Designing Spaces for Higher Education: 10 Key Principles – Oktra
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Designing spaces for higher education
  • Designing Spaces for Higher Education: 10 Key Principles

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Tom Hitch
Content Specialist
Part of The Workplace Leaders 2023 Top 50.
  • As a focus for design, higher education covers multiple uses and typologies – from seminar rooms to lecture theatres to operating theatres. Through our understanding of the operational and aesthetic requirements of different end-users, Oktra is well-positioned to advise on design solutions in this area.

    The ‘sticky campus’ concept, for example, is rapidly gaining traction as a mechanism for creating a sense of belonging in a student population. By offering diverse amenities, high-quality facilities and surroundings, institutions can attract and retain students and meet their annual quotas. But crucially, this concept is more relevant for undergrads than postgrads. For older postgraduate students, some of whom might have families, institutions need to conceive more nuanced and practical engagement strategies.

  • Only by considering how design elements can meet the diverse needs of the entire student population can institutions create successful spaces for higher education. By providing the right ‘conditions’ to support the learning experience, institutions can enhance the academic achievement, socialisation and personal development of their students. Interestingly, in the process of creating such environments, universities and colleges are shaping interiors that closely resemble the modern workplace.

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  • How to design higher education spaces

    The shift towards a learning-based design model recognises the need for education environments to be more human-centric and user-led. With formal approaches to information transmission becoming obsolete, namely the podium and lectern, learning spaces need to be reimagined, with the student at the heart of all design interventions. Physical surroundings can maximise learning opportunities and by creating more informal and holistic education environments, mobilising the entire campus to enhance learning outcomes.

    Here, we outline ten key principles for designing inclusive, effective and human-centric spaces for higher education.

  • 1. Flexibility

    Gone are the days of fixed and rigid education interiors. To accommodate varying class sizes and student requirements, flexible designs allow for spatial reconfiguration to optimise the learning experience. Sliding wall panels, flexible furniture, fold-and-nest desks and tables mean spaces can be expanded, contracted and repurposed to support a range of functions – group study, seminars, private tuition, meetings or social events. Open and fluid learning environments also promote a greater sense of intellectual freedom and creativity.

  • Flexible classroom reconfiguration
  • 2. Zoning

    Zoning enables interiors to operate in ways that support diverse modes of learning. It can be used to separate collaborative activities from focused individual study, just as coworking spaces clearly distinguish between social and private work areas. ‘Bleacher staircases’ within education interiors are increasingly deployed to encourage interaction and engagement. Breakout spaces can also be created by dividing up larger areas into smaller zones using furniture, panelling and other features.

  • 3. Colour and materiality

    Colour, texture and materiality are key to defining how educational spaces are used. Colours attract and set the tone, helping to inspire, energise or calm depending on students’ needs. By defining the edges of different study areas, colour can accentuate zoning. Its effect can also be enhanced through surrounding materials and furnishings. For example, natural timber accents create a sense of warmth and welcome. Similarly, sustainable building materials help to connect students to their surroundings by reaffirming core values.

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  • 4. Open and flowing space

    There is evidence to suggest that enclosed spaces have a negative impact on learning. Conversely, open, curved and flowing spaces, particularly those with high ceilings, are known to boost focus and engagement. Curvilinear design features, for example, elicit an emotional response, helping to inspire and excite. High ceilings, meanwhile, stimulate what’s known as ‘visuospatial exploration’, which leads to increased attention. By enabling expansive thought, emotional connection and concentration, open spaces can significantly enhance the learning experience for higher education students.

  • 5. Natural light and nature

    Research and anecdotal evidence support the theory that students perform better when working in natural light, as opposed to artificially generated light. Increasing the clarity of students’ vision, natural light helps to motivate and create an overall sense of wellbeing. Similarly, proximity to nature, achieved through biophilic interior design or access to outdoor spaces, can greatly improve people’s mood and mental health. Windows, skylights, plants and greenspace are therefore vital features of higher education environments.

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  • 6. Adjacencies

    By co-locating different faculties and schools under the same roof, institutions can create fertile environments for cross-disciplinary interaction and collaboration. Porous building typologies enable these ‘inspired adjacencies’ to support the flow of ideas and innovation across departmental boundaries. In this way, they allow vibrant exchanges between different subjects, teaching staff and student bodies, reinforcing overlaps while shaping new conversations. This model can also help to promote a culture of shared space, curiosity and understanding.

  • 7. Community space 

    Community space is vital to successful higher education environments. Through the creation of compelling and dynamic community areas, institutions can attract students onto campus and create a sense of place and identity. Quality community space encourages interdisciplinary encounters, helping to break down silos and barriers to student body cohesion. Similarly to how community space operates in the workplace, these destinations are crucial to supporting the moments between lectures and seminars.

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  • 8. Air quality

    Fresh air and ventilation are essential ingredients of well-functioning institutions. Not only does good air quality promote respiratory health, but it also removes a barrier to improved learning outcomes. Indeed, poor air quality is known to negatively affect student attendance and academic performance. Natural ventilation is the key here, as it obviates the need for air conditioning and reduces operational costs. These measures also contribute to overall Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ), which is a measure of a building’s ability to optimise light, air and thermal load. Passive design features, and the relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces, are key to improving IEQ for building inhabitants and users.

  • 9. Connectivity

    Today, a digitally enabled and connected campus is a fundamental part of the higher education landscape. To create optimum learning conditions and ensure students are engaged, all campus stakeholders – teaching staff, faculty members, administrators, students and technicians – must have fast, secure and seamless connectivity 24/7. Echoing ‘anytime anywhere’ arrangements in the age of hybrid working, students want the flexibility to learn and connect wherever they are. In this way, connectivity encourages students onto campus, helping to create a more vibrant learning environment.

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  • 10. Comfort

    From pre-schoolers to postgraduates, physical and sensory comfort is key to learning. Ergonomic seating, daylight, fresh air, gentle acoustics and lighting all help to provide a pleasant experience within learning spaces. They also prevent students from becoming distracted through discomfort. Sources of discomfort include hard and uneven seating, bright glaring lights and noise disturbance, all of which can contribute to suboptimal learning conditions. By alleviating distraction, comfortable surroundings also alleviate stress, helping students to remain focused and calm.

  • The future of higher education spaces

    In the UK, institutions are shifting their focus towards a renewed property strategy which is helping them unlock value for more students by expanding their footprint. As more regional universities and higher education institutions take real estate in London and other major cities, their reach is growing exponentially.

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  • Understanding how to create effective spaces for students is not a generic design rollout and typically the more traditional settings of a campus university or college are not feasible within inner city buildings. In the same way we address workplace design, education interiors need to achieve a blend of organisational design and aesthetics. They need to function smoothly and efficiently while creating vibrant and visually appealing spaces that engage their student populations. Through open-plan layouts, porous typologies, transparent structures and adjacencies, they are adopting the physical traits of the modern office.

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