When I was told I was going to work on the Culture Lab, I was expecting something that had bunsen burners and test tubes, a traditional lab. I think part of the problem we initially had as a design team, was that we couldn’t understand what our client specifically wanted to use the space for. (project manager)

Because of the complexity of groups making up the educational client, the question often posed is value for who? Relocating a department or institution, based on a client brief that reinforces the status quo, may result in very little change at very high cost. On the other hand, simply changing the rules of space allocation (e.g. reassigning underused ‘owned’ space for open-access cross-disciplinary collaboration) may result in radical academic and/or organisational change at very little cost.

Over the past ten years, one of the institutions reviewed has been developing social learning space throughout its large and distributed campus. Designed to actively encourage collaboration between students, these spaces are wi-fi enabled and furnished with comfortable, moveable furniture to be organised by students in ways that fit with their particular learning activities. Initially introduced to supplement the small amount of heavily oversubscribed, informal social learning space available in the library, these independent study spaces now encapsulate the ethos of connecting teaching and research that pervades the university.

Institutions might like to consider value for money in terms of the project costs involved and the benefits for desired academic and/or organisational change, when deciding the level of intervention required:

  • manage differently
  • rationalise
  • extend
  • build
  • relocate.

Manage differently

There is generally considerable scope for allocating and managing space differently. The ingredients necessary to make this happen are data (activity patterns and space use), imagination (what could it be like) and courage (let’s give it a go). For example, one institution had identified a shortage of bookable rooms. Timetabling data revealed that the institution was working on four available slots per day. Increasing the number of slots to six per day in effect gave the institution 50% more bookable rooms – at no extra cost.


This is about bringing similar types of activities together where it makes sense to do so. For example, clustering teaching rooms enables more efficient monitoring of central timetabling, while also allowing for ad-hoc use whereby users, gaining a tacit knowledge of room-booking patterns, know when rooms are likely to be available on a drop-in basis. Bringing workshops or labs together to share an environmental services infrastructure that supports long-term flexibility and change can enable subject disciplines to evolve and change more easily over time.


As well as providing additional space, extending an existing building can also inject new life into poorly performing existing space. One institution covered in an under-utilised court-yard to provide a focal point for informal learning and uncovered many benefits for surrounding spaces too. Another institution built new lab space to replace existing lab space struggling to meet modern-day requirements, thereby allowing the space vacated to be remodeled for more generic office space use which it could accommodate with ease.


The opportunity of a new building, or buildings, can be used to extend the benefits beyond the intended users, to include institution-wide benefits in terms of campus enhancement and master-planning goals. Indeed, some institutions go for even bigger impact, such as becoming a central player in the revival and regeneration of its surroundings.


This is usually a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all those involved and tends to generate equal measures of both excitement and apprehension. The challenge is to manage the tension that can arise between the opportunity to really do things differently and the logistics of actually achieving this while keeping everything functioning.