The scary element of being involved in the design process is that we are not building designers and we are not architects. (academic)

We are trying to encourage academics to make their case through research and data analysis, to make a compelling argument, to bring evidence to the table. (manager)

Unlike an estates team, most users and many university teams will be unfamiliar with building projects, perhaps finding the process unclear, the language confusing and their role as client ambiguous. These participants may feel they’re entering a whole new learning arena. To alleviate the anxiety caused by confusion and uncertainty, some may feel a desire to put more and more control mechanisms in place – more consultation, more meetings, more decision-making processes, more reporting systems and so on. Our knowledge of the conditions that support effective learning suggests another approach. There is growing consensus that new content becomes more meaningful if we can relate it to familiar information, learn it in context and engage with it both actively and reflectively. Finding out what participants already know and asking them to make connections to new concepts is how real learning begins. Yet, there is also evidence that prior knowledge is personal, complex and highly resistant to change. We therefore shouldn’t be surprised when projects introducing the possibility of different types and ways of using space are not always met with widespread enthusiasm.

Many of our case studies have found effective ways of addressing these issues, including paying attention to wide stakeholder involvement and making sure that plenty of time is made available to stakeholders involved in the early stages of idea generation. One of the most effective tools of engagement is campus walkabouts by academics, estates and project team to look at how academics teach and use space. Students are an important voice, yet they are a transient community and often feel uncertain of their abilities to fully contribute to debates and discussions about new academic spaces. Site visits to other institutions and organisations work also well in stimulating dialogue.

We found mixed evidence of good post-project practice. One project manager attributes disappointing use of a new learning space to the lack of a supporting service model to assist students who want to work in the space: I think this is where we fundamentally fell down as there is no managerial or operational support for the space. The user group just thought the building was going to manage and operate itself. By contrast, much of the success of another learning space is attributed to the fact that students are engaged in the running and management of the space, creating a very real sense of student-centredness and ownership.

Institutions may find it helpful to identify a number of project stages and address each one differently:

  • getting started
  • finding our way
  • preparing for arrival
  • settling in.

Getting started

This stage is about articulating dreams, identifying needs, sharing hopes and concerns. It is also about tolerating uncertainties, managing varying degrees of trust and accepting disagreement. For engaged participants, this stage can provide revealing insights around helpful (and unhelpful) patterns of working and decision-making, thereby offering clues for how best to work together. The challenge is to strive towards specificity while maintaining an openness and curiosity about what the future might offer.

Finding our way

Here, attention shifts towards articulating emerging values and needs in order to better elaborate project vision and principles. This process involves normalising conflicts and working towards mutual understanding. It is about appreciating what is and isn’t negotiable, agreeing good decision-making processes, taking responsibility for actions and maintaining inclusive practice. Differing needs around pace and speed often become an issue and skillful management may be required to ensure smooth project progress. The challenge is to keep the show on the road and the destination in sight.

Preparing for change

The differences between thinkers and doers often become most evident here – those who may want to continue to explore possibilities and those who may now want to just get on with whatever needs to be done. The focus needs to be on highlighting the strengths of everyone involved and allocating responsibilities and tasks accordingly. The challenge is to promote constructive conversations that keep everyone informed and involved as the destination looms large – and to manage the anxieties some participants may have about the future now emerging more clearly.

Settling in

The building project has been delivered and it’s time to celebrate achievement and organise good endings. And beginnings, because, for the users, the bigger project now starts – their future in their new space. This stage is therefore primarily about creating inspiring new beginnings. It is about living through transition, experimenting with new ways of working and appreciating the stresses of change. The challenge is to maintain sufficient energy to ensure the project vision is implemented in practice. Having arrived, it is all too easy to now run out of steam…..