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Design a key driver for positive student experience

Tertiary education is fast becoming the norm for a new generation of Australian and international students. As the sector continues to grow, we look at the key role of design in determining the quality of the student experience within Australian universities.

Around Australia, over one million students are currently enrolled in university. A significant chunk of our population is working toward tertiary qualification in institutions around the country, with this chunk expected to expand in line with migration and projected growth of the 18-24 year old population in coming years. As a nation, we are more educated than ever: according to the ABC, in 2011 36 per cent of the Australian population had tertiary qualifications, in comparison with just two per cent in 1971. Thanks to a comprehensive student loan scheme and shift away from skilled labour as the backbone of the nation’s GDP clout and a move instead towards strengthening the nation’s performance in the global commercial services arena, university has become not only more accessible but also necessary to increasing numbers of individuals seeking to establish a strong foothold for themselves in our nation’s future.

Thanks to their growing popularity, universities have become important proving grounds for a generation who are spending some of their most formative years on campus. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of campus environments in shaping the student experience and helping all students to adequately develop and reach their full potential. While teaching staff, teaching curricula, and support programs all play significant parts, design cannot be overlooked as a central driver of the campus experience. Architecture, interior design, and even the master planning of a campus itself are all critical in creating environments that foster learning, creativity, and knowledge building.

The Growing Influence of Design


The link between workplace design and levels of productivity, stress, and the health of employees has long been established. For example, studies have shown that poor acoustic design can induce stress, increased perception of fatigue and work pressure, and emotional exhaustion and burnout in employees, while further research draws a direct link between poor acoustical attenuation and declining worker productivity.

In response, the A+D sector has invested time and effort into pulling office design closer in line with the needs of today’s workplace. Following careful evaluation of prevailing office culture and work preferences, the office sector has undergone a massive overhaul that has seen cubicles replaced with collaborative work stations, one-size-fits-all approaches to furniture specification traded in for a developed understanding of ergonomics, and the bullpen superseded by an open plan.

Now, this innovative way of thinking is making its way across the commercial sector and seeping into the design of education spaces. In line with shifting pedagogies and an understanding of the unique benefits of collaborative learning, tertiary institutions are increasingly employing open plans and adapting to adaptability. Responding to the dawning realisation that different disciplines – and individual students – require different learning environments, furniture and fitout are being used to provide flexible learning spaces that are a marked departure from the educational spaces of the past.

For students living on campus, the education space is comprised of two distinct spheres: the lecture room and the student home. Two very different but nonetheless complimentary environments, these need to be carefully designed to provide students with not only the best possible learning experience, but also the best possible university experience in a general sense. Both environments must contribute to enhancing learning capacity, boosting creativity, and providing a space for young minds to grow.

…But What Makes a Home Away from Home?

In 2015, planning consultancy Urbis reported in their publication ‘Australian Student Accommodation Indicators’ that the number of international students arrivals in Australia will grow by a record 9 per cent each year between 2015 and 2019. This influx of international arrivals comes in tandem with the fact that many Australian students are choosing to live away from home when studying, mirroring trends in the US and the UK. As a consequence, unprecedented demand in student accommodation has led to the rapid rise of multi-residential apartment blocks designated solely for tertiary student occupation in major metropolitan centres – but this quantity does not necessarily mean quality.

In a residential sub-sector where time, cost, and maximum capacity form a triplicate bottom line, the quality of indoor spaces often suffers as a result of poor workmanship, cheap products, and design that seeks simply to squeeze out as much as possible from a floor plate. The challenge for designers becomes one of designing student accommodation that is simultaneously functional, cost-efficient, and conducive to a happy, healthy place to live.

Richard Middleton Architects encountered such a challenge when designing the Bundoora West Student Accommodation Project at RMIT’s Bundoora West campus in Victoria. Defying popular convention that dictates that student housing need simply be as dense as possible, the project instead sets its sights on community, sustainability, and amenity. At every scale, design elements are carefully considered for their potential to impact the experience of student residents.

Named Walert House for the Indigenous Wurundjeri term for possum – of which there are many onsite – the student housing project provides 370 beds for students and researchers. Three wings of accommodation converge in a twisted cruciform plan, at the core of which is six levels of communal space for study and recreation. Understanding that universities embody major concentrations of social, economic, intellectual and communicative resources, designers find themselves uniquely placed to ensure that the physical and material elements of the university experience actively contribute to creating communities to allow for this sharing and knowledge transference en masse.

“Student housing is all about creating successful communities,” says Richard Middleton, Principal of Richard Middleton Architects, “Often people are isolated there. They’ve moved from overseas or from [the] country.” To combat this isolation and welcome students to campus and university life, Walert House grounds itself in a strong sense of place, using sight lines to outdoors and an open plan to encourage occupants to engage with the environment and with one another.

A strong sense of a ‘home away from home’ is conveyed by the interiors, which make strong visual references to residential typologies. Full-height glazing is framed with natural timber, and sofa beds and soft furnishings are strewn invitingly throughout community spaces. To tie the project to the warmth of home, the architects chose to use Tretford® carpet tile throughout the project. Soft underfoot and a favourite in homes and commercial spaces for over 40 years, the tiles combine hypoallergenic, cashmere-grade Mongolian goat hair with Irish manufacturing to balance functionality, style, and durability.

“I’ve always loved Tretford. […] It’s a bit of a personal thing but I’ve always known that it is a highly durable product. It’s funny that so many people have picked up on this product… it’s made from Mongolian goat’s wool and it’s woven in Ireland. This particular product has been around for a long time. Had it in my bedroom as a child. It’s just one of those products that’s a bit of a classic out there, that designers choose, and a lot of people choose them because they know that they last quite well.” – Richard Middleton.

The extremely durable carpet – supplied throughout Australia thanks to Gibbon Group –  will contribute to a high level of indoor air quality within Walert House for many years, reducing airborne dust and allergens while providing acoustic and thermal insulation. As a sustainable, natural fibre, goat hair is breathable, free from toxic chemicals, and can be expected to perform at a high level for an extended lifespan, making it a perfect fit for Walert House.

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