Helen Groves image

Helen Groves

UK & Europe

Helen Groves is an associate architect. Helen is a highly experienced architect who leads our education team in the South West of England and Wales. Helen is passionate about the importance of well-designed education buildings, she works with our clients to develop successful briefs which create exciting and engaging learning spaces.

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So what does this mean for us as architects and designers when designing university facilities? When creating spaces which can become the stage for the best student experience, the ‘living’ part is inextricably intertwined with the ‘learning’ part. Universities realise that the best facilities no longer encompass just lecture rooms, labs and teaching spaces, but rather the interstitial spaces which provide a framework of emotional support. It is no longer possible to separate the academic facilities from those more informal elements which become the backdrop for learning.

More and more universities are investing in student centres, a concept which did not exist for the previous generation of students. As student wellbeing is now writ large in the awareness of universities, these facilities are providing the benefit of creating flexibility and variety for students’ individual needs. As our WellBriefing tool is showcasing time and again, this attention to individuality really does matter to students.

At Bournemouth University, a client for which we are designing two new Gateway faculty buildings, we have integrated the spirit of their recently opened Student Centre. Full to capacity from day one, this building wasn’t even on the radar five years ago – they did not know that they needed it. What does it provide physically? Simply a range of comfortable environments to accommodate a whole range of seating for relaxation, social interaction, group learning, eating or study.

Student centres often become the heart of the campus – the void that completes the solid. They are the infill to student life: a place to go to in between the more formal aspects of studying. And whilst these spaces do welcome formal study, you are more likely to find a student lounging on a sofa with a laptop and headphones or a group discussing a project informally over a mocha latte. Facilitated by technology, these spaces are becoming more and more important to the university’s ethos. These are the living rooms of universities: a space in between the student residences and the teaching rooms. They succeed in parallel to university libraries, rather than instead of them: they are mutually intertwined and compatible. The main difference is one of formality and privacy, as students still clamour for the printed resources and private carrels of a library on the run up to exam time, but prefer the comfort and informality of a social learning study centre the rest of the time.

Another interesting tangent to this approach is the value that universities are placing on external landscape areas: widening the viewpoint from just buildings to the spaces between them. Whether this is to create gathering areas such as amphitheatres, informal seating in a protected microclimate, or just attractive soft landscaping, universities are investing in the areas which, in essence, tie the identity of the campus together.

The idea of creating campuses where students want to be and buildings that are attractive enough to make students ‘stick’ around, is changing not only how we design, but fundamentally shaping how students will experience university. This is an exciting prospect and one I personally look forward to seeing on more and more university projects.

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As Einstein so rightly put it, learning is so much more about experience than it is about the giving and receiving of information. We are all individuals, with our own needs and preferences, and this applies equally to our learning environments.

Employers want people who can think intuitively, who can communicate well, work in teams, are flexible, adaptable and self-confident. Creating physical spaces which align and support these interactive education traits will help us create successful, lifelong learners.

Our environment inspires and nurtures us and there are few more significant places than the ones in which we learn. So how do we create university environments that are inspiring, that create an ‘experience’ more than just provide learning, and where students and staff actively want to be?

The student experience

The first thing we need to do is create spaces which encourage participation and enhance the student experience. Spaces that students can call their own, where they can mingle with like-minded people or meet individuals from entirely new disciplines that inspire and challenge them. We need to create spaces students can relax or use state of the art facilities that take their career and imagination to new places – all of these spaces help give them a great experience, unique to the individual and to their university.

The Poole Gateway Fusion Building at Bournemouth University’s Talbot Campus is a great example of this. It brings together a disparate set of facilities into a new building which showcases the exceptional qualities of the faculties within. It is the physical embodiment of Bournemouth University’s ‘Fusion’ philosophy, defined as “the powerful fusion of research, education and professional practice, creating a unique academic experience where the sum is greater than the component parts.”

The building will be wrapped in a perforated metal veil, lifted up to create a large scale gateway to the campus and a welcoming beacon to visitors and students alike. Internally, it is designed to be a showcase of the work which takes place there: from the films being created in the sound stage, the world of television being developed in the studios, to the world class animations designed in the creative labs. The building is an embodiment of the process of design, production and editing which nourishes the creative technology industries. For media, communications, science and technology students, this will be an experience unlike any other.

Diversity of learning

The second thing we need to do is create space that supports different ways of learning. We typically think of this in three ways:

• Learning through reflection

• Learning through activity and doing

• Learning through interacting with others

The spaces we create can help facilitate and encourage these different kinds of learning.

We are also designing the Gateway building at Bournemouth University’s urban campus in the Lansdowne quarter of the city. This building is a great example of diverse learning spaces, with library space for quiet reflection, spaces where students can practice the skills they’ve learned in the classroom through activities and doing, and spaces for teaching and research that encourage staff to interact with each other. This building has to cater for not only undergraduates, but NHS practitioners and CPD students; it has been designed to fulfil the learning requirements of all of these different kinds of students.

Architecturally, the building will echo the materials of the Poole Gateway building, although with a more urban response. This will allow the linking of the two sites and unite the student experience across both.

Spaces for collaboration

The third thing we need to do is create spaces for collaboration. These need to be social and convivial spaces that form the heart of the university community.

At the University of Wolverhampton, we are helping to create a space that will bring together separate Built Environment faculties, mixing architects and engineers in one combined space. The idea is that this will lead to multidisciplinary collaboration, the kind of cross discipline working the students will need in the real world, where architecture and engineering so often converge on projects.

People are at university because they choose to be there. So to entice them in and keep them there, we need to create spaces that make their hearts soar, and are at their very core fun places to be. Our aim should always be to create spaces that are inspirational and stimulating, and that give students and faculty alike a sense of pride.

So it’s in my view, if you can create spaces that are collaborative, diverse and give people a great experience, you can excite your students and faculty, and make your university campus somewhere they want to be. 

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