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Looking forward, respecting the past

Neil McLean | 05 Apr 2016 | Comments

Safeguarding university identity while creating collaborative, shared research spaces.

Today, higher education institutions are bringing people and organisations together like never before to advance science, technology, medicine and society. Although partnerships between universities and businesses are nothing new, they are becoming increasingly important as institutions compete head-to-head globally while negotiating financial constraints and economic uncertainty. These partnerships are also the driving force behind interdisciplinary research, as the public and private sectors work together to solve the world’s most pressing and complex problems.

From a design point of view, university buildings must support this meeting of minds and facilitate research which often looks to push boundaries in terms of scale and ambition, thanks, in part, to the stakeholder mix and diverse funding mechanisms.

Universities today bring together students, staff and research scientists in shared facilitates that often include research and development incubator laboratories and offices which are let out commercially to outside companies. Many benefit from open-plan primary labs and write-up spaces as well as shared secondary labs and back of house preparation rooms – all designed to encourage and harness a sense of collaboration.

We must be careful, though, so as not to allow shared spaces to become generic environments that cater for all but speak for none.

We must strive to strengthen a university’s identity and protect its heritage, no matter what we’re designing. Bringing students, staff, research scientists and the private sector together under one roof should be the norm – we should embrace open plan workspaces, communal cafés and shared facilities, especially if they help trigger that conversation which alters the course of research or development. But, we must also embrace where those facilities are and what they’re part of.

To this end, an intimate understanding of universities has never been more important.

The University of Edinburgh’s new Centre Building at its Easter Bush Campus will create specialist research facilities for use by the University and external organisations. Throughout the design process we worked very closely with the university to ensure that the building recognised its identity and history, whilst also conveying a bold future with its external appearance.

The interior design followed a set of themes developed not just for the new research facilities but for the College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine (CMVM) that they’re part of. It was important that people moving between the various CMVM buildings across multiple campuses enjoyed a sense of familiarity and identity, uncompromised by location or building type. This was especially important at Easter Bush Campus where the CMVM schools have migrated from their historic, 100-year old city centre homes.

At a time when universities are opening their doors like never before and collaborating with the private sector to advance research, our design responses have become critical to ensuring that we all embrace history, heritage and progress.