'Excellence'? Aye, there's the 'hub'

Architects reveal commonly used buzzwords in university commissions. Hannah Fearn writes

December 31, 2009

Universities are asking architects to design buildings with "heart" that will act as "shop windows", according to a list of the most-used buzzwords in higher education estates.

A firm of architects, Sheppard Robson, has revealed the terms most commonly used by universities when commissioning buildings.

Topping the list for 2009 was "sustainable" - no surprise given the focus on cutting carbon emissions in the sector, as elsewhere.

But other words that appeared regularly in universities' design briefs were more esoteric.

They specified that new buildings should show "heart" while demonstrating "excellence" and providing "interaction". They also asked for "hub", "break-out" and "shop window" areas.

Rod McAllister, partner at Sheppard Robson, said the most commonly used terms were linked to development-funding requirements specified by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, such as sustainability.

Many of the descriptions in briefs also emphasised the importance of communication and socialising in the learning process, he added.

"Communication and social interaction is definitely a major design generator for architects and designers working in the sector," he said, adding that a few years ago the key requirements of higher education clients were lecture theatres and IT labs.

"I think this says something about how higher education is loosening up. It's difficult to say whether this will continue until education is delivered to the student kitchen or bed, or whether there will be a backlash to the good old days of formal lecture theatres."

Derry Caleb, director of estates at the University of Surrey and deputy chairman of the Association of University Directors of Estates, defended some of the terms on the buzzword list, stating that it was important for new buildings to be at the "heart" of the campus.

"The aim is to create the heart of the university, somewhere at the centre where people feel comfortable," he said.

He added that it was increasingly important for universities to provide a "shop window" in today's competitive environment, but conceded that "if you took all the words on this list and put them into one sentence, you would get an interesting brief".

Earlier this month, Times Higher Education reported Mr McAllister's warning that universities' obsession with "sustainability" sometimes amounted to little more than "greenwashing".

"There's a lot of tearing down buildings and putting up highly efficient new ones, when it is much better to adapt existing structures," he said.

He also suggested that the fashion for "ecotecture" was damaging the campus aesthetic: "Instead of elegant buildings, we're getting ones with lots of things sticking out."


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