Steph McDonald in conversation with Rodney Sampson.
What was the brief at the beginning of this project?
Most simply, Victoria University of Wellington needed a contemporary research and teaching space in line with best modern practice and to reflect its status as New Zealand’s leading scientific research institute.
Science is a key growth area for the university – science, innovation and productivity research – to align with national and international direction. Victoria’s scientists are exploring so many research streams, far more than people are aware of. There is a substantial ecology department where, as one example, scientists are working to ensure the preservation of tuataras. Our challenge was to promote these research areas, to better connect the university to the city and to transform the actual building into a place of pride for the university.
What will differentiate this from other laboratory designs?
Traditional labs are usually hidden-away, dark and closed spaces removed from public eyes. That’s not where we want to be. We want scientific areas to be an integral part of the university, to be open with natural light coming in. There is a mix of formal learning environments, undergraduate teaching labs, new collaborative areas and social spaces.
Approaching it from a non-science background has breathed new life into traditional designs. We can look at it in comparison to workplaces, and see potential for overlaps. That’s important.
Campuses need to be rewarding places for people to learn, live, study and undertake research. So it has to be a place people like to be in. The physical location of the building is important. It will mean the science faculties will be closer to each other. So instead of operating as individual, smaller schools, it’s been transformed into a science precinct.
Much of the thinking in academia is about opening up connections between different fields to allow cross-pollination of ideas. How have you approached this in the design?
The building is open and accessible – so students and researchers can flow between spaces and see what’s happening. The new design will encourage connection between the science schools. It’s about breaking down those barriers between chemistry, biology, physics and so on.
We wanted to create spaces where people can connect, where they’re bumping into researchers from other scientific schools. And there are also opportunities to cross-pollinate with unconnected faculties – arts, commerce, design, and law. It’s a great chance to explore, for example, how computer science and biology might collide.
A key objective for Victoria University is to have the right people undertaking the right research at the right time. and that may mean someone from the chemistry school, and a vet from Massey, and a researcher from, say, Fonterra, coming together to set up a new research stream that becomes productive, profitable and ground-breaking.
Could a building that’s more open, and allows for more collaboration, help change how students think about their studies?
Yes, definitely. Creating a pleasant environment for long classes is important. Having windows to the outside world helps; people want to see what’s going on.
In science, the way people learn and work is the same as in any other educational field. The only difference is the nature of what students are learning. But at the end of the day, learning is about people interacting. People need to talk to each other and collaborate. There are simple design principles that can encourage interaction, rather than restrict it. For example, we’ve designed a double-tiered theatre with open areas, which allows for traditional didactic teaching, but also facilitates group work.
They’re doing experiments trialling two different teaching modes: individual versus collaborative work. Six students are given one microscope and a screen and told to work together. And then at the next table six students are given individual microscopes and tools to complete the tasks. They can work as a team, but the way the desks are arranged doesn’t easily allow them to do so. We watched them one day – it was incredible how much faster the core work was completed when students were interacting. And then later they’d discuss concepts after and expand their learning. There are some key things you need to do from a design point of view to encourage, not restrict, interaction. There’s a psychology around how you lay out a space.
So what are the key design elements to encourage this kind of collaboration?
Simple things from a planning point of view. One idea is to put the lecturers in the middle of the room, rather than at the front of the class. It means they’re less likely to fall into the habit of telling students what they need to do. Learning should be about engagement and interaction.
The impact design can have on class collaboration is difficult to articulate until you can see it. The difference is being able to manage more students in the same environment. Instead of 60, you could teach 100. That changes the university’s efficiency model, and these spaces become really effective. When you back arguments up with real evidence, it’s really rewarding. It’s a convincing argument about whether or not to invest in projects.
We’ve got laboratory planners working with us on this, but we still need to understand each lab’s potential uses. So, we’ve had a huge amount of engagement with the researchers. That connectivity is what will make this space work for them and make this a great building.
What different types of spaces will the building house?
There’ll be over 1,000 people just in the formal teaching spaces. There are also the transitional areas – break-out spaces, informal teaching areas, students floating through – which creates what we call ‘the learning landscape’. It’s a really important environment; rather than corridors that simply go from A to B, it creates additional spaces to enable inter- action and study. The challenge is that an area may have 300 students leaving a lecture theatre and 300 students waiting to enter – so the space needs to be built for that transition, yet also needs to seem comfortable when it’s only occupied by 10 people. It needs to be flexible. It becomes less like a building, and more like urban design.
The way students learn is rapidly changing. In educational design, there’s a lot of emphasis on creating durable spaces that will last. How have you ensured this design will still be effective in 10, 20, 50 years’ time?
It’s a big issue. Educational pedagogy has changed significantly in the past decade – how do we predict future growth? By completion, we would have been working on this building for five years – in that time, so much has changed. The whole teaching structure has flipped dramatically with digital devices and online research. And it’s still changing.
Flexibility is important. We’ve designed a robust platform that can be transformed to meet new research opportunities. It means the school can form the facilities based on opportunities, rather than be restricted to certain kinds of research. They can be more flexible, more agile. ‘Durable’ design not only means a building that can take knocks, but also buildings that can be adapted to grow and change. With our design, in 50 years’ time they will hopefully still be able to change and adapt it to become a new, better and more technologically advanced space.
Rodney Sampson is a Principal at Warren and Mahoney.
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