Designing a new educational building

When I catch the train from my local station (meant in the loosest sense, it’s still four miles and can take me 25 mins to get there) into Birmingham, I pass the new Walsall College building.  At the moment it looks less like a college, and more like a lego play set – precast concrete slots are being interlinked together.

It makes me wonder however what the new university building at EastSide will look like – and if we’ll make the same mistakes that were made at Perry Barr, and even at this early stage I can see are happening at Walsall College.

Firstly the Walsall college building has a huge number of windows.  This makes it light and airy… and also means that for most of the time that you are teaching in the classrooms you have to have blinds or curtains drawn to get a decent image on the PC projector.  This makes the general classroom light dark though – no wonder students fall asleep (though not in my sessions, honest!).

The college also has a horseshoe shaped design.  This makes sense on paper – maximum use of space and maximum light – see above.  But This also means that there will be a ‘light’ side and a ‘dark side’ to the building – and keeping the heating matched between these two sides is difficult.  Also think about directions and navigating your way around a building like this – you make one wrong turning when you get out the lift, and you have to backtrack all the way.

In theory, Perry Barr overcomes this with a rectangular building, and you should be able to go from any of the four sides to the other side – alas for security reasons many of the internal doors are locked, making for a maze which it took me six months to master.

The tic at Millennium Point, Birmingham has overcome both of these issues with style.  Teaching rooms are ‘internal’, and have no windows to worry about, and staff/meeting rooms are on the ‘outside’ of the building, providing some good views over a regenerating Birmingham.  I particularly like one room which I’ve had meetings in where you can see all of the trains approaching/leaving New Street station – it’s like having a huge, life-size train set.

But the tic, and the whole of MP suffers from a floor and room numbering system which makes no sense to anyone.  I have actually been with someone who had worked there for years, and got lost trying to find the meeting room.  Once there, and I asked where the toilets were he looked at me in despair, clearly there was no way I would find my way back to the room afterwards.

So, what is the ideal teaching building?  Let’s see what I like about my current building.

Firstly, it’s ‘zoned’ as well as it could be given the constraints.  Third floor PC labs and learning resources, with the technicians there to help.  Second floor for teaching rooms (and some staff roooms).  First floor is mostly staff rooms, admin and storage, with just a couple of small teaching rooms (which I like using, as I can pop to/from my office very easily if I’ve forgotten anything).

A teaching building should have a uniform structure, but have visual clues to ensure that you know you’re in the right place.  This is done well at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham which I’ve been to recently, three coloured zones, meaning I could find East 3A bay 6 without (almost) a step wrong.
Well, my train is now pulling into New Street station – I’d better fine a wi-fi zone and upload this rather rambling post.

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