Article from ALT Newsletter (,0,w)
January 20, 2009
Building a better future – planning and designing innovative, intelligent educational buildings
by Richard Everett

Oaklands College in Hertfordshire is in the process of reinventing its approach to teaching and learning with a new fully-integrated campus planned for occupation in 2011. This article describes the vision for the building and how it will transform the learner experience. It also examines some of the challenges in the design process and makes the point that it is really important that pedagogy should provide the foundation for the whole design and that if the technology does not produce better learning then there is no point.

College vision
The vision for the College (Figure 1) is encapsulated within four strategic aims (Attraction, Learner Experience, Success and Performance). A poor Ofsted report in 2003 meant that the institution resolved to embark on a journey to reach the ‘outstanding’ level by 2011. Technology and e-learning are deliberately separated entities in the strategic hierarchy and the e-learning vision (Figure 2) puts pedagogy at the centre. The College is currently challenged to build a sufficiently robust infrastructure to cope with student demand. The new building will be fully capable of delivering the vision for students to receive a better technology experience than at home creating bleeding edge learning, utilising leading edge technology.

Building vision and innovation
The vision intends to create a world class building and more: innovative concepts are at the heart of the aim to craft a truly intelligent building with fully integrated systems. Exemplary IT will support an attractive learner experience in an educational and social space; glass walls will ensure a culture of openness in the building; a staff 2:1 hot-desk ratio will be used - more recently dubbed ‘team-desking’ by the college. Interviews about the development can be found on the YouTube intelligentBuilders channel.

Mark Dawe, Oaklands College Principal, told the design team about the value he accorded to Information and Communications Technology (ICT). He said, “If I have to cut a wing off this building to make the IT learner experience exemplary, I will”.

Innovative design, ‘intelligence’ and pedagogy
The central atrium will be the width of three tennis courts and will be designed to function flexibly as a public area. The design (and its intelligence) makes the building more efficient and environmentally friendly as well as enhancing the learning experience. For instance the use of plastic ID cards with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology and cashless catering means that students will experience the inputs/outputs from the systems; thus, when they go into the real world, they will have been exposed to these new technologies. Similarly buildings such as this are excellent at showing construction students correct approaches to the design of a modern building. There are examples in every curriculum area of where the intelligence of the building supplements, or improves, the learning experience. High quality audio visual (AV) resources will be provided; plasma TVs with overlays will be used in dirty and dusty areas. The College is also experimenting with interactive tables where students (and the lecturer) gather around the device, encouraging more active and collaborative interaction - which will fundamentally change the pedagogy in the classroom/workshop. These tables will also be deployed in curriculum learning clusters (CLCs). Another innovation is recording practical activity, such as students undertaking a task in a classroom or workshop. This can be used for immediate feedback, for later analysis, for review, and later for access through the virtual learning environment (VLE). This is not a security system, although the technology could be used this way; it is deliberately pedagogic in focus and will be under the control of the students and lecturers within the classroom or workshop. It uses internet protocol television (IPTV) techniques and is currently being trialled at the Alban Park facility.

All of the building will be covered by wireless networking. Every learner will have a laptop, or similar device, and all students will be able to use their own devices if they wish (releasing funding to provide better equipment for those who do not wish, or cannot afford, to purchase their own). A purpose-built facility will allow students to exchange their batteries when they need.

Physical design
The building will consist of three wings. It will have a street effect at the front, open to the public in the form of real life shops; access will be made through dedicated entrances. All other access to the building will be through the main entrance, into the atrium and then through a CLC to each themed wing. Refectory and specialist learner services will be accommodated in between the wings around the atrium. Architectural design movies can be found at: Curriculum area locations can be changed in line with emerging business needs.

Aerial view of the proposed College buildingView of one elevation of the proposed College building

Views of the new college building
Images courtesy of Bond Bryan Architects

There will be no learning resources centres (LRCs) in the new building. Instead there exists the concept of CLCs, with much front-of-house activity taking place in them. These will form a one-stop shop for the public as well as supporting traditional learner and student services, reception, and facilitated access to research and curriculum support. Information screens announce events but kiosk facilities will interact and give information to customers and even elicit feedback by video.

The CLC concept has been piloted at Welwyn Garden City with a former traditional classroom being adapted. The modified room now has three logical zones within it:

  • Non-traditional teaching space with flexible tables and chairs and an electronic whiteboard.
  • Boardroom table (separated from the teaching space area by low level glass screens) with interactive TV at the end.
  • Social space with low comfy chairs (in pink and black).

The room has a wireless network with laptops being provided from a trolley facility. Research is showing dramatic results. Staff identified that the space “transformed” the learning experience and students said that they “want” to learn in the CLC rather than “having” to learn in other areas of the college. Students also said that they liked the informal and bright colours which made the space very modern and appealing. (See Guardian article The second pilot (in orange and green) is currently being implemented at Alban Park.

A cautionary tale - the design team experience
The experience of working on a design team was “educational”. Achievement of an intelligent building requires a coherent approach by consultants who need to work closely together. There are many barriers to achieving this intelligent, or smart, building. The building itself needs to be accessible, safe and secure. It should be efficient in its operation (i.e. with reduced running costs), highly flexible so that any part of the building can deliver the requirements of the institution using physical and electronic assets appropriately, and it must be (environmentally) green. The common areas need to be useable in different ways, and communication facilities should let the customer know what they need to know at the time they need to know it. Effective use of space must be achieved so that it is shared where appropriate, yet facilitating privacy when required. For the users this building must encourage learning to take place in a comfortable and empowering space. It should be innovative and inspiring so that it is a productive place for all. The building needs to be capable of being in control of itself reducing the requirement for large numbers of ancillary staff to operate it. All of this is indeed possible using technology but only if there is a robust supporting infrastructure. Designing that infrastructure in the early planning stages is absolutely essential.

The key adjective for design teams is ‘collaborative’. Unfortunately colleges report the opposite with the danger of not achieving the vision if key issues are left unaddressed. Phrases such as “It is not the way we do it” have been said too many times by those who should know better. It has been noted that consultants are at ease designing what they are comfortable with and builders will build what they know. Innovation is risk (and therefore cost) so to create an integrated intelligent building works against existing silo mentalities and structures defended by the status quo. The system prevents the achievement of an integrated vision.

The traditional way that a building is built and the way that it is planned can cause serious problems. Innovative concepts such as intelligent buildings are very different and require different ways of working. What it means is that anyone trying to do this is working against existing structures and processes. Each body has a set of rules; architects, mechanical and electrical consultants and other specialists are working to different agendas. They all try to defend their own status quo but to succeed they must learn to work together for the agenda to be realised. This is not easy!

Traditional buildings implement different systems on different infrastructures e.g. security, AV, heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), data, phones and so forth, creating massive duplication. However, all of this is now implementable using IP (Internet Protocol) over a common infrastructure. In many cases this creates capital cost savings as duplicate wiring can be eradicated. Equally business gains can be made by converged technology making things easier to operate (e.g. security, video, phone messaging, email, registration, data all from the desktop with some automated, some not, as required), freeing valuable time to dedicate to supporting students.

Lessons learned so far
Planning for a new intelligent building requires a joined up approach that puts integrated infrastructure at the fore. It is therefore necessary to guarantee that planning is started early enough to ensure that the cost savings can be realised (leaving it later not only prevents cost savings from taking place but actually increases cost). To do this properly it needs to take place during the Application in Principle (AiP) phase. This roughly coincides with Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) stage B. Engaging a competent ICT consultant at this stage is essential. Doing this at stage D or even worse stage E is too late but that is exactly what has happened on many new builds.

Unfortunately it has been proved that if ICT consultants are not appointed early enough in the process, decisions have already been taken (by architects, mechanical and electrical consultants, engineers etc) that do not take into account ICT infrastructure needs. For example a decision very early on that an institution would not have raised floors (these are said to be more expensive) caused extra cost overall because of the extra need for ducting to accommodate the volume of cabling required. Another institution reported that vertical ducts were not big enough to accommodate the cables required; again an example of where ICT was left out of the planning process creating an extra cost to rectify the problem. The large amount of AV also causes another issue as the weight of 65” plasma screens was heavier than some walls could withstand. The cost plan is based upon the Learning and Skills Council(LSC) guidance. Unfortunately the original LSC cost plans were outdated and did not include appropriate mechanisms for ICT infrastructure. They have since been revised and are fitter for purpose than they were. Many colleges were constantly fighting against a status quo because the planning of the infrastructure came too late.

The LSC and RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) held a conference at the RIBA headquarters in April 2008 to launch a forum to help colleges, consultants and interested parties struggling with these sorts of issues. In response to a question underlining the colossal potential waste of money that poor planning was causing for college buildings, Philip Head, Director of Infrastructure and Property Services, undertook to review the LSC advice in this vital area and to consider advising colleges to plan their ICT infrastructure earlier and to engage ICT consultants at stage B. This is a good example of where the LSC has really tried to take into account the needs of the sector; training for project sponsors is another. To aid this process there is now a framework agreement mechanism in place to ensure that value for money is achieved in engaging suitable consultancies for projects. However, while ICT is mentioned within the scheme, some of the consultancies listed in the framework do not appear to have previous experience in designing intelligent buildings. At a recent sponsors’ event Mark Jaloszynski, the LSC framework manager acknowledged this and advised that institutions should ask specific ICT infrastructure questions in the selection process of consultants to ensure that they engage suitable expertise. He also said that the process allows for engagement of such specialist expertise outside the framework if the skills required were not available within. However the default position of any college should be to approach the framework for design services in the first instance. Organisations should err on the side of caution in this respect as engaging inexperienced design consultants in the area of ICT (albeit part of the framework) could be a very expensive mistake indeed. Institutions should ensure that the scope of service includes ICT/intelligent building elements as it is essential that the ICT infrastructure and intelligence is included in the main contract and not separately as an add-on. All of the risk then is taken on by the institution rather than by the consultancies being employed to do the job.

So if there was one thing…
Do not to leave the intelligent part of the building planning process too late. If you plan early enough you can make savings (on both running and capital costs); if you leave it too late there will be significant costs (construction costs and extra running costs over a considerable number of years). Address the ICT consultancy issue at stage B by employing an ICT consultant, if the framework designer you have employed does not have the competence. If you are about to employ, or interview, possible designers from the framework make sure your intelligent building/ICT plans are included in your brief, and only employ a designer from the framework who can exhibit competence in this vital area.

Useful links
Many principals and project sponsors contribute to a JISCMail Building a better future sponsors’ list. This is a forum designed to help principals and project sponsors of new builds, from both HE and FE, to collaborate and share expertise. Email to join.

The RIBA Learning and Skills Client Forum also exists to help colleges through the process. More details can be found at:

Richard Everett
E-learning and new build consultant
The Old Coach House, r/o 9 High Street,
Old Town, Stevenage, SG1 3BG
01438 215 447

Published by The Association for Learning Technology
The views expressed in this newsletter are the authors' own and not necessarily those of the Association for Learning Technology.
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