Designing a Campus for Students and their Wellbeing. Part 2 – Communal Spaces

brainybirdz are sometimes commissioned to write articles and blogs for other organisations. This is a re-post of a blog written for Milliken earlier this month, where we argue for a different approach towards campus design.

In our last blog post we discussed lecture theatres and the need to rethink the spatial design of campuses to provide settings suited to student needs, but also to evolving pedagogy and teaching delivery. But it is not just the constraint caused by lecture theatres that might impact student learning and wellbeing on campus. The topic we turn to today is the design of communal spaces to host a variety of student activities.

University buildings have been redesigned over the last decades very much with the student experience in mind. Examples include the new Student Centre at UCL, designed by Nicholas Hare architects, or the Student Centre under construction for Queens University Belfast, designed by Hawkins\Brown. What these buildings respond to is an increasing demand for communal spaces for students, bringing together student services with spaces for students to sit, read, work and chat.

The UCL Student Centre, designed by Nicholas Hare (photo: Kerstin Sailer)

Covid has accelerated the need for such spaces, specifically for spaces where students can engage in online conversations and dial into online lectures. Universities typically offer student workspaces in open plan communal areas, either in foyers or atria, or in cafes on campus. These are great for socialising, meeting others, and possibly also for group work, depending on their detailed design and character. Alternatively, libraries offer quiet space for concentration and solitary work. What is often missing are spaces where individuals or small groups can engage in private conversations.

In the autumn term of 2020, many universities aimed at offering a mix of face-to-face teaching where possible, combined with online delivery. Even where facilities for the small group seminars were made available the numbers of students taking up the face-to-face option has, in practice, been surprisingly low.

We wanted to find out why, so polled a number of students who had the option of attending face-to-face small group seminars on campus but elected to go online. What we discovered was that the physical constraints were playing a role in this decision. In this case it was communal spaces away from the lecture theatres that were questioned.

As well as the seminar, for which the student has the choice to visit campus, a typical day might also include a range of online activities such as synchronous lectures, group work, online discussion groups and seminars for other modules. Outside of these online activities the students may wish to write an assignment or have some downtime to socialise. These activities require spaces with a variety of attributes. The synchronous lecture and assignment writing will require a space of concentration with appropriate connectivity and power sources. The group work and seminars may require spaces where the student will not be disturbed and will not disturb others when they speak.

The feedback we got was the availability of spaces with the variety demanded by the new ways of learning was a problem. Spaces where students would not disturb others when participating in online conversations are relatively rare. The students talked about the idea of having single person ‘pods’ where they did not need to be self-conscious about being overheard by others. However, currently the spaces available were designed for face-to-face collaboration rather than the sound privacy the students sought.

The reality is that few of the students we spoke to had the desire or frankly the skills needed to timetable their activities days in advance and book campus spaces accordingly.

The inefficiency of travelling to campus for a single, one hour, face-to-face and then having to travel back to their accommodation to continue their studies put off most of the students we spoke to. We think that these physical constraints are playing a significant role in the low campus presence and we believe this to have adverse consequences for health and wellbeing. Students miss the fresh air and exercise of a walk onto campus and they miss opportunities to socially interact (at a distance) with students other than those in their accommodation. Being cooped up in student accommodation is not healthy nor conducive to wellbeing but it is possible that inflexible campus spaces designed for a pre-covid era are contributing to this situation.

In this short series of two blog posts we have explored some issues relating to the design of university estates based on more general developments in education, but also more recently, the lessons learnt from Covid restrictions. Universities have for some time been pursuing an inclusion agenda that seeks to attract as diverse a cohort of students as possible. The unplanned period of experimentation forced on us by a global pandemic has pointed to learning and teaching approaches that certainly improve inclusion and out of necessity have been adopted rapidly. However, it is our belief that for these practices to survive beyond the current Covid restrictions the physical design of our university estates will need to catch up.

This was part two of a blog series on Campus Design and Student Wellbeing. Read part one on lecture theatres here.

One thought on “Designing a Campus for Students and their Wellbeing. Part 2 – Communal Spaces

  1. Pingback: Designing a campus for students and their wellbeing. Part 1 – The Lecture Theatre | brainybirdz

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