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Today’s students expect more: Q&A with Architectus

We spoke to Architectus Principals, Marina Carroll and Diana Rosenthal, about meeting the needs of students today and the evolution of tertiary institutions.

Today’s students expect more: Q&A with Architectus

Macquarie University Ainsworth Building, photograph by Brett Boardman.

Diana Rosenthal: Universities across the country are telling us that students are seeking more structure around socialisation. Students have spent a number of recent years learning from home, either within Australia or overseas, with limited non-digital contact with their peers. They’re looking for activities and means to get together with other students. As a result, we’re seeing the re-emergence of societies and clubs to provide purpose to physically come together, as an important part of campus life.

The time-poor nature of students, balancing work and study commitments, and housing availability generally, means many students are being drawn back to campus living. We’re seeing a surge of domestic students living on campus. There’s an efficiency associated with being based on campus, where living, learning and oftentimes work is all within an immediate context. These elements, combined with being part of a community that has a level of curation and care around it, are extremely important to students today.

Marina Carroll: I agree with Diana. The old saying, ‘people attract people,’ still rings true, and it’s our role as the social engineers of spaces to bring people together. We’ve all seen the blurring of the lines between our work, social, home and learning lives. The best place to see this is on our campuses – living and learning and now industry is increasingly present, catapulting academic research into our communities.

We’re finding that students care about their environment more now than ever; they’re a lot more considered about the sorts of experiences they want to have on campus. They’re not just looking for spaces to learn, but a place to feel at home. There’s a reason that most of the university stays open for more than just 26 weeks a year and our job is so to enhance every moment. Universities are returning to the age of not just being academic institutions but our public institutions. They are the beating heart of their broader precincts.  

It’s so rewarding to be designing beautiful backdrops for some of the most formative experiences of their lives – from O Week, making friends in cafes and bars, breakthrough moments in the labs, all the way through to their graduation ceremony.

It’s also easier than ever to get a sense of what they’re looking for now. Today’s students love to document their lives on social media and that includes their life on campus. We’re flooded with amazing content from students enjoying the spaces we’ve designed, and it gives us a much deeper understanding of the spaces to which they gravitate, feel at home and enjoy.

Architectus - Today’s students expect more
Macquarie University Student Accommodation, basketball court, photograph by Richard Glover.

Hybrid work models are now commonplace. What changes are you seeing with tertiary institutions and how are spaces being designed to support greater flexibility in the workplace?

DR: The pandemic has proven that we can work, learn and, in many cases, teach from home or other third spaces. For the most part, gone are the days where we were tethered to a physical location in order to go about our days working and learning. It’s clear that a hybrid model is being supported, with many of our clients offering their people flexibility around their work styles, with a focus on what works best from social, collaborative, space utilisation and economical perspectives. 

We’ve noticed, in our work within the tertiary and other workplace sectors, a much more varied rhythm of work with staff wanting a wide variety of spaces to come together, socialise and collaborate as well as zones to concentrate. Spaces need to be flexible, agile and adaptable, sometimes on an immediate basis, to support varied workstyles, team dynamics and individual preferences. It’s resulting in a considered, modular approach to our planning and design, at both the macro and micro levels, so that the space offering can allow teams and individuals the ability to choose the right spaces to support the tasks to be carried out throughout the day, rather than be provided one space for all tasks. 

Flinders University CBD Campus Festival Plaza Tower, photograph by Shannon McGrath

MC: We’re seeing a confluence of three factors: technology enabling a more flexible way of working, an environmental responsibility demanding we minimise our carbon footprint and economic drivers challenging us to use space more efficiently. The result is new and more flexible workplaces.

The reality is that there’s still a need for dedicated workspaces – for example, wet or dry laboratories. But we’re now seeing an uptake of flexible work amongst professional and academic staff, which unlocks an even greater amount of space that wasn’t there previously. In the private sector, while single ownership offices still exist, we’re finding that they become shared resources for the team when they’re not being used by the occupant.

Space utilisation was previously a critical discussion for data nerds (like me) but it’s now part of the social and environmental agenda, creating thriving, engaging interactions, while minimising construction and our carbon footprint.

Architectus - Today’s students expect more
Macquarie University Student Accommodation, central staircase, photograph by Richard Glover.

There’s a big focus on achieving net-zero across the industry – what are some of the ways tertiary facilities can and are lowering their carbon footprint?

MC: Ultimately, we need to be building less and reusing more, and what we are building needs to be smarter. There are many ways we’re seeing that in the tertiary space. One is through the materials we use and prefabrication. There’s a natural efficiency with prefabricated materials, with added flow-on benefits for universities. For example, by maximising the amount of construction work that happens offsite and minimising what happens onsite, there are fewer disruptions to university life, along with the added environmental benefit of minimising wastage and improving the quality of the construction.

The power of really great adaptive reuse is that it can lead to significant carbon savings and some great design outcomes. We’ve done a number of studies for different universities that look at the staging of campus redevelopment. It’s like a game of chess – you can’t move anything without thinking ten steps ahead, and sometimes you need to sacrifice a Knight to take the Queen. We’re seeing this play out on campus and it leads to significant carbon savings and other unexpected benefits.

We’re also looking at where the energy is coming from for our buildings. We recently completed a project where we looked at decarbonising an entire campus to help achieve their net zero target by 2035. It was an exercise in urban design — almost like urban acupuncture where we had to find exact points on campus where these major energy hub interventions would both service the surrounding buildings, enabling them to be electrified while also contributing back to the character of the precincts. A lot of value-add spaces are piggy-backed onto these hubs including bike parking, all-gender amenities and end-of-trip and baby change facilities as well as a range of services that support the broader precinct.

Architectus - Today’s students expect more
Flinders University CBD Campus Festival Plaza Tower, photograph by Shannon McGrath.

DR: Buildings and spaces with good bones are being reused, repurposed and reimagined through dramatic transformations from old-to-new, while new buildings are being assessed for their future-proofed ability to flex and adapt. It’s important that we are also designing our new buildings with good bones and consideration of the long life they will have well beyond opening day. 

Existing spaces are being considered through the lens of optimising existing assets while reducing cost, carbon and waste. We’re seeing increased interest in interdisciplinary, mixed-use learning, teaching and research space, innovative ways to bring flexibility to old spaces, an increase in transforming formal to informal spaces, multi-purpose circulation and peer-to-peer learning spaces.

Something what we love is a boring old large-scale tiered didactic lecture theatre. From a refurbishment perspective, but also due to pedagogical changes across the way our clients are working, teaching and learning in the tertiary sector, we’re regularly seeing these spaces becoming redundant and there’s just so much potential there. These are often large and prominently positioned spaces on the campus and are the perfect candidates for transformation into flat floor or tiered collaborative spaces and other non-formal social or student support spaces too.


Architectus - Today’s students expect more
Flinders University CBD Campus Festival Plaza Tower, photograph by Shannon McGrath.
University of Adelaide HDR Hub, North Terrace Campus, photograph by Aaron Citti.
Macquarie University Ainsworth Building, photograph by Brett Boardman.

More ideas on eduction design in this comment piece by Hayball’s Dr Fiona Young

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