Answering the call for adaptable further education facilities


Andrew Baker of Rio Architects looks at how further education providers are calling for adaptability in their buildings, and how designers can offer unified, coherent and practical facilities for student, giving a recent Welsh example

Ongoing reforms in post-16 education in Wales and the wider UK are placing increasing pressures on colleges and the environments within which they teach. Welsh Government Ministerial priorities seek to provide a Further Education (FE) system that responds to the continually changing needs of the local industry and economic landscape, while also serving the rapidly evolving learning preferences of students. The demands on the curriculum can alter dramatically within a short period of time, giving college leadership teams the challenge of how to prepare a suitable learning environment which meets the specific needs within each academic year.

The adaptability of college estates and facilities is key to overcoming these challenges and is a primary element of a good project brief for any new build or refurbishment scheme.

During the early briefing stages of the 8500 m2 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) Academy development for Bridgend College at their Pencoed campus in South Wales, the discussions were very much focused on how to create coherent, harmonious, and inspiring design solutions that delivered cost effectiveness through spatial efficiency while also addressing the need to create spaces that could ‘morph’ in response to changing curriculum requirements.

The answer to the puzzle was multifaceted. In order to create more flexibility around the size of spaces, folding screens and partitions were reviewed and considered, but these can be costly and don’t always address the fundamental issues. The solutions lie in basic principles of design; the range, layout, configuration and sizes of spaces and how these spaces are linked to one another.

Alongside specialist teaching spaces and workshops such as Mechanical Engineering, or Vehicle Engineering at the STEAM Academy, which have extremely specific and unique requirements, there are general teaching and study spaces of varying shapes and sizes, some of which are enclosed and some are open areas adjacent to the common circulation areas. This range and combination of spaces can together cater to a changing curriculum more effectively and efficiently than the more traditional approach of providing a repetitive single classroom typology.

Formal and informal teaching and study spaces appropriately accommodate class sizes or groups ranging from eight to 60. They are conveniently located to adequately support the specialist teaching workshops and can be easily shared between different departments through cross-curriculum timetabling to improve the utilisation factor. These spaces also work alongside one another to cater more flexibly for ‘exploratory learning’ techniques. Students can utilise quiet but accessible study areas throughout the building for all manner of educational needs including group exercises, impromptu discussions or meetings, one-to-one tuition, practice, display and exhibition. This approach to building design and configuration has also created a more animated and collaborative environment where greater connections between academic disciplines are made.

In their fight to reduce running costs, FE institutions are looking to ensure that their estates are efficient and that ‘space utilisation’ is high. Adaptability, flexibility, and good space utilisation go hand in hand. The more that spaces can be used for a range of activities, the greater their employment in meeting the needs of the curriculum more effectively. At the STEAM Academy, social spaces blend into study spaces and informal teaching spaces thus creating much greater efficiency and space utilisation as well as providing for greater flexibility and adaptability.

IT also plays a significant role in the ability to adapt spaces for alternative uses. Advances in IT including new WiFi speeds, data access, portable equipment and systems mean that teaching spaces are less reliant on fixed infrastructure. Once-fundamental demands on the core teaching/learning spaces are now largely irrelevant, and all but the highly technical subjects can be provided for within simply modified rooms.

Inevitably, curriculum changes or fluctuations in demand may require more significant and unforeseen changes to the fabric of a building during its lifetime. The intention with the design proposals at STEAM was to enable any such alterations to be carried out easily, expediently and cost-effectively. In response to this, a number of strategic decisions were made during the early concept stages of the project.

Lightweight partitions within an exposed concrete frame structure allow walls to be removed or moved, if necessary, more easily. The natural fire integrity in the concrete (as opposed to steel) means that plasterboard fire protection is not necessary, and therefore not compromised by any modifications.

Other measures incorporated in the design strategy which look to reduce the complexity and cost implications of future adaptation works include:

  • Omission of ceiling finishes in all but a few areas, which also follows the architectural strategy for an industrial aesthetic.
  • Development of the fire strategy to limit fire-rated walls and the complexity of their arrangement within the layout.
  • ‘Breathing building’ units serving individual rooms and spaces, greatly simplifying the ventilation, heating and cooling strategy, whilst allowing modifications to be made to small areas of the building without affecting the whole.
  • The positioning of the building on the site and the configuration of rooms ensure that the building can be extended in the future if necessary, and additional space created for the curriculum areas understood to be most likely to grow, without affecting other areas of the building.
  • Robust finishes throughout ensuring that all spaces are suitable to accommodate a much greater range of activities.

Planning facilities that are truly flexible and adaptable can create significant challenges when developing other elements of the design such as the fire and acoustic strategies, although a concrete frame certainly helps in this respect. At the STEAM Academy, providing open and flexible environments with unimpeded visual and physical connections between spaces – particularly around noisy workshops – led to less conventional measures to control noise pollution and ensure fire safety. For example, in some instances rather than relying on a single wall to interrupt noise transfer, instead a series of interventions were employed which included mobile screening at the activity source, static baffling on walls and ceilings to limit reverberation, and sound absorbing surface finishes. In addition, the most acoustically sensitive spaces were situated away from the more resonant activities.

Designing for adaptability requires subtle and considered decision-making through early and informative collaboration between the design and client teams. Solutions which enhance flexibility may impact other client goals or stakeholder requirements for the building and inevitably call for compromise.

Bridgend College understood and embraced from the start of the project that they were creating something new that would lead staff and students away from the teaching and learning culture that they had become accustomed to. They were prepared to explore this alternative approach and ultimately, in doing so they now have a high-quality facility which is ready for future changes, but is also a highly efficient, collaborative, inclusive and inspiring place and has received extremely positive feedback from the occupants of the new building.

Andrew Baker is director at Rio Architects