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Universities are expanding. Do you have the jellybeans to win the work?

Paul Finch
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Remodelling buildings for the new digital age could have profound architectural consequences, says Paul Finch

Mansueto library

Mansueto library

Source: ‘Joe and Rika Mansueto Library - University of Chicago’ BY DAVID, USED UNDER LICENSE CC BY 2.0

Helmut Jahn’s Mansueto Library (pictured) at the University of Chicago contains no books in the main space. It is an example of how higher education is changing, which was the theme of the 25th annual conference of the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE), held in Liverpool last month.

What happens in the library is that students bring in their own technology, plug in and connect to a robotic storage and retrieval system that processes the university’s 3.5 million books. These are organised in floor-to-ceiling stacks accessed by robotic cranes, which can deliver books, or boxes of them, to students in a matter of minutes. The system is said to have enough storage capacity for a further 20 years of acquisitions, suggesting the book itself – literally and metaphorically – still has shelf life.

Expansion is also envisaged for our higher education system, already a significant contributor to the national economy with £73 billion of annual output and 750,000 jobs generated – about 2.7 per cent of all UK employment. The value of the total estate runs into tens of billions, which of course is a double-edged sword: on the one hand it is a magnificent asset; on the other it is a significant liability in terms of the repair and maintenance work required. There used to be a rule of thumb that the appropriate amount to spend on this annually was 1-1.5 per cent of insured replacement value, though these days it is more likely to be calculated as a percentage of turnover.

Today’s students will be replaced by ‘digital dependants’, who have had smartphones since childhood and operate naturally in the world of social media

This makes sense because it relates to the potential cash flow that may be generated from the estate itself. That in turn raises the question of how architecture can assist in this task, not just in relation to new buildings, which by definition will represent a small percentage of existing stock, but regarding the existing stock itself. Are those residential blocks suitable for conference delegates? Do the lecture theatres and general circulation work well for public or sponsored events? The answer is: not necessarily, but as conference speaker Stephen Hodder showed, remodelling buildings by a great architect like Jacobsen to better suit today’s requirements can be done beautifully and with respect. 

The AUDE conference report, ‘Jellybean Learning – the future of the university campus’ sees learning at the confluence of technology, place and people; it regards the university campus of the future as a hybridised version of eight so-called ‘jellybeans’ it sees working in various combinations: Learn, Research, Engage, Teach, Analyse, Work, Partner and Smart (as is apparently fashionable, nouns, verbs and adjectives happily intermingle). The combinations are necessary because of generational change: today’s students are described as ‘digital natives’, who have grown up with the internet but may remember life before it. They will be replaced by ‘digital dependants’, who have had smartphones since childhood and operate naturally in the world of social media. Teachers are largely ‘digital migrants’ – the sort of people who print out emails.

As ever, the relationship between teachers and taught in the new digital world will have architectural consequences, as will the growing concept of the ‘massive online open course’ (MOOC), a super-expanded version of the Open University. So will the increasing role of 3D fabrication – look at the transformation of the Bartlett school, not just in its transformed premises in central London, but also in its adapted Olympic broadcast buildings in Stratford (both by Hawkins\Brown).

For estate directors, the message is to blur boundaries in respect of demographics, technology, physical space, partner organisations, data analysis, business co-location, smart buildings, campus and non-campus. They will need to be every bit as open to change as architects working in this important field.

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