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Designing a Modern Learning Space

Expectations in education have changed over the years, and educational buildings are no exception. The environmental requirements of new builds continues to increase year on year; expanding educational opportunities mean campuses require new facilities and improved learning spaces; and ever changing technologies mean everything that is built for today must also be prepared for what new technology might come along tomorrow. For South West College, and the architects working with them, all these things had to be embraced when designing the new Erne Campus.

Leading the way in Environmental Construction.

South West College has always sought to be at the forefront of environmental construction. The CREST centre at South West College, Enniskillen, is the Centre for Renewable Energy & Sustainable Technologies, and provides assistance for businesses in the renewable energy, sustainability, environmental and construction industries.  It is one of the most sustainable buildings in the UK and Ireland.

Now, the Erne Campus will see the delivery of the first educational building worldwide to achieve the highest international standard in environmental constructions (PassivHaus Premium), ranking it alongside prestigious buildings such as the Apple Campus 2, in terms of sustainable innovation and design.

Peter Carr is a senior architect at Hamilton Architects, who are the ICT architects on the Erne project. He has spent several years helping bring South West College’s vision to fruition, and he explains that environmentally conscious construction was a major factor from the start.

“There are three main elements that went in to producing the original design. Firstly of course you have the requirements of the college and what they want from the building; secondly you have the features and practicalities of the site that was chosen; and thirdly you have the crucial element of the environmental requirements, which was a very important aspect for South West College.

“These three elements can be summed up by the curved glazed atrium at the front of the building. It’s a great design feature, because it gives the building an iconic look from the town of Enniskillen. However, it’s also a crucial environmental feature, because it captures so much solar gain. That’s been a crucial part of the design process of the building from the very beginning.”

As a learning space, flexibility is key.

This environmental consciousness has been a vital part of the design process, but the Erne Campus is of course first and foremost a place for education.

Peter says, “In terms of planning for education we were very much led by the college themselves. They encouraged us to look at modern examples of flexible learning spaces, something which is becoming more and more common.

“A lot of it comes down to the furniture in the rooms, and having desks that could be used in multiple configurations, allowing for group learning and individual study. Technology wise you’re talking about large touchscreens and pupils having access to computers and laptops. The college, as the client, was very proactive in providing us with case studies from other projects they’d seen and other universities.”

With constant developments in technology, in both education and construction, designing a modern building that will still be modern in ten years’ time, isn’t necessarily straightforward. Peter emphasises that when you’re trying to do so, flexibility is very much the key word.

“One of the difficulties with these projects is the long periods they take from design to final use. But longevity is always something we have in mind. Flexibility is always something a client wants and always something we try and build in to our projects as much as possible. As such a lot of the internal walls in the building are lightweight studwork, so there is the possibility that certain rooms could be reorganised in the years to come.

“Technologies are always advancing, but the college are well placed to know about this, and we’ve been able to take a lead from them in certain scenarios. They know, like we do, that the key to being ready for any change in technology is to not create too many layouts that are confined to one set purpose. You don’t want spaces that are only fit for the technologies we have now. Flexibility is the key.”

Follow Architectural Principles and Your Building Will Stay Modern

Another architect heavily involved with the project is Karl Pederson. Karl is from Mullarkey Pederson Architects, and their role, as part of the IST team, is to act as architects for the main contactors, Tracey Brothers. He agrees that allowing for a flexible environment is crucial, and insists that creating a modern learning space doesn’t mean tearing up the rule book of what came before.

“I don’t think it’s a case of breaking a pattern. I think it’s a case of letting a pattern evolve with the natural way that people learn and understand.

“The key to teaching is communication. Nowadays we communicate differently. Things that were once on a paper format are now digital, and as such we can communicate with people all over the world. When we work with further education facilities, and we think about future building, that’s always something they want: a worldwide classroom. So that’s something we’re working towards with South West College.”

When it comes to designing a building that will last for the future, inevitable developments in technology don’t concern Karl. Instead he simply says that a building must be designed in a way that will embrace these changes when they come.

“You can prepare all you want in terms of future-proofing, but I think there’s a natural evolution with technology and how people use it. People were trying to future proof things fifteen years ago, but technology that was new then is antiquated now. Younger generations have no apprehension about technology. They expect the latest thing to be everywhere, they expect to have information and communication at their fingertips. A classroom shouldn’t be any different.”

“If the building communicates with people it will continually stay modern, so that’s what we have to ensure. To do this we have to think about the way spaces are going to be used, how people are going to interact with them, how they’re going to work with light and colour and textures. But these are all things I would consider architectural principles, and if you guide your design process with architectural principles then you’ll always end up with a modern building.”

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