University of Virginia, USA

Report on U21 Learning Environment Design Forum , University of Virginia October 2009

Written by James Rutherford

We registered on the first Sunday and began the event with a tour of Thomas Jefferson’s house at Monticello.
Apart from being the third president of the United States, Jefferson established the University of Virginia in 1819, designing the Academical Village along similar architectural lines to his home.
He was inspired by classic european architecture, in particular the Pantheon in Rome, with the dome shaped Rotunda forming the head of the academical village and hosting the first library.


The historic Rotunda was the venue for the plenary sessions that featured on the first three days of the design forum.
The Universitas 21 event was co-hosted by the School of Architecture and the Facility Planning Managers from UVA.

We were welcomed by the Kim Danzer, Dean of the School of Architecture and Professor Peter Jamieson who as we know is from the University of Melbourne. Peter Jamieson was the facilitator for the whole week.

The Learning Environment Design Forum had two separate groups working in parallel at the University.
The second group was composed of architecture students from the University of Melbourne, Hong Kong University and from the University of Virginia. They were led through a similar exercise by Peter Waldron from the School of Architecture at UVA, although naturally it was more from an architectural viewpoint.


The first plenary session was entitled “Creating Flux” and featured a panel of architects and academic heads.

This is a brief summary of the more noteworthy contributions.

David Newman, University architect from UVA
David asked rhetorically whether the physical campus has passed its prime, he answered that it hasn’t, as the value of human dynamics and that face to face contact is vital. But there is a challenge of scale, with increasing large numbers of students and staff. We have to balance the digital and physical opportunities this presents.
David also talked about the value of recreation, it is important in refreshing mind and body and represents a chance to meet new people outside of the course structures.

Tom Kvan, Dean of the School of Architecture, University of Melbourne
Tom also posed a question, how does the physical space change one’s experience, acoustics make a big difference to that experience.
We have the challenge of new digital media with its impact on communication.
Who are the students? they are young adults in the midst of a big change in their life. We also have more post-graduate students, more staff, both academic and support, as well as the wider community. We must take account of all the people involved and not just students.

Place – where a ceremony takes place, it defines our role in a physical location
Experiential learning
We must not over-specify these places
How does a virtual engagement relate to a physical space?
We must be careful of the virtual!


Our university environments should produce innovation as opposed to just learning, innovation with incremental stages of discovery.
Tom talked about Prince Serendip from Ceylon and how the word =means the opportunity for serendipity, as in meaningful coincidences, unplanned events that are catalysts for innovation.

Daniel Berch, Assoc. Dean for Research & Faculty Development in Education
Daniel also posed a few questions himself, by asking how do people interact in physical environments. There were psychological factors in the effectiveness of collaborative working; such as group learning, individual understanding and effective engagement, when people share enough but also have enough differences to make that collaboration work.
Daniel asked what would the classroom of the future look like, would it have mixed ages? where should it be? a single use space may not be workable in the future but that it should be sustainable.
The role of the virtual environment is necessary to move things on, it removes the need to establish stages and the uncertainty of engagement.
The traditional environment can be restraining and this sets up dominances, so the virtual can relax this situation.

David Newman
Comfort is essential – I’m glad he mentioned this as the chairs in the room were very uncomfortable – David meant that people should be comfortable in whatever environment we create.

Tom Kvan
Tom agreed that environments need to give comfort so that students can push themselves until they fail, this is a vital component of the learning process where they are not embarrassed and it is culturally acceptable to make mistakes.
He also spoke about the flow, steering us back to the title of the session, that the infrastructure of the campus should not be inhibited by over-designing and the creation of zones.

Residential university campuses create more opportunities for peer learning, with sport and social experiences allowing for greater learning possibilities. There are less time constraints, and places such as coffee shops provide a variety of internal spaces. Students should be allowed to spend more time together.

Following this we given a very interesting tour of the Academical Village from Peter Waldman, Architecture School UVA. He explained how Thomas Jefferson’s vision was based on the liberal enlightenment of his european experiences. He believed that students should live and study in a shared environment with tutors and fellow students. This included the ten pavilions and lawned area where students live today as well as the gardens to the rear, that are still viewed as learning lawns.

Following the tour, Julia Monteith, the Senior Land Use/Community Planner, introduced us to the Carr’s Hill Arts Common, an area where we would be working on a real design project for the rest of the week. We were also treated to a talk from the Head of the Fine Arts Library, Lucie Stylianopoulos, on the role of the library and its aspirations.


After lunch we began the Learning Environment Design project with input from Peter Jamieson who provided us with our assignment.
The title was called “Viewing the Campus as a Learning Landscape”

Before we began the workshop, Peter gave us a short presentation to set the scene.
UVA is a liberal university, set up to develop the mind body and soul, developing informed and cultured citizens.
The campus is integral to learning as it is more than a class based process.
It has the architecture, the natural environment and community of scholars, but nowadays, people tend to disappear after classes. The trend is still to treat classes as a didactic dissemination of information.
We still find unsuitable conditions, facilities and technology in many teaching rooms.

New learning environments need to be more of a matter of place – more than just a physical setting, where students can identify with themselves and have a view of themselves in the world.

There is a growing tendency of universities to be utilitarian in their approach, churning out students with vocational qualifications so that universities are seen to be contributing to the economy.

But – there is a contemporary pedagogical shift towards collaborative, enquiry based learning where the approach is more student centred and enabling students to be more investigative.
This requires suitable learning environments that include informal spaces, places to sit, to spread out on surfaces, to connect and interact. For example, at the University of Melbourne, there are sculptures outside that students can sit on, work on as well as look at.

This is called the ‘Phenomenological perspective’, where interpretations and the need to experience leads us to perceptions involving the senses. We experience the campus in many ways, individually and collectively, it can be as a natural setting with outdoor places that can be occupied.

So to create an effective learning landscape requires more than just an architectural response, it involves an appreciation of the relationship between person and place. The campus is an expression of the ambitions of a university.



We were tasked with the challenge of preparing a response that would inform the University’s approach to the development of the Carr’s Hill/ Arts Common as a significant ‘place of learning’.
The University is dominated by its historical origins and has made relatively few changes to accommodate the emerging ‘student-centered pedagogy’ or address the matter of ‘informal learning’ on campus.

Peter tasked us with considering how to understand the role of the campus as a place for learning. How can the experience of occupying a campus setting could influence the quality of the student learning experience. He asked us to imagine what the site might look like, by immersing ourselves in the site, placing ourselves in many locations within and ask the following questions: How is it being used? What do we see and hear? He asked us to travel through it and sense the possibilities.

We approached this task in small teams of five and were able to respond in any form we believed would effectively communicate our design concept to UVA and hopefully stimulate their thinking.
My group was composed of a senior project manager from the University of Melbourne, a facilities manager from University College Dublin and two library managers from UVA.


Tuesday 6th Oct.

The plenary session entitled “What is it that Artists and Scientists Share?” was probably the lowest point of the week. It was not very relevant to the design forum, a number of delegates walked out and complained to the organisers of that. It was too highbrow, abstract and academically impractical for the workshop process.

The only notable comments were that universities find it difficult to allow collaboration between departments and that traditional hierarchies are an obstacle in this. At UVA, the drama department have worked with the Orthopedic Surgery Research Center.
Peter Jamieson put a question to the panel, what physical spaces do universities need to allow this type of collaboration?
Robert Hirosky, the Associate Professor in Physics replied that classes can be impersonal. Tutors need more contact time and that the valuable mentoring role is not able to flourish.
Rose Beauchamp from the Drama Department added that adjacency is important, spaces where tutors can meet and communicate face to face. There are no designated spaces but too many barriers.


Workshop continued in the afternoon.
Wednesday 7th Oct.

The plenary session today was entitled “The Importance of Physical Space in a Virtual Environment”

Elliot Felix from DEGW
The most relevant speaker for me was Elliot Felix from DEGW, who are an international firm of design consultants. He described how the physical space creates associations, shows what we value, communicates how we use space and gives us us clues how to use it.

He identified five significant factors in the importance of a physical space.
Space is a means to an end, it has objective designing activities, how do they drive the space?
Surfaces are vital, these should be thought of as a product, with a network of connections to other spaces with services to be encountered.
We shouldn’t use the word ‘flexibility’, or we will end up with a halfway house that doesn’t meet any criteria
Systems and not spaces in isolation. A learning landscape where interaction and discovery can happen anywhere.
Keep a keen eye on culture, or we could propose something that doesn’t fit the context.
Elliot gave the example of Google, where the spaces supported social interaction as well as the appropriate use of technology. The density of people should be considered, along with space where there is food and drink is a place to meet and to brainstorm ideas.

Richard Mintern, Senior Academic Facility Planner, UVA
We heard from Dick about a number of interesting recent projects at the University of Virginia.
Firstly was the Engineering SChool building that has team learning rooms for collaborative study and team problem solving. Students can pair up with industry sponsors and communicate via video conferencing in the Capstone Building. The students can use breakout rooms with technology enabled small spaces.

In the Medical Education building, there is technology enabled experience-based learning with teams of eight. However I was surprised to hear that this occurs in a room for 144 students with circular tables with large associated presentation screens around the circular room.
In the Battern School there is a large space that can be configured in different ways, for conferences, dining or in a lounge configuration, it has a variety of furniture in ‘living room’ style that caters for sixty students.

Stephanie Moore, Director of Engineering Instructional Design, UVA

Stephanie discussed the vexed and complicated issue of providing on-line learning delivered in a virtual environment for engineering students.
How to integrate social interaction, how to give a sense of the UVA identity and how to immerse students into a virtual learning environment.
They are beginning to create a Sim type world, one that has a path the students follow through with activated content that appears as they progress.
The next plan is to create a lab in a box. A physical looking laboratory accessed through a virtual world. They are designing components that work together and replicating the environment if the students were on campus, a representational lab.

Then comes the issue of library resources and services, how to integrate those in this virtual experience? Do they embed specific library resources and media into the space?
Perhaps this will drive for change in actual libraries, moving resources outside of the traditional physical space and and distribute learning materials for other purposes.

Mike McPherson, Deputy Chief Information Officer
Mike stated that UVA now had an opportunity to do something different that gives students better spaces, with new technology and taking on board social trends.
There are advances in technology, such as smaller batteries and faster processors, that they can utilise.

With Web 2.0 applications, web sites can be more interactive, with ‘cloud’ processing and faster networks. He recognises that we need spaces for people to get together and not just for technology.
UVA are about to eliminate computer labs, as more students have their own laptops and they can deliver software without the need for dedicated computer labs. They are piloting applications that deliver specialist software to students’ laptops, although this is early days it seems to be the way forward.
With the provision of collaborative spaces, they used focus groups and discovered that students love the new spaces. There is embedded technology on the periphery without it forming the rooms function. He admitted the students do move the furniture themselves.

The workshop continued for the rest of the week with Peter Jamieson.


We were encouraged to use key words in our descriptions, that would give colour and meaning to other stakeholders, using metaphors to emphasise the thinking behind our concepts and plans.

Throughout we were also reminded to focus on the learning experience when forming concepts.

One significant factor in designing spaces for collaborative learning is that for effective activities, the class duration may need to be extended. This is to allow for the students and staff to settle into a new activity, listening to the tutor’s input before splitting up into groups and then finally coming back into a reporting back session.
This will have significant implications for timetabling as well as the structure of teaching delivery.

Thursday 8th Oct.

In the afternoon, we gathered with students and staff from the architectural workshop group to discuss our views and experiences of the workshop. It was an interesting meeting, discussing their take on the brief to redesign Carr’s Hill. We saw the designs, models and graphic realisations from the students week long session.

Workshop continued.

Friday 9th October

This was the day for all the groups to present our research, rationales and design concepts. All members of our group presented to the cohort, with our work displayed on large boards and a printed report made available. See attached document.


The other groups were able to ask questions, make comments and suggestions to each other. Peter Jamieson gave an overview and facilitated the critique and evaluation.

U21 have made a documented record of all the work, with photographs taken during the week and posted on the U21 website.

This site contains a brief summary of the event, see page 4 of the October 2009 Newsletter.

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