As the new La Trobe University Student Hub designed by Harmer Architecture reveals, there is a new culture of learning in the built environment. Under new pressures to deliver to increased student numbers and innovative student amenities, La Trobe University's Student Hub proves that education across Australia remains one of the most exciting for contemporary design. We caught up with Philip Harmer, director of Harmer Architecture, to discuss where the future of design in education is heading.
In recent years, design in the education sector has changed almost beyond recognition. Drawing influence from comparable changes in other sectors (especially the commercial space), what in your opinion are some of the driving influences transforming education environments today?
Universities now compete actively for student enrolments like any commercial organisation that seeks to achieve a market share and increase revenue.
But in order to attract more students, universities are pursuing ways to improve the on campus environment and create spaces in which both staff and students can interact socially and academically.
Learning is increasingly based on online resources and these new on campus environments therefore need to be engaging public spaces with a sense of on campus collegiate camaraderie.
In your opinion, does your recent project with La Trobe University respond to these influences?
The new Student Hub at the Bundoora campus of La Trobe University is part of the new Western Gateway project, which enhances one of the main arrival points for students, staff and visitors. Spaces in the HUB allow for students to wait for the bus in the transit lounge whilst the main open area or break out zone is for studying, meeting friends or just hanging out and having coffee or lunch.
An adjacent more private space connected to the HUB is devoted to peer assessment of academic work and for course guidance.
Our design responds to these social dynamics by creating varied seating and table/ bench arrangements to allow for individual privacy, small groups or larger gatherings.
The colours and materials create a sense of fun and hospitality rather than a heavy academic atmosphere and the design is therefore student-focused rather than institutional in expression.
The multifunctional aspects of the La Trobe Student HUB clearly respond to the many and varied demands of students and staff today. However, could you tell us a little bit about the beginning conversations surrounding its design?
Conversations with the various stakeholders centred initially on the low budget and planned limited life of the project so that our design could focus largely on materials and furniture that could be re-used and relocated in the future.
The main determining factor was to make the space more attractive to visitors and students and to remove the cafeteria-like environment that previously existed.
Simple measures like acoustic treatments, comfortable chairs and outlets for charging devices were also suggested by us and adopted by the university in order to create a radically improved space.
Striking a balance between breakout zone, development centre and transit lounge, the HUB also caters to other aspects of the learning experience (including collaborative and individual work). What kind of design decisions had to be made to ensure you could strike a balance between so many different types of student demand?
The three main spaces in the HUB, the break out zone, development centre and transit lounge were each delineated with a colour board story of their own and materials were selected to respond to the varied uses that occur. For example, high back chairs in the development centre create a sense of privacy and acoustic separation for students seeking advice about their progress (or lack of).
By contrast in the breakout zone, tougher finishes like solid timber and PVC fabric on chairs were chosen for the rough and tumble of students for whom putting their feet up on furniture or spilling food and drinks is quite normal.
With respect to the furniture specified in the space, what kinds of design requirements determined the selection of furnishings?
The design requirements for furniture were for a variety of options to avoid uniformity. Furniture needed to be robust, preferably not movable, easily cleaned and relocatable in the future.
Given that the Hub is a space that caters to so many different demands simultaneously, acoustics presents a distinct problem. How did you alleviate acoustical challenges in the space?
Acoustic absorption was achieved using fabric-covered panels mounted onto the existing concrete ceiling and perforated plywood and slated timber wall linings.
Carpet and vinyl flooring also reduces the potential noise created by large numbers of people walking through the break out zone.
In your opinion, where do you see this project responding to the changing landscape of (tertiary) education in Australia?
This project is an exemplar of the more friendly and inviting spaces that universities are creating in order to express a new direction in how they present themselves to the wider community and to people from overseas for whom Australia is high on the list as a destination for tertiary qualifications.
And, finally, could you comment on some of the key challenges of the project and how these were overcome?
One of the key challenges of the project was the short time frame for construction. We overcame that by ensuring that, before tenders were called, all of our furniture, material and colour selections were available and deliverable within the time frame required.