Having tried to be innovative and creative about developing the vision for a new learning space it is time to do a series of reality checks on the design ideas you have come up with. The checks range from consideration of high level issues that may be show-stoppers for your project to detailed pragmatic considerations that can affect the usability of individual spaces.
It pays to involve a number of people at this stage particularly people who will be carrying out their day-to-day activities in the spaces concerned although you, and they, may sometimes have a tricky time separating genuine obstacles from fears about change.
In our change management guidance we discuss the fact that people often tend to exhibit a tendency to be either a Matcher or a Mismatcher. Matchers seek similarities and tend to agree easily. Mismatchers look for differences and tend to be good at testing/proofing/checking out what will stop something working. Matchers may support change but are unlikely to instigate it. Some people who appear excessively critical of what you are trying to achieve may simply be exhibiting mismatcher tendencies.
These people can be very useful in terms of helping you to pinpoint risk and test possible solutions and because they like to challenge they can often be effective change agents once you have them on board.
The only magic formula for this stage of the work is common sense. Some of our suggestions may seem to state the obvious but it’s amazing what can be overlooked in the excitement of a new build project and some of our tips reflect mistakes that others have already made.
How effective is the space?
Collection of data involves asking questions such as:
- How many users are using the space?
- How is the space being used?
- What technology is being used in the space?
- Do potential users ever need to be turned away (due to lack of space)?
- What are the equipment costs involved?
- What are the costs involved in the servicing of the space?
- How frequently are help services used?
- What are user expectations?
- Do users feel satisfied by the overall experience of the space?
- What are the most important aspects of the space for users?
- What are the least important aspects of the space for users?
- What changes are required to improve the space?
Glasgow Caledonian University’s Student Evaluation Project has been operating since 2001 and regularly surveys students at the University on their likes and dislikes about student life.
The survey includes questions on satisfaction rates on social, private and group study spaces as well as University services. It also collects information on student ownership of IT equipment and their use of university IT equipment.
The data collected by the project is fed back through the university structures and used to help ‘make life better for students’ at the University and, also ‘to make sure that Glasgow Caledonian University staff understand the students they teach’.
Assessment can cover six broad areas:
- Service quality
The devil, in any project, is usually in the detail. Sometimes the most architecturally stunning buildings can suffer from a lack of understanding about how the space is actually to be used.
As one colleague from the sector put it, ‘Architects see it as their building. They want to win awards but you have to live in it.’
Having said that, a stimulating space will itself generate ideas about new ways of learning and working so we need to be wary of focusing too heavily on the way we do things now.
The following prompts may hopefully alert you to some potential problems without stifling your desire to be creative and innovate.
- Have you considered the location of any specialist, heavy, bulky equipment and ensured that it can be installed at the appropriate time?
- Are the lifts large enough to permit the movement of bulky items in future?
- Have you considered seasonal variations in relation to the processes carried out in the space? Will the space be used for occasional high volume activities such as enrolment or examinations and what are the implications of this?
- Will a space ideal for summer usage have suitable places to hang heavy coats and store wet umbrellas?
- Is there adequate secure storage for staff and student personal belongings?
- Have you looked at open access areas in relation to Data Protection considerations? This may be a particular issue where staff and students are using the same space.
- Have you looked at flexible spaces in relation to health and safety considerations particularly where users may rearrange furniture? You need to think about the risks involved in physically moving furniture, the possibility that new configurations could block access to exits or essential services and the risks of trailing power cables etc.
- Atrium areas, mezzanine floors and open walkways all help create a sense of height and space – have you looked at these spaces in relation to health and safety considerations particularly in relation to objects falling from one level to another? You could perhaps ensure that rails on balconies are shaped to prevent people placing objects on the edge.
- New spaces frequently attract usage levels in excess of those anticipated – can cleaning and related services cope with peaks in usage?
- Can cafeteria areas cope with peaks in usage without queuing and congestion?
- Have you considered circulation around the space at peak times such as when large numbers of students are moving from one class to another to identify potential bottlenecks?
- Have you considered the relationship of fixed seating to heating and ventilation outlets to ensure users are not seated in draughts or too close to heat sources?
- Assuming a no smoking policy in the building where will smokers congregate and will this result in issues relating to access and litter?
- How will you manage noise levels where open access and flexible areas are sited in close proximity to areas where formal teaching is going on?
- Have you thought about signage particularly in large, open plan spaces or zoned spaces to help users use the space and locate services effectively?
- Have you thought about the costs and potential difficulty of changing signs as the building use develops?
- Where staffed ‘help points’ are available in student areas will the staff have access to all of the equipment they need to deal with queries effectively?
- Have you though about how you can ensure that staffing levels can respond to demand?
- Finally have you thought enough about future changes or have you concentrated too much on how things are at present?
This is an area where you would not necessarily expect architects and builders to have a lot of specialist knowledge so you will need to ensure that you involve suitably qualified professionals in your reality check. You might start by asking:
- Have you considered the location and capacity of power sources?
- Do you know the location and precise route of other mains services?
- Do you know where your nearest JANET connection is situated?
- Have you looked at the length of cable runs?
- Have you considered the location of server rooms e.g. to ensure you haven’t sited one beneath a water tank?
- Have you considered the ventilation/cooling requirements of server rooms and any other rooms with specialist machinery?
- Do you know the details of rack sizes etc to ensure that the equipment will fit into the planned space?
- Has there been adequate liaison between technical and IT suppliers and your own technical or IT staff to ensure that new equipment is compatible with existing services/infrastructure?
- Have you checked sight lines in relation to all static audio-visual equipment in teaching rooms?
- Can you get a mobile phone signal where necessary such as in reception and social/collaborative areas?
- Will printing/copying or other equipment cause noise in open plan areas?
- Have you fully considered all accessibility issues e.g. does the estimated ‘footprint’ allow for larger screens/keyboards/wheelchair access where necessary?
- Have you thought about all the spaces people might use as learning spaces e.g. are garden areas and study bedrooms wifi enabled?
- Is it clear what source is funding the cost of new and replacement equipment e.g. the project, institutional or local budget?
- Have you taken all possible steps to facilitate flexibility such as using raised floors so that services can be moved as necessary?
- Are you confident you understand the ongoing costs associated with the technology?
- Have you thought about replacement cycles and the scheduling of upgrades/replacement?
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of considerations – your architect and other specialist advisers should have already asked you all the right questions but here are one or two prompts about issues that might require a little local knowledge:
- Does the overall design fit its surroundings and comply with any stipulations in outline planning consent?
- Does the design take full account of the layout of the site and any issues such as seasonal flooding/erosion etc?
- Are initial surveys still valid in the light of the final design? John Wheatley College had to undertake further geotechnical surveys once the building footprint was known
- Does the layout of the site take account of all access considerations including pedestrian, bicycle, public transport, parking?
- Does the design take account of cleaning, maintenance and waste disposal considerations e.g. is it possible to clean the windows without blocking access routes?
- Have you considered the functions going on in each part of the building relative to one another in relation to considerations of noise, health and safety hazards, special security requirements etc?
- Have you considered the functions going on in each part of the building relative to one another in relation to sight-lines and issues of privacy and security?
- Have you considered the design in relation to your Business Continuity/Disaster Recovery plan to identify issues and/or opportunities?
- Have you thought enough about future changes? There may be a need to review your plans particularly where planning or other issues have caused a delay to the project e.g. a college planning to build a photographic darkroom found that the digital revolution overtook them whilst they were involved in a planning dispute