipped classrooms, Moocs - make new demands on buildings, data connectivity and infrastructure. They also raise the prospect that education can be delivered without going to a place called a university.

When asked their views, students commonly complain about poor internal air quality and temperature, and express the need for more spaces for group work with their peers, more computers and computer rooms. They want “make spaces” for creative experimentation, and more social learning spaces, and they want these spaces to be open 24/7.

All university buildings – the new and the old – need to respond to evolving requirements. Flexibility and adaptability through time is one of the most precious attributes of all HE buildings.

European universities and their architecture have already endured for more than a millennium, and more than 800 years in the UK. All have grown dramatically in the last century and continue to grow, even as online learning accelerates. Their future success and survival will be aided by better and more adaptable buildings, based on a well-researched evidence base.

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