‘Vice-chancellors go on about iconic buildings, but students are looking for a campus that is cared for and feels homely, not whizzo starchitecture’
The quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge, the University of Bologna’s porticoes, the collegiate Gothic of Princeton and Yale and the University of East Anglia’s Brutalist concrete: universities are often strongly linked in the public’s mind with the physical structures they occupy.
In the UK, changing styles of development have defined different eras of higher education, from the birth of redbricks at the turn of the 20th century to the plate-glass universities of the 1960s.
Many university buildings are local landmarks, while campuses can stretch over vast areas. In the UK, university estates cover some 26 million sq m, seven times greater than Tesco’s landholdings and just behind the NHS’ 30 million.
Unsurprisingly, the sums spent on maintaining and upgrading universities’ estates are also sizeable. Expenditure on the sector’s land and buildings exceeded £2 billion during 2012-13, 9 per cent more than in the preceding 12 months. As the Higher Education Estates Statistics Report 2014 by the Association of University Directors of Estates (Aude) points out, this is greater than the annual amount spent on Crossrail, the high-speed train line for London and the South East, which has a total budget of £14.8 billion over nine years.
According to Aude, the increased spending by the higher education sector “is likely to be driven by the need to provide an outstanding environment to ensure continued recruitment of students…no doubt linked to student expectations as tuition fees have risen”. And conditions are improving: the association found that 80 per cent of non-residential university properties are now new or in “as good as new” condition, compared with only 63 per cent in 2002.
So what trends have helped to shape university campuses in recent years?
According to Paul Roberts, co-author of the book University Trends: Contemporary Campus Design (2014), universities continue to be drawn by the allure of the world-renowned architects known as the “starchitects”.
This is nothing new. “Christopher Wren was a starchitect of his day,” points out Roberts, who is also executive director and co-founder of Turnberry Consulting. Wren’s university work includes the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, and the imposing Tom Tower at the entrance to Christ Church, Oxford. “The best architects in the world have always sought to design at the world’s leading universities,” Roberts says. “It is a very vibrant environment for them to work within.”
Starchitecture is often driven by an “aspiration to do something beyond the ordinary – to grab attention, or to demonstrate a modernity about what that institution wishes to do”, he observes.
“There are some universities where [building impressive structures] is seen to be an effective way to enhance the reputation of a university – that is quite clear. But that doesn’t mean that the outcome will be wonderful, fantastic and endure for a long time.”
He gives two US examples of university starchitecture projects with differing fortunes, starting with the James H. Clark Center and the Center for Clinical Science Research at Stanford University, completed in the early 2000s by British architect Sir Norman Foster’s company.
“I think the Foster buildings at Stanford are a good example of finely designed buildings that are fit for their purpose, yet are impressive and stunning to look at,” Roberts says. But he is less impressed by one development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The classic [piece of starchitecture] criticised by many would be the [Ray and Maria] Stata Center at MIT, by Frank Gehry, which is often cited as an example of a building that perhaps doesn’t achieve all those objectives.”
Three years after the distinctive building opened in 2004, MIT sued Gehry and a construction company, claiming that “design and construction failures” in the $300 million (£187 million) centre were responsible for subsequent leaks and drainage problems.
According to The New York Times, construction company Skanska claimed that prior to construction, Gehry had ignored its warnings regarding flaws in his design, and declined to modify it. It was reported in 2010 that the lawsuit had been resolved after the complaints were addressed, but the case highlights some of the problems that can arise when working with one architect’s vision.
“Vice-chancellors are always going on about iconic buildings,” says Paul Temple, reader emeritus at the UCL Institute of Education and editor of The Physical University: Contours of Space and Place in Higher Education (2014). “When you have an open day to try and recruit students, I suppose there might be a bit of an effect from having the ‘wow factor’. But I think students are more looking for a campus that is obviously cared for and feels homely, not some whizzo starchitect-designed glass and steel building that I suspect appeals more to the vice-chancellors than the students.”
Evidence that huge spending on estates really impresses students, he adds, is thin on the ground.
2. Adaptive reuse
But many universities reject the “flashy” approach and instead opt for something more subtle. Another trend identified by Roberts is “adaptive reuse” – a model that, according to its advocates, can be more environmentally friendly and cost-effective and is far more sensitive to the local landscape. Why tear down an existing structure – an old university building, for example, or a derelict construction in a desirable location – when it could be given a makeover and brought back into service?
Of course, this practice is not new either. According to University Trends, the dissolved nunnery of St Radegund in Cambridge was repurposed as Jesus College in the 1490s, while Bangor University opened in 1884 in an old coaching inn. In the US, in 1946, Roosevelt University moved into a 19th-century theatre in Chicago, while Spain’s University of Alcalá adapted a military aerodrome in the 1970s.
Nor is there a shortage of more recent examples. In 2008 the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium repurposed a car park as offices, classrooms, meeting rooms and a library, and in 2012, the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands converted an old boiler house into laboratory and office facilities. In Australia, the Sydney College of the Arts is housed in a group of buildings that used to be part of the Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, which opened in 1884.
On a recent visit to the University of Huddersfield, Temple says, he was impressed by its canal-side redevelopment. The university has “taken over 19th-century industrial buildings and kept the exterior, but inside they are interesting modern learning spaces”, Temple explains.
Huddersfield acquired a number of repurposed derelict mills in 1992, and reconstructed them over the following decade. A separate semi-derelict, two-storey Huddersfield mill, now known as the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre, was opened for university use in May last year and houses the northern base of the National Physical Laboratory.
Adaptive reuse is not always an easy option, or an inexpensive one: older buildings can pose a number of problems for would-be developers, from inefficiencies when it comes to heating and electricity use, to inherent design flaws that render structures unsuitable for university use and expensive to refurbish. Sometimes, however, universities have no choice but to repurpose existing buildings – as in cases where they are protected with listed status.
But Roberts points to one US institution that views reusing buildings as a way to demonstrate its commitment to sustainable development. The Savannah College of Art and Design “purposely seeks to identify [and repurpose] older buildings because they think it adds brand value”, he explains.
A private university with campuses in Savannah and Atlanta in the state of Georgia, since its founding in 1978 it has redeveloped a large number of buildings in the US and further afield.
Poetter Hall, where its first classes were taught in the late 1970s, was home to the Savannah Volunteer Guards Armory before its acquisition and renovation by the college. Scores of abandoned and historic Savannah buildings, covering more than 185,806 sq m in total, have now been given a new lease of life.
Among these is Pepe Hall, which was built in 1901 as a school but now houses classrooms, weaving studios, a weaving lab, a graduate studio and a conference and resource room. And in 2002, the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art opened in an antebellum Greek Revival structure that was once the headquarters of the Central of Georgia Railway.
It has also rehabilitated buildings in Atlanta, spruced up a medieval village in Lacoste, France and redeveloped a former magistracy building in Hong Kong, revitalising more than 100 buildings on three continents.
“These places, with their own deep histories, live on while our students write new chapters today,” says Christian Sottile, dean of the university’s School of Building Arts. He argues that adaptive reuse is “far more sustainable” than new construction. “The data [confirm] that a new high-efficiency building can take between 10 and 80 years just to meet the baseline of the environmental damage caused through demolition and rebuilding.”
Although there are certain financial efficiencies to be made by repurposing historic buildings, they often require “major reinvestment, not just financially but also in the research and application of historic materials and methods”, Sottile adds. “The tangible costs of building a campus in this manner are significant, but I think they are far outweighed by the benefit that is experienced by students studying in an integrated, inspiring setting.”
Other universities have acquired old buildings because they are iconic. When King’s College London moved its Dickson Poon School of Law into Somerset House, for example, following the renovation of the neoclassical building’s East Wing, King’s said it fulfilled a “long-held ambition” – for the previous 180 years, it had wanted a presence in the building. King’s says the site, which was opened by the Queen in 2012, is its “new front door” in one of London’s major arts and cultural centres, which is also home to the Courtauld Institute of Art.
Meanwhile, Central Saint Martins’ multiple award-winning new home at King’s Cross, which opened to students in 2011 and cost £200 million, marries old and new. The architects, Stanton Williams, made use of a grade II-listed 19th-century granary building and transit sheds as well as modern industrial materials to cover a 10 acre (4ha) floor space, including a wide “internal street” that acts as its “central spine”.
A city centre location looks desirable to institutions keen to satisfy student demands, with many UK universities establishing campuses in London
Sottile concludes that “the greenest building is the one that’s already built”, but a desire to build sustainably is still a huge influence on the creation of new university structures. The Climate Change Act 2008 stipulates that all organisations in the UK need to make cuts in the carbon they emit: 34 per cent by 2020, and 80 per cent by 2050.
“I know sustainability is a buzzword, and it has been around for over a decade, but we decided as a university to do something tangible rather than just talking about it,” says David Tann, head of the department of the built environment and architecture/urban engineering at London South Bank University, referring to its K2 building, an eight-storey construction designed and built using green technology and opened in 2009.
“We used the latest technology,” says Tann, including ground source heat pumps (which use pipes to harness heat from the earth), wind turbines and solar panels. Eleven per cent of the energy used by the building comes from renewable sources – which, he says, is “quite something”.
The building is also used as a teaching resource for those studying sustainability, particularly students on the university’s architecture programmes. LSBU offers a bachelor of arts in urban and environmental planning and a master’s in sustainable energy systems.
In other examples of attention to sustainability, in November the University of Exeter won a 2014 Green Gown Award for construction and refurbishment after opting to renovate a 1960s building on its campus, Cornwall House, in order to improve its carbon performance.
And Oxford Brookes University has won a number of 2014 RIBA Awards for its John Henry Brookes Building, including an award for sustainability, in a development that the university describes as “the most significant” in its history. Features include a green roof and solar panels, while loos in the building are flushed with rainwater collected from the roof.
4. Shared use
“There’s a spectrum of building use,” says Temple. “At the one end you have hospitals, which are in use intensively 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and then at the other end you have universities, which are possibly the least intensively used space you can imagine.”
Earlier this year, Times Higher Education reported that London Metropolitan University was spending more than a million pounds a year to rent and service an unused building, Ladbroke House in North London, and that the contract would not expire until August 2016.
While this is an extreme example, the nature of university life means that while tens of thousands of students may roam busy campuses for nine months of the year, universities can be far quieter places for the remaining three months, with lecture halls sometimes sitting unused for weeks at a time.
One way to address the underuse of university buildings is by sharing them with other organisations. This can help to save money and reduce the university’s carbon footprint.
The Sugden Sports Centre, for example, was jointly funded by a trust set up in 1997 by Manchester Metropolitan University and what was then the University of Manchester Institute for Science and Technology (now part of the University of Manchester). Rather than building a sports centre for each institution, the institutions reasoned, why not create one that could serve the needs of both?
The University of Worcester has taken the idea of sharing one step further, via its partnership with Worcestershire County Council. The Hive is said to be Europe’s first fully integrated, jointly funded university and public library.
It is home to libraries, council customer services, meeting rooms, study areas and a cafe. “Public library non-fiction is shelved alongside university texts; study spaces and computers are shared; teenagers and children do homework alongside university students writing assignments,” explains a spokeswoman for Worcester.
In 2012, THE reported that there had been a few teething problems, including disruption caused by rowdy school pupils disturbing those who were trying to read.
“We worked with the students’ union and student academic representatives to identify particular problem areas and quickly put solutions in place,” says Judith Keene, university librarian and assistant director of information and learning services. This included creating designated “quiet spaces” and making meeting rooms available to students.
In an attempt to ensure that public use of the library in the Hive does not hinder students’ work, high-demand academic books are prioritised for student use. Students can sign out “restricted loan” books for two days, while community users may consult them only within the library, for example. Students also have access to booking systems that allow them to reserve a computer or book a meeting room for group work in advance.
Thanks to social media, news of any initial difficulties with university buildings now spreads quickly, Roberts points out, meaning that institutions need to act quickly when problems occur.
“Before, a student might not realise it was a weakness until they showed up on campus and couldn’t find something, because it wasn’t in the prospectus and they only went to one open day. It is a different world today.”
5. Informal, flexible learning spaces
The impact of new technology on pedagogy is also influencing university building design. The University of Northampton is in the process of developing a £330 million town centre campus. If it keeps to schedule, its doors will open between 2018 and 2020.
In an interview with THE last year, vice-chancellor Nick Petford suggested that the new Waterside Campus would have to provide a 21st-century teaching environment, and that traditional lecture theatres were somewhat old hat. “The idea of a standard lecture, set at a certain time for a certain amount of minutes in front of a big class using PowerPoint, is surely past its sell-by date,” Petford said.
One established and increasingly practised pedagogical concept, which fits in with Petford’s vision, is the so-called “flipped classroom”, which sees a shift away from students acquiring knowledge en masse in huge lecture halls. Instead, students go through course materials outside class, using video or audio lectures, freeing up staff time for small-group teaching, for example.
The shift away from lecture theatres is a definite trend, says Isabelle Taylor, co-author of University Trends and head of research and publications at Turnberry Consulting. “Online learning is transforming the spaces that universities are building,” she suggests, noting a rise in student demand for “hub buildings”, which “comprise informal learning spaces, social spaces, IT facilities, dining areas and counselling [services]”. Aude’s report also notes the rise in “social learning space as an adjunct to more traditional learning or library resources”.
6. The allure of the city
According to Roberts, a city centre location looks increasingly desirable to universities intent on satisfying the demands of students. Many UK universities based outside London – Abertay, Anglia Ruskin, Bangor, Coventry, Cumbria, East Anglia, Glasgow Caledonian, Glyndwr, Liverpool, Sunderland, Ulster and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David – have established campuses in the capital in recent years.
Roberts says this trend can also be seen in the US. One example is Cornell University. Located more than 200 miles (320km) northwest of New York City, it has now opened a number of buildings in Manhattan.
Liverpool John Moores University is another institution to have seen the value of a city centre location. It recently acquired a 3.5‑acre site adjacent to Liverpool’s Lime Street Station that was formerly home to a Royal Mail sorting office.
“We saw the site first and foremost as an opportunity to consolidate the university’s business within the city centre,” explains Colin Davies, the university’s director of estate management.
Liverpool John Moores used to be spread over 50 sites, including some on the outskirts of the city, but over the past 10 years that has shrunk to about 37 more centrally located buildings. Davies says it is “still not a city centre based university”, but this is the direction of travel.
It is hoped that the building could house a library, teaching spaces, sports facilities, student services, the students’ union, catering and areas for socialising. There is still a possibility that the existing building will be demolished and a new one commissioned.
The drive to bring the university closer to the heart of the city centre was a response to student demand, Davies says. “Students want to live, work and play within the city. So the strategy with LJMU has been to respond to those aspirations of students, coming into Liverpool, and to provide all the services on their doorstep.”
Temple is interested in “the extent to which the physical nature of the university has an impact on the way it works”, but the literature has left him in two minds about this. “Intuitively one thinks it ought to have an impact, but it is very difficult to get any sort of empirical evidence.”
He points to research on scholars housed in what are “absolutely awful buildings on any objective basis” working well together, before being moved to “shiny accommodation only to find they hate it, because it doesn’t work socially in the way it used to”.
In this respect, some of the oldest purpose-built universities continue to trump more modern creations.
“I have a slide of the floor plan of New College Oxford, which is kind of fascinating because of the medieval layout,” says Temple. “It has all kinds of cloisters and quadrangles, and a third of the footprint is not usable space” – much of the room is taken up by corridors rather than dedicated teaching or researching spaces.
“No modern architect would dream of having a building like that,” says Temple, “but it seems to me it is all about people wandering around, meeting informally, bumping into people.
“For me, this will always remain one of the most important elements of campus building design: university space has to work in a social sense.”