Published in this month’s Public Sector Build Journal, in this article Interior Designer Amy Hipwell discusses how designing for collaboration in higher education facilities is fundamental to evolving teaching and learning methods.
“The Wave is a fitting example of an environment designed to enable collaboration and interaction to take place organically and easily.”
In an increasingly competitive global education market, UK universities need to provide world-class facilities to stay ahead of the curve and attract the best students and academic talent. Consequently, there is a shift happening towards more collaborative working and learning practices, and spaces that spark those ‘incidental’ meetings and conversations that can lead to innovative research and breakthroughs. Effective design plays a major role in supporting this trend as well as future-proofing our higher education establishments.
HLM Architects worked on the interior design of ‘The Wave’, a new 16,500 sq m Faculty of Social Sciences building at the University of Sheffield, intended to help meet future growth demand and further cement the university’s reputation for leading teaching and research. It is also a fitting example of an environment designed to enable collaboration and interaction to take place organically and easily.
The Wave features bespoke accommodation for several academic departments, alongside shared facilities for the entire faculty including a collaborative, centralised research hub. A mix of social learning spaces are dotted around the building to encourage movement out of what were previously more cellular spaces into the centre of the hub. This approach encourages everyone into the middle – rather than shuttered in their own sections around the building’s periphery – the design actively encourages fruitful discussion and the cross-pollination of ideas.
“We need fresh thinking when it comes to education spaces and layouts, compared to the more passive learning styles of the past.”
More adaptable & active learning spaces
Flexibility was key to this project, not least as a way to address some of the challenges within the higher education sector, such as the need for greater agility, accessibility and inclusivity, more multifunctional spaces (formal and informal) and the ability to adapt based on demand.
To that end, much of the furniture is loose, foldable and simple to rearrange depending on the needs of each course, without looking out of place. A focus on ‘active’ learning enables people and furniture to move freely instead of being fixed in place or restricted. In the 400-people lecture theatre, for instance, students can move their seating around with ease and the lecturer can walk around and communicate more closely with them. This is boosted by the integration of digital technology, and some of the spaces have a screen at each desk, improving visibility for all and removing the typical hierarchical set-up of learning spaces (with a lectern at the front and allocated seating) by allowing students to seamlessly share their work across all screens in the room for collaborative learning.
We need fresh thinking when it comes to education spaces and layouts, compared to the more passive learning styles of the past. Taking a less traditional approach to design enables the spaces to be more interactive and facilitates better group work. This is especially important for social sciences because of the wide variety of courses being run, each of which is structured differently, and the ability to reconfigure spaces quickly through use of furniture can help to tailor them accordingly.
“All spaces feel interlinked for that all-important feeling of cohesion and helps to incorporate the public spaces such as the ground floor café, thereby melding the local community and the university and reiterating the open, inviting nature of the space”
Creating a sense of openness & cohesion
One of the chief design objectives was to make the building feel like one whole and belonging to everybody, encouraging a sense of connection and collaboration. There is one colour palette throughout, with no zoning or distinct colours demarcating the different departments or functions. This makes all spaces feel interlinked for that all-important feeling of cohesion and helps to incorporate the public spaces such as the ground floor café, thereby melding the local community and the university and reiterating the open, inviting nature of the space. The thoughtful design concept enables a clear visual connection between the interior and the surrounding landscape, with only the expansive glass panes in between, removing the impression of ‘solid’ boundaries.
Biophilia was another major design factor, due to the well-proven benefits of natural light and views of greenery on wellbeing, motivation, productivity and inspiration. This extended into the internal finishes, where the use of textures and materials (such as timber) helped to create a more natural environment. The textured carpet, for instance, has a lighter colour tone by the windows, mimicking natural light entering the room and becoming darker as it progresses inwards. The space reflects the interdisciplinary nature of Social Sciences with a series of overlapping organic curved floor plates that ebb and flow – while hinting at the site’s history as a reservoir. The floor plates also support occupants’ thermal comfort, and consideration was given to how they can minimise solar glare and shading, prevent overheating and improve insulation. This also brings considerable sustainability advantages, with the building designed to BREEAM Outstanding, adding to the forward-thinking approach.
At the heart of the atrium and spanning all three floors is the iconic central drum, designed in a way that does not interrupt the open, bright and airy feel. Rather than a huge monolithic block, the drum is curved and effortlessly integrated into the space. It features balconies and provides much-needed accommodation but also the ‘wow’ factor. It enables visibility from all sides and levels, and is the only purely white element of the design, covered with a solid surface material for optimum durability. The team also wanted to encourage people to mingle and use the central staircase, so made it another stand-out feature. It is black (a striking contrast to the white drum) supported by steel making it appear suspended above the main circulation space. The choice of materials and textures was crucial – the staircase is covered with a matt laminate that is warm and velvety soft to the touch and doesn’t leave marks or fingerprints, strengthening the ongoing usability of the space.
It is vital to approach interior design in our university buildings in a way that can cultivate a deeper level of engagement between all users. This can be a catalyst for the exchange of ideas across different disciplines, accelerating discovery and spurring innovation and ground-breaking research.