How to best use space in today’s dynamic learning environment

Monash Learning and Teaching Building

While Australian universities achieve at building design and management, they must work harder at getting the most out of their buildings, says Geoff Dennis, a facilities management executive.

Having visited universities in the United Kingdom, South Africa, North America, Singapore, the Philippines and Hong Kong, Geoff Dennis, executive director facilities management at Queensland University of Technology thinks that “Australian universities are right up there in terms of the physical campus. They are generally very good at designing, building, maintaining and operating their facilities and managing down energy consumption.”

But a pressing – and growing – concern is how to achieve the most efficient use of space. By that, Dennis means “actual people occupying a space and not how frequently rooms are booked”.

Adapting to the new learning

Dennis acknowledges that today’s students want to learn in different, non-traditional ways, rather than in a lecture theatre environment. But he also recognises that it is expensive to build new space. 

So, he advises universities “to get better at achieving higher rates of room utilisation. To do this, good quality data is required, and there are now emerging technologies to help achieve this such as thermal motion counters and Wi-Fi mobile device connections.”

universities are also looking to combine flexible space with new technologies

How does this pan out in practice? “QUT recently converted a tiered lecture theatre into a tri-level collaborative learning space, (which) can be timetabled for classes as well as be used by students for social learning activities outside of normal classes.”

Other universities are also looking to combine flexible space with new technologies. Dennis is impressed by “a large new contemporary teaching building at Monash University” with technology initiatives “focused on ‘bring your own’ devices.” 

RMIT’s New Academic Street is another “large project to enhance student learning and social experiences while on campus.”

The ideal campus

“An ideal campus”, he believes, “would be vibrant, activated, incorporating strong elements that all contribute to a positive student experience and facilitate learning whether students are in the classroom or somewhere else on campus. 

“This means that campuses need to present at a high standard, have high quality wi-fi connectivity, and be activated with high quality retail outlets (good food and coffee), suitable spaces to facilitate social learning experiences, access to sport and recreation facilities and to social events involving other students.” 

Exemplar Education Precinct

He cites QUT’s new Education Precinct building as an exemplar. “This building has three levels of contemporary teaching spaces, high-quality social learning spaces, and features The Sphere, a five-metre diameter digital ball suspended between two floors. This will be used for teaching, research and academic engagement activities.” 

A climate change simulator (being developed) will also be used innovatively for teaching, research and education for students and the public on climate change, Dennis says.

The retrofitting opportunity

Retrofitting is an opportunity not just to adapt to the changing demands of students but factor in sustainability features, Dennis says.

As part of QUT’s ongoing Learning Transformation strategy, one old building retrofit will lead to modern teaching laboratories and a building “facelift”, with “vibrant landscape surrounds and new social learning spaces”, he says.

QUT’s new Education Precinct building

Sustainability initiatives include “solar panels on the roof, LED lighting retrofits and harvesting of stormwater for landscape irrigation”.

A less glamorous essential is QUT’s annual Deferred Maintenance Program, scheduled (where possible) for semester breaks. Most universities have these programs to cover “ageing plant, compliance, building-related health and safety issues, and upgrade of building services so that buildings are kept to a good-to-high standard”. 

“Universities also have a lot of space occupancy churn,” he observes. The continuous capital works activity on campus resulting from both these issues is offset, by providing “highly functional facilities that are continually adapting to changing requirements, new research infrastructure and growth.”

Universities must keep leading on sustainability

Universities are generally leaders in economic, environmental and social sustainability and this is “pretty strong across Australian institutions”. Two Australasian professional organisations that support this are TEFMA (Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association) and ACTS (Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability). 

QUT has had “a very aggressive energy efficiency (and energy management) program, including rolling out rooftop solar panels, and strong aspirations around carbon emissions mitigation. It has reduced carbon emissions by 25 per cent over the last 10 years despite delivering several large new buildings during this period.” 

It is setting sustainability targets for the next 10 years and a Sustainability Action Plan is currently being developed. 

Australian universities are doing well in terms of on-campus sustainability activities as well as teaching and research in sustainability and climate change

Dennis says this will focus on energy conservation, renewable energy, water conservation, sustainable transport, campus biodiversity programs and increased effort in minimising waste to landfill.

While he believes Australian universities are doing well in terms of on-campus sustainability activities as well as teaching and research in sustainability and climate change, Dennis says they need to do more, as they are “in a position of great influence on current and future generations”. 

To this end, QUT is updating its strategic plan, which will have sustainability as a priority. 

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