Helen Newman

UK & Europe

Helen Newman is an associate architect. Helen’s career has seen her deliver a number of significant projects for clients across the higher education sector. With 13 years’ experience, she enjoys working with and presenting to the full stakeholder mix, be it English Heritage and conservation officers to funding bodies and decision makers. 

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The new School of Architecture and the Built Environment at the University of Wolverhampton aims to create these kinds of inspirational places for students to work and study – all on a shared campus devoted to the promotion of excellence in the built environment. The spaces have been designed to support students achieving more through collaboration, a concept the university hopes will inspire and reinforce health and wellbeing.

Key to this will be encouraging students’ curiosity and innovative thinking by breaking down the traditional barriers between academic and practical learning. Half of the new school will be allocated to standard, digitally-enabled teaching facilities, with the other half dedicated to studio and testing facilities where students can learn by doing. Visual connections into these practical learning spaces will allow students to watch other students, from other disciplines, as they create and innovate in various labs and studios. Some spaces, for example the architectural model making and 3D printing studios, are co-located, encouraging engineering students to rub shoulders with architectural students and inspire each other with new ideas and ways of working. Cutting edge, shared digital facilities like these will be a key enabler to encouraging students to come up with and test new ideas.

The focal point of these shared studio spaces will be a dramatic, double height laboratory hub and testing space that includes a gantry crane for large scale construction and structural testing projects. This will be overlooked by mezzanines and circulation spaces so that students and visitors can watch as these gigantic projects come together. Our hope is that this will create the ‘wow’ factor that will help the university attract new students and staff.

Overall, our design intent has been to make visible the benefits of studio based, creative working environments. This includes the creation of dramatic, top lit design studios and flexible open plan studios overlooking adjacent shared and connecting spaces. Through these, the university hopes to encourage the supportive peer-to-peer culture common in architecture schools.

The multi-disciplinary workshops and ‘super studios’ we’ve created will be available to everyone, not just design students. Our aim is to encourage the typical civil engineering student, who might have previously gone to his/her lecture then straight home, to stay at the school after their lecture and work in the joint lab spaces. Like architectural students, we’ll give provide them a ‘base’ on campus, extending the amount of time they spend there and allowing them to benefit from a highly positive, creative and supportive environment.

This idea of bringing students from every discipline together also has a ‘real world’ benefit as once they leave university they’ll likely find themselves working in teams, and, as is often the case with large built environment projects, in multi-disciplinary teams. Wolverhampton’s new School of Architecture and the Built Environment will break down the physical and visual barriers between all the built environment disciplines to develop a strong ethos of group working, peer support, greater networking and collaboration. All essential for promoting better wellbeing amongst students.

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1. Put your investment in high tech model making facilities

While these kind of purpose built, state of the art spaces require a large investment, they are often what excite students about joining a university and what keep them coming back to campus throughout their studies. For example, the University of Melbourne’s ‘Fab Lab’ provides facilities to build accurate physical models of computer generated designs, using computer controlled laser cutters, 3D printers and CNC routers. While these facilities aren’t cheap, universities may find they provide greater value for money in the long term for attraction and retention.

2. Give wider access hours to studio spaces

Universities often find themselves with limited studio space that they need to ‘squeeze’ to ensure students feel they still get access when they need it. For example, fashion studio workshops are often timetabled by student year groups, with final year students given longer daytime access, and other students given ‘out-of-hours access’. At the University of Huddersfield, studios have been designed to be always open, with the design for the building geared up to give 24 hour access to students.

3. Consider flexible studio spaces

For the University of Northampton, we designed flexible studio spaces which will allow them to combine graphic design, fashion, architectural technology, textiles and printmaking. This not only makes better use of studio space, but allows the university to be more innovative in how they teach art and design subjects, doing more project based teaching where students from different disciplines work together to make something they couldn’t have imagined alone. These spaces need to be designed so that they can expand and contract, to cater for small and large scale design and making projects.

4. Invest in virtual spaces

In this digital age, many universities are asking: Should we invest in spaces that give students access to specific course related software such as Revit, animation, gaming and edit software. Should we make sure every student has a laptop when they arrive at university? Or at least sufficient open access to computers on campus? Technology isn’t free, but it does provide the flexibility and access students need (or sometimes demand) and recognises the importance of virtual spaces to the next generation. Many universities are also investing in CAT 6 IT infrastructure to improve their download speeds and give students better access to specialist software. Others are using virtual desktop technology to give students and faculty access to software facilities on any device whether at home, on campus or elsewhere.

5. Create open, easy to access facilities

Universities want to encourage cross fertilisation of ideas and open up opportunities for students to learn new skills. The University of Northampton’s ‘creative hub’ aspires to take this to the next level, creating a space that will bring together tannery and fashion students. This open access approach will allow their fashion students to excel on the national stage, with their final submissions incorporating unique leather work.

6. Engage with the public and industry

Creating project based learning spaces – for the creative arts or 3D printers, Raspberry Pi micro-computers or access to engineering wood working tools – can be a great way of engaging with the public and industry. The ‘MakeSpace’ workshop at UCL’s Institute of Making offers a workshop space for students and staff to use and a public programme of masterclasses and workshops with guest experts to allow the wider public access to this fantastic resource. We’ve used this space here at Atkins, and have found it equally as engaging for our staff and clients.

At the University of Wolverhampton, we’re creating an internal atrium spill out space that can be curated for events and exhibitions, used for professional CPD sessions and even ‘Saturday University’ for people with full time jobs taking weekend courses. These kind of internal and external spaces that students and staff can use to showcase their work, including digital screens for visual arts projects, is good for both university and individual pride, as well as generating public interest in the university’s work.

So, while universities are squeezed for space, maybe it’s in the areas where creation and innovation happen that they can actually get the most from their investment. The British have always been great inventors and these kind of spaces are what take us from just learning about something to actually creating it ourselves. These spaces teach us that everyone can make, and it’s only through instilling this belief that we’ll find the next great British innovators.

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