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Three visits, three takeaways

The following post was written by James Norman, a senior lecturer in Civil Engineering and a BILT Fellow. 

Over the last three weeks we have visited three different universities who have recently (last ten years) built new teaching-focussed buildings. First, we visited the University of Northampton, who recently opened their brand new Waterside campus, bringing all they do into one location. We then visited Oxford Brookes’ John Henry Brookes building, which is a £100m new build on the Gypsy Lane campus, which was opened roughly six years ago. Finally, we visited the ‘Spark’ at Solent, which was opened in 2015. From these three visits I have taken away three key observations.

  1. The Atrium

The first is that all three buildings include large atrium spaces. These spaces, rather than being sterile and boring, feel alive. Filled with creative furniture and buzzing with people, they mirror in my mind the large chancel of a cathedral as people bustle in or out before a concert or the turbine hall at the Tate modern as people congregate, intrigued by what they are about to see, or debate what they have just seen. I always find these spaces inspiring; the huge headroom creating space to dream or imagine. And whilst we can’t magically create these spaces in our existing buildings, I trust and hope that we will aspire to them in future buildings.

  1. The Acoustics

The second take home for me is the sound of the spaces. This may seem strange, but there is something about the acoustic quality of these spaces. They feel warm and buzzing- not like walking into a bar where you need to shout to be heard, but neither like standing in an old library where you are self-conscious of every footfall and breath as people turn and stare at this noisy new intruder disrupting their thoughts. In these spaces the acoustic feel right. I am sure there are technical phrases for this but as a non-acoustician (and in my former life as a Structural Engineer working with -or against- acousticians I have often been skeptical of what they do) all I can say is that they sound right. Neither to loud, or too quiet, but just right. Of course, people associate acoustics and acoustic design with new buildings, and yet many of the acoustic devices that are used can just as easily be retrofitted to existing buildings as they can installed to new buildings. It is not the fabric of the building that makes the acoustics so good. I should know- I designed much of the exposed concrete at the John Henry Brookes building at Oxford Brookes, which left untreated would have led to awful acoustics. Instead, it is the strategic placement of noise absorbing finishes that make the difference, and these can be added to any building.

  1. The Furniture

Third, and finally, it is the furniture. It is only coming to these new (and reused) buildings that the importance of the furniture comes to life. The conversation is not just about the design of lecture theatres or types of chairs, square tables or plectrum, fixed furniture or movable. There are just so many options and we have seen a wide variety of different furniture approaches being implemented in these three buildings, though admittedly not all successfully. But this attitude of playfulness and experimentation is refreshing. One of the great things about furniture is if it doesn’t work you can try something different. So much of our furniture is rectangular tables (on wheels if you are lucky) but there are so many different options. And you don’t need to build a new campus or building to put new furniture (or repurposed furniture from a different space) to be playful and thought-provoking about how we use space to enhance student learning.

So, over the last three weeks, we have seen three new buildings and taken away three lessons on what you can achieve in both new and (more importantly) existing space.

(L-R: University of Northampton Waterside Campus; John Henry Brookes building at Oxford Brookes; The Spark at Solent)

Amy Palmer, Lisa Howarth, Neil Davey, Christian Spielmann and James Norman visited Northampton University and Oxford Brookes – see this blog for more details of the trip.

Amy Palmer, Lisa Howarth and James Norman visited Solent to visit Professor Tansy Jessop who is a Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol with BILT.