Flexibility in design
How can universities design in flexibility to respond to changes in course popularity and the way students are taught?
The Teaching and Learning Building
Data-driven design continues to shape our built environment and will increasingly influence how universities manage their estate assets. Make has been involved in a number of projects where empirical data has informed forecasting and capital planning for the coming decades. With the emergence of ‘big data’, the future of forecasting could be more dynamic, using real-time data from parameters like space utilisation, course popularity, attendance, funding and expected growth to predict future building needs. Universities could use these simulations to assess viability and build a case for demolition, refurbishment, rehousing or new construction – all before any design work has commenced.
As architects, it’s important to understand that our buildings will play host to a constantly churning set of spaces throughout their lifespan. Space requirements vary per faculty, from the incredibly specific – laboratories, archives – to general study spaces. There is no universal solution, but there are steps we can take to create flexible spaces. This means providing not only adaptable layouts but also the tools to support educational development.
Robust audio/visual infrastructure is one such tool, and can effectively bridge the gap between digital and physical university services. Students and staff can work from anywhere by connecting digitally or physically, and can also interact with the buildings themselves via localised environmental control, room booking, multimedia systems and even facility management.
Modern methods of construction (MMC), meanwhile, reduce waste and construction time while increasing quality. Common examples include prefabrication and modularisation, but we’re also seeing a trend in ‘design for disassembly’, where building elements are demountable, reusable and recyclable. By designing to a generous structural grid, with castellated beams above and raised access floors below to house services, demountable/modular partitions could be infinitely arranged.
Further flexibility could come from structural ‘soft spots’ in floors that accommodate new stairs or atria; bolted steelwork connections that allow for an adaptable structure; a reduction in fixed furnishings; perimeter cores and stairs that unencumber open-plan floorplates; and the relocation of energy-intensive building services like server rooms to purpose-built, off-site buildings to free up layouts and reduce plant. BIM is incredibly important here, as MMC relies heavily on coordination.
Flexible and adaptive buildings are key to creating resilience in the post-pandemic built environment. In a future where widespread adoption of remote working means learning can be experienced anywhere, education buildings need to work harder than ever to provide connected, flexible spaces that support social interaction, collaboration and community.
How do you design city campuses to be of the city and not just in the city?
City campuses are in a unique position to not only provide their students with beautiful learning spaces but also look beyond and provide for the city they inhabit. Universities shouldn’t be designed to be inward-looking institutions but the reverse, with city campuses becoming part of the city fabric.
In Melbourne, RMIT’s New Academic Street is an excellent example of a city campus that is blended into the city block. With an urban civic focus as the design driver, the university has created a variety of different spaces for both the city and its students, including new gardens, laneways, rooftop terraces, retail and F&B. There are provide traditional learning spaces, but these are also supported with infrastructure for learning and collaboration. On the prominent corner of Swanston and Franklin Street is RMIT’s Media Portal, which actively engages with the city and brings its university activities into the public domain.
University campuses have the potential to provide informal learning spaces that can fill the void in our Australian city centres with genuine public space. In our CBDs, public spaces with workspace capabilities are more often than not leased or tenanted areas, and their use requires a paid drink or meal. True public space is often not free. Aside from providing public space, campuses can also add to the cultural landscape of the city, offering programmed events like industry talks, performances and even cultural exhibitions via a location that’s easily accessible and visible to the public. Universities will always be civic institutions. With beautiful spaces and an ambitious vision, urban campuses can become integral to any cityscape of the future.