Flexible higher education facilities can help universities adapt post-Covid

Single-use campus spaces won't work for the next normal. Svetlana Solomonova explains how adaptive design can create spaces suitable for the university and its local community.

Svetlana Solomonova is Architect Director at BDP.

At present, some universities find it difficult to create spaces that go beyond the practical requirements of students. Teaching and learning environments can often feel stale, underutilised and homogenised for one-way teaching.

In the current climate, Covid-safe requirements and the emergence of online learning environments means higher education institutions are having to adapt, quickly. But even with a backdrop of a global pandemic, higher education campuses are great places to study, work, collaborate and socialise, if the design is sufficiently innovative and adaptive.

The effect of the pandemic has been that the role of designers and estate managers at HE institutions has evolved. A balance must be struck between creating places that bring students back to the campus, while keeping them socially distanced and safe. As architects, we aim for design concepts that go beyond simply providing the necessities, adapting designs to build in flexibility that works for students, staff and the local community, for the long term.

Flexible and multipurpose

An emerging concept suggests we could create multipurpose facilities within campuses that work for both education providers and the local community. The recent lockdowns have mobilised mutual aid and volunteer groups which are helping those self-isolating and shielding. Communities are rallying around common, local, regional and national causes. People are looking for space to come together to support credible causes and university campuses offer a viable and safe place to do so. Universities are becoming an increasingly powerful force for good.

Therefore, more consideration needs to be given to creating collaborative, flexible mixed-use spaces. A siloed approach to delivering education facilities has to be challenged. Single use classrooms and learning spaces create one-dimensional teaching and encourage a lack of collaboration. In modern university life, interdepartmental collaboration and peer to peer learning is more important than ever. Future buildings are providing fully integrated community spaces with outdoor and internal areas that can be used by anybody at any point of the year.

We also have to keep a close eye on changes in teaching and learning. We know that three-year courses and semesters could disappear and be replaced by an on-demand education model. So flexibility is essential. It is this added flexibility that is helping us to adapt buildings to meet the Covid-safe requirements for new HE buildings; applying operational and design principles gathered from rapidly evolving international guidance in response to the Covid-19 crisis.

The University of Birmingham case

For example, the University of Birmingham has developed an adaptability strategy for the new teaching and learning building on its Edgbaston campus. The building is the university’s new flagship facility and was used to pilot new social distancing measures before it reopened in September.

The building was designed to mitigate the challenges posed by growing student numbers, and to increase the quality of the learning spaces offered. The facility provides a distinct new learning environment, promoting progressive learning techniques through a portfolio of vibrant study and teaching environments, encouraging students to inhabit the building beyond the formal timetable and promoting UoB’s idea of a “sticky” campus.

It is also providing the local community with an IT and audio-visual rich facility in which to meet, present and build progressive business or social value initiatives. A community enrichment programme, organised and run by contractor Willmott Dixon, uses the whole building as an exciting and vibrant place to teach school children from the local secondary school about university life and about diverse career options available in the construction sector.

The development of the building has also allowed space for a community garden to be installed in the centre of the university campus which provides an inclusive space that encourages students and members of the community to become interested in local food production, in a relaxed and friendly environment.

As the Covid-19 crisis hit, an initial capacity review of the building was necessary to make the appropriate alterations so that the building could remain operational. We identified singular entrance and exit points and imposed an anti-clockwise one way circulation system, which was supported by the use of the roman stairs on the east and west sides of the building.

The new measures also discouraged the use of lifts, designating these for use by users with restricted mobility only. One way systems were also implemented for access and egress in the lecture theatres and capacity in the seminar rooms was reviewed to ensure maintenance of social distancing.

The embedded AV technology in the building itself enables the university to display digital signage internally and externally, digital totems are used to display social distancing best practices and individual expectations.

Of course, these are just some of the many measures in place and all Covid safety initiatives have required support from security teams, cleaning services and the university’s communications professionals to reinforce confidence in the return to campus – and these teams continue to deserve our thanks for their hard work and dedication.

Covid (or viral) adaptability reviews of buildings and estates, like the ones we carried out at the University of Birmingham, will become the norm. The flexibility of the teaching and learning building with its generous accommodation stairs, multiple entrances, flexible floor plates and open circulation spaces was originally designed to encourage social learning and create a place where students and the wider community feel safe, motivated and comfortable. Ultimately, these Covid-safe adaptations have enabled the building to continue to operate successfully and proves that with good building design comes the ability to respond to even the most unforeseen circumstances.

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