Taking the long view: Planning flexible specialist facilities

by FM Media
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DAVID HOMBURG of HASSELL discusses the planning of flexible specialist facilities using Flinders University’s new Tonsley Building as an example.

As a designer, creating spaces that adapt to the needs of future users is a compelling challenge and one that we embraced in the design of Flinders University’s new Tonsley Precinct, which will be the home of the School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics from January 2015.
With a growing student population and expanding research activities, the current Flinders University campus is set to reach capacity within the next 25 to 30 years, creating the need to explore off-site options.
The government-owned Tonsley site will create a community focused around clean technology, health, mining, energy and construction. As an industry cluster, it will bring together private industry, residential and education facilities to create a vibrant, innovative community.
This provided an opportunity to bring together the university’s capability in research with the issues and opportunities that face business. It also supported the university’s drive to strengthen its relationships and collaboration with TAFE and local industry.
To capitalise on the diverse tenant mix of the site and promote increased collaboration, the university wanted a facility that would foster innovation – actively contributing to the development of new products and processes in areas such as engineering, medical devices and nanoscale technologies.
Additionally, the new faculty needed to not only cater for the immediate needs of the 2000 students and 150 staff who will be based there from 2015, but also be flexible to user requirements in decades to come.

The brief from the university was clear – a demand for adaptable spaces that supported high levels of collaboration and new models of teaching and learning in an efficient, value for money facility.
To address this, the design team worked with students, academics, researchers and Flinders’ Buildings and Property Division to get a clear view of their working practices – encouraging them to move beyond problem-solving current issues, and instead focus on how they would most likely be working in the future.
Among other approaches, we asked them to create ‘a day in the life’ of their desired future working day, grounded in the detail of daily activities such as arriving at work, where they would research and collaborate, how they would teach and so on.
As designers, it was our role to then translate these priorities into a practical design – creating solutions that met current educational best practice, while remaining flexible to the changing needs of users and uses of the building into the future.
The approach allowed a period of divergence and exploration through a process of appreciative enquiry, and the development of clear and concise guiding principles to drive the design outcome and challenge current pedagological methodologies, before converging toward a design solution.

Natural light and ventilation emerged as key priorities among the building users, along with the need for more adaptable, connected spaces to support team-based work and promote chance encounters between students, researchers and staff. It was also important that the building presented opportunities for hands-on learning and for students to be exposed to laboratories earlier in their university career to encourage them to consider moving into research in the future.
The interspersed laboratory, teaching, workspaces and breakout areas of the final design promote team-based working and boost the potential for informal interaction, supporting the theory that innovation and creativity happen when discipline boundaries intersect.
These spaces are also highly adaptable to the changing needs of the university. We applied commercial office design principles to planning the building. For example, services have been arranged to support a variety of layouts. Spaces can be reconfigured with relative ease. And simple floor plate arrangements can accommodate wholesale changes to layouts or even uses in the future.
The layout naturally directs people either to the east and west ends of the building for quieter working, while noisier activity is focused in the middle.
With a number of different users able to access the site, the faculty’s security was a major factor. While it was important to foster a sense of openness and collaboration across the building, it was vital that the more sensitive work taking place remained secure.
In response to this, a layered approach to security was developed, with the lower parts of the building accessible to everyone and subtle security measures coming into play the higher up you go.
The voids also allow for passive surveillance across the levels, and act as a natural barrier to accessing sensitive parts of the building.
A purpose-designed triple glazed facade balances the demand for natural daylight with effective management of heat gain and loss through the windows without resorting to devices such as external sunshades. It is a highly efficient system that will also facilitate easy maintenance of the exterior.
Combined with large ‘voids’ through the centre of the floor plates, the building will have a light and bright atmosphere, while at the same time minimising operational costs.

Flinders University’s $120 million investment in its new Tonsley Precinct represents a new era in educational design. Where the university buildings of old were built for a specific purpose, with fixed layouts and a format that supported a one-to-many teaching structure, today’s teaching and learning spaces are adaptable and connected, creating greater interaction between staff, students and industry, and promoting more sophisticated levels of innovation and knowledge sharing.

David Homburg is an architect and principal at international design practice HASSELL. He recently presented jointly on this topic at the Tertiary Education Management Conference in Hobart, together with John Holm (SocioDesign) and Shane Jennings (Flinders University).

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