The Diamond, Sheffield University’s £81 million pound learning and teaching complex, manages to be both jaw-dropping and functional. Once you go up to the building’s first floor and through the ‘secure line’, you enter this huge, light space full of columns and spirals and circles. It’s very light, as most of the surfaces are white, and there are glass panels and windows everywhere, meaning you only have to look around to be reminded of the scale of the building you’re in. As you walk around you realise everything feels well thought out, solidly built and clean.
Sheffield University has successfully created a building that students respect and enjoy using. I think the two biggest testaments to how well it works are the low level of policing required, and the fact that students are already complaining that there’s not enough space!
Focus on students’ needs
One of the building’s key designers, René Meijer, talked to us about the novel idea of not just considering students’ needs in the design process, but of collecting evidence of what those needs were and how best to meet them.
He explained that people can only articulate part of what they need; students constantly said they wanted desk spaces that had power sockets, and were free from distractions (i.e. private and quiet), but they wouldn’t think to add that their ideal desk also had good light, a bit of a view, enough space to spread out books and papers, and wifi. These things were interpreted from observing which spaces in the Information Commons (the university’s horrendously over-subscribed library) were in highest demand, and how students reacted to the sample pieces of furniture brought in for trialling.
René’s presentation explained that even on degrees with high contact hours, only a small part of students’ learning happens in a classroom, so it’s vital to create spaces that facilitate the rest of that learning. However, when you provide a pleasant learning environment, more students want to use it, instead of, for example, their bedroom or a coffee shop. So the Diamond has actually created demand… No one reading this will be surprised to hear you can’t satisfy student demand.
Respecting the space
The Diamond doesn’t often have problems with litter, noise or space-hogging, which René attributes to the simple fact that it looks nice and feels new. If people perceive that a space has not been mistreated by others, they are subconsciously less likely to mistreat it.
Staff have also found that being relaxed rather than prescriptive about touchy subjects such as eating food or chatting, has had positive results. Hot food is not allowed, mainly because of the smell, but otherwise students can eat and drink. There are vending machines on each floor, because, as René said, you wouldn’t expect someone in an office to work at their desk for hours without a drink or a snack, so why would students be able to do that?
Instead, Sheffield encourages self-policing by throwing rules back to students as questions, such as, “Is it ever ok to use your belongings to hold onto a study space?” This helps to remind students that they are responsible for the state of the building; it’s not just up to staff to enforce rules.
So, where are the books?
There are only two book collections in the Diamond: the ‘Library Connect’ section on the ground floor, which is mainly a reservation pick up and book return point, and a collection of reference books on the fourth floor, containing multiple copies of the newest editions of legal, medical and other key textbooks. It’s not a coincidence that this collection is as far from the exit as possible; René explained that the students who invest effort in getting to the higher floors usually want to spend longer there, so there are more individual and quiet study spaces. Books wander off less if they are already in the sort of space where people want to use them.
There is also a set of enquiry desks on the fourth floor, where librarians can work, while also being available to help. They are still adjusting the balance to make the space feel open, to encourage students to approach staff and ask questions, yet also sheltered so that they feel comfortable having an in-depth discussion.
The visit provided a fantastic insight into how learning spaces can be designed. I heard (and made) plenty of appreciative ‘ooohs’ and fascinated ‘aaaahs’ on our tour, and René’s presentation showed us that those cool bits were, in fact, even cooler than we’d first thought, because of the reasoning behind them.