Expertise / Education and Science / Designer insight

Recycled buildings - doing more with less

Maximising the value of existing building stock in the face of significant budget cuts will be critical for Australian universities to remain competitive and relevant.

At a time when institutions may be looking to scale back, or even scrap, their capital work plans, Dave Gulland who has more than 15 years' experience designing education buildings says "recycling" old buildings presents an affordable alternative without compromising the quality of the teaching, learning or on-campus experience offered.

"The difference between a refurbishment and a new build can be a saving in the order of A$1,000 to $2,000 per square metre in construction cost," David says.

"If done carefully, it is a sustainable approach that allows a university to maintain a competitive edge and provide more students with a technologically modern campus that facilitates emerging pedagogical concepts," he says.

"The key is not to treat the refit in isolation, but to incorporate it into a broader university masterplan that considers the building's purpose and location, while enhancing the surrounding campus."

Curtin University has been undertaking an extensive program of refurbishment for some of its existing building stock, to transform ageing buildings into state-of-the-art health sciences facilities and learning hubs.

It is doing away with the "sage on the stage" approach of tiered auditoriums and students facing forward, to create spaces that adapt to different modes of teaching and learning – whether collaborative work, quiet study, group learning, private meetings or a large lecture.

Features include screens on multiple walls so they are visible from any vantage point, video links and wireless connection, more natural light and transparency, furniture without the "institutional" feel which can be rearranged as needed, and break areas near learning spaces that allow students to work together and exchange ideas.

"The nature of information exchange is more fluid, and good design can facilitate this, irrespective of budget," David says.

Curtin University Director Project Management, Ron Hewitt, says the university had sought to provide an attractive and technologically-advanced, student-focused learning environment without resorting to unnecessary new construction.

"Our objective is to use the spaces we have more often, by more students and for better learning outcomes," Ron said.

"We have maturing buildings that require upgrading and improvements and at the same time we have rapidly changing pedagogy and a requirement for new technologies to support that, so it made sense to redevelop our existing facilities rather than add to our building stock."

HASSELL is currently working on the refurbishment of up to 40 teaching spaces across the campus at a cost of A$15 million over two years, which Mr Hewitt estimates would have cost $25 million to build from new.

HASSELL design researcher Khoa Do, who was recently appointed to the federal Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT) expert grants panel, says retrofitting can be as good as a new building, and provide a long-term and "future-proofed" solution.

Khoa, a lecturer in interior architecture at Curtin, urges universities to bring designers and architects to the table from the outset, to ensure pedagogical research informs planning and design.

"We are studying these trends from an architectural design point of view to understand the next generation of teaching and learning spaces and how world's best practice can be adopted locally," he says.

"Design is about bringing all the elements together and translating how the latest pedagogy and technologies can be melded to create a cutting-edge and functional space."

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