Site Lines – Serving student wellbeing needs

Students in the 21st century face a wide range of health and wellbeing challenges as well as technological demands. James Allison of architects Bennetts Associates discusses an example of thoughtful improvement of student wellbeing facilities for Cambridge University

In the digital age, where a wealth of information can be accessed at the click of a button, established higher education institutions are facing a challenge to adapt and to redefine their role, and the value they offer students. Change in universities is being driven by rapid technological advancements and by the expectations of modern graduates who require skills to ensure they are prepared for the world of work in the 21st Century. As pressure on students and institutions increases, investment in human-centred spaces is key to cater for these changing behaviours and to promote social connection, diversity and wellbeing among university communities.

Earlier this year, Bennetts Associates delivered the new Student Services Centre for the University of Cambridge. The project comprises refurbishment of the Grade II listed Arts School with construction of a new interlinked building. It is situated in the historic heart of Cambridge on the New Museums Site, which holds many of the university’s science buildings, and has been transformed following the demolition of redundant buildings.

The project has also created a series of courtyards and pedestrian routes through a previously inaccessible and neglected part of the city centre. These new spaces offer a natural setting in which students and staff can spend time away from their work.

The Student Services Centre aims to significantly improve student welfare by co-locating seven student support services from across the city into a single, easily accessible address. The project provides highly flexible teaching spaces – a priority for the world-class institution – and has been designed to meet the changing needs of the students. It offers numerous benefits for the relocated departments in terms of operational efficiency by sharing facilities and increased productivity, through the provision of spaces to encourage collaborative ways of working.

Adapting to new working practices and student requirements is important when considering how universities distinguish their brand and offer in an increasingly competitive market. Many institutions are evolving by offering shorter courses to provide top up skills or the opportunity to re-train. Flexible learning experiences allow for customised, on-demand education and places to nurture collaboration, innovation and entrepreneurship. The Student Services Centre marks a strong commitment to providing the best possible quality of services. It is a modern building conceived specifically with the evolving requirements of the university and building users in mind, offering students and staff a tailored environment.

The variety of new and refurbished spaces within the building responds by providing opportunity for learning, collaboration and interaction. Shared spaces for staff and students, including breakout areas and tea points, are purposely situated near activity and adjacent circulation routes. Students have access to information and social contact through a range of visual displays, self-service areas and face-to-face consultations – including informal drop in sessions, scheduled appointments, seminars and lectures.

Offsetting the requirement for active, public spaces, the building also provides a number of secluded, private spaces necessary for quiet working and confidential interaction. The University Counselling Service, situated on the top floor of the new wing offers counselling and mental health support for students and staff, and therefore requires a private environment in which to welcome visitors.

This was achieved by locating the service away from areas of activity and creating an independent entrance off primary circulation routes. Visitors can arrive and depart discreetly, without having to encounter public spaces on their way through the building.

The quality of the internal environment within the building is key to promoting student wellbeing and the quality of support they receive. Spaces such as the central atrium in the new wing or the main reception in the Arts School offer comfortable environments with good access to daylight and views out to the landscaped areas. The building is highly accessible and inviting through the sensitive selection of materials for building elements and application of colour and fabrics to furniture and fittings.

In future, to ensure longevity and whole life efficiency of their buildings, it is likely that universities will require increasingly robust and adaptable facilities. The selection of durable, sustainable materials will be key in allowing for flexibility and change to meet future higher education requirements. The design of the Student Services Centre seeks to address this through the construction of a durable insitu concrete frame, designed to provide column-free open plan offices and spaces for exams, which are adaptable to different layouts and changing needs. In the next few years, in order to facilitate the changing nature of education, students are likely to require access to up-to-date and integrated technologies within buildings, together with a mix of flexible study spaces.

Our work on the Student Services Centre began with an extensive briefing and consultation process, with each of the seven University services taking space in the building. This was fundamental in understanding operational requirements of the staff and the key university stakeholders, but also crucially informed our thoughts on how the building could respond to the changing requirements of the students.

We hope that through the variety and arrangement of spaces created within the building, students will feel socially connected with their peers; have access to a diverse learning community and be able to preserve their physical and mental wellbeing while making the most of their university experience.

James Allison is associate director at Bennetts Associates