Issue 85Designing for Student Wellbeing

To ensure that our higher education buildings are designed with student wellbeing in mind, Rose Hart talked to the students to find out what mattered to them. 

With mental health issues becoming more widely reported and suicide rates in young adults on the rise, it is more important than ever to ensure that our higher education buildings are designed with student wellbeing in mind.

Having conducted consultation sessions with students on a number of our Higher Education projects, we’ve found the following themes to be most relevant in the search for design solutions that will help to alleviate the problem.  

Unity in variety 

A recurrent comment that arises when discussing wellbeing with students is the desire for spatial variety; having areas to gather in as well as areas to work alone allows students to control how they live, enabling them to choose between socialising and withdrawing. Spaces provided should ideally range from public - semi-public – private and include indoor and outdoor areas. These don’t necessarily need to be different rooms; including ‘retreat’ areas within bigger social spaces such as window seats and niches allows students to be present in a space without being subjected to the pressures of socialising.

Home from home: The public living room

When describing the types of spaces they want, students are increasingly requesting more informal ‘breakout’ space; space to relax and socialise without the pressures of buying food or studying; not a canteen, or a library, but a ‘living room’ for reading, playing games and meeting friends.

The idea of the ‘public living room’ is not new, but its popularity and success in universities and local communities speaks for itself. Over 700 students visit the new SU Living Room at the University of Bristol every day, and according to the University’s 2019 Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey around 90% of students who have participated in social activities there say it’s helped them meet new people, improved their sense of community, and enhanced their sense of positive wellbeing.

Ownership and control

Providing spatial variety is a good start, but to create a sense of community and avoid feelings of homesickness, students need to be given ownership of the spaces they are inhabiting. Giving students the opportunity to personalise and control their environment makes for more useful and multi-functional spaces which can bring people together and instil a sense of belonging through shared ownership and responsibility. This can be achieved in a number of ways including designing flexible, open plan layouts, providing pinboard walls and choosing furniture that can be easily moved around and stored.  Openable windows and environmental controls such as lighting and heating are also important factors to consider.

Healthy mind and body = Happy students

A campus that supports and promotes healthy and sustainable living by providing easy access to healthy food, modern sociable cooking areas, adequate bike storage, quality outdoor spaces and a range of fitness facilities will encourage students to live a more active lifestyle, thus improving their mental health and wellbeing. Provision of additional facilities such as meditation spaces and counselling services will further enhance this.

Physical comfort whilst studying and sleeping is also fundamental; good quality study spaces, comfortable beds and sufficient acoustic insulation can greatly improve the student experience and has a significant impact on wellbeing.

Appropriate tone of voice

Supergraphics can be a great way of transforming a student space, but many would argue that the ubiquitous presence of banal mottos such as ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ is getting a little old. This is certainly the feedback we received from students at the University of Bristol, who seem to find these basic motivational mantras patronising and childish, and instead, welcome the use of compelling social and political narratives for the artwork and graphics in their spaces. Bringing in local artists to engage with students and get them involved in the curation of such pieces can be a successful way of achieving this. The collaborative process encourages inclusivity, and inevitably makes for more interesting overarching narratives; ones that allow students to set the tone themselves, and consequently feel a greater sense of connection to the spaces they occupy.

During work on the Senate House for the University of Bristol, we met The Fandangoe Kid (AKA Annie Nicholson), an international print artist who specialises in making large scale narrative-driven pieces and has collaborated with students to complete several installations around the University of Bristol campus. Annie is an advocate for creating platforms where people can have an open dialogue about complex subject matters such as trauma, gender and mental health, and believes that the process provides an outlet for self-expression, encouraging young people from all backgrounds to get to know themselves better and ultimately feel a greater sense of belonging and wellbeing.

The power of nature

It won’t be news to anyone that nature has a powerful effect on our mental health. Research suggests that physical, visual and even audible connections to nature can significantly help reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Not surprising then that feedback from students regarding what they’d like to see in their HE buildings invariably includes ‘more natural daylight’ and ‘more plants’.

Designing buildings that provide good lighting, natural materials, user controlled ventilation and views to nature will inevitably contribute to an overall sense of wellbeing amongst students, and whilst there is often a cost associated with implementing and maintaining items such as indoor planting, it seems that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks when it comes to bringing the outdoors in.

The art of colour

Colour is a powerful design tool that can stimulate people’s emotions in very different ways, making it one of the most challenging elements to get right in the design of a building and its interior. To use colour effectively, we must first understand how it makes people feel, and why. A fascinating insight into this can be found in ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’; by Kassia St Clair which provides a comprehensive overview of the history and psychology of colour, explaining how our associations with certain colours have changed over time in response to specific historical events and social trends, including war, disease, politics, fashion and art.

The feedback we’ve received from students suggests that, whilst they are open to the idea of colour being used in common social areas, they would prefer bedrooms and private living spaces to remain neutral, choosing warm natural materials such as wood and cork over vibrant feature walls. Colours chosen for common areas should be carefully considered; bold primary colours will produce a very different character to soft pastel tones, having a direct influence on the nature of the space and how it will be used.

‘Colour is a power which directly influences the soul.’ Wassily Kandinski

As architects we have a responsibility to ensure that our buildings are designed to give students the best possible experience during their time at university. In order to do this it is vital that we consider the themes outlined above, and whilst there will be other non-design related aspects that need to be taken into account, it is clear that spatial variety, ownership, environmental control, physical health, colour and connections to nature all have a significant role to play in the overall wellbeing of students.

Rose Hart

Rose is an architect, and lead many aspects of the design and interiors for Senate House at the University of Bristol.

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