Building for competitive advantage

Alex SolkWhen we think about a brand, and what makes a brand distinctive we immediately think about Apple, Coca Cola or one of the other retail powerhouses that usually top the annually published Forbes Most Powerful Brands list. Perhaps not top of our list of brands would be an education institution, writes Alex Solk.

In a fee paying market where students are increasingly treated as customers, the value of a university's brand is paramount. When students select where to spend their money, they are reviewing both the courses being provided and the nature of the institution under consideration: do they have an excellent research track record, innovative teaching methods or perhaps a distinctive accommodation offer?

How the university creates that distinction between their offer and that of their counterparts is ever more important as competition continues to rise. As architects we are being increasingly asked to embody the essence of the university's brand in the buildings we design.

At Manchester Metropolitan University, Birley Campus represents the final stage of an amazing £350m investment in new campus facilities and forms the largest construction project in a 10-year plan to consolidate from seven campus locations to two by 2014. Its key driver is the positioning of the student as consumer at the heart of the development and brand power. The move to a more centralised location closer to the city centre, the bringing together of all faculties into a cohesive campus hub and the provision of outstanding facilities that are as aesthetically attractive as they are supportive and empowering have been the foundations of this unique development.

Mary Heaney, director of services, Manchester Metropolitan University: "Student satisfaction with their experience at MMU, evidenced in the National Student Survey and recent league tables, has increased significantly during the campus consolidation programme. This is mirrored by applications to MMU growing by 17% in the past three years compared to a sector average of 7%. We anticipate that the innovative learning environment provided at Birley and the opportunities it offers for multi-professional collaboration will further enhance the student and staff experience."

Similarly at the University of Manchester the Guardian HE Best Facilities award-winning Alan Gilbert Learning Commons was a direct result of the university's development focus on attracting students through the provision of excellent learning amenities for its 'customers'. The whole building is dedicated to providing a range of learning environments to suit their needs. In developing the design for this facility the brief was to embody the brand of the university in the design, to create a unique environment that couldn't just be 'another' university building.

The project was launched on the back of the university's plan to gain a place in the top 25 of the world league table of universities. In the building the university wished to showcase the successes of its alumni as inspiration for the next generation of leaders. Design features include bespoke etched joinery with famous quotes from the university's past, custom-made Nobel laureate chairs as well as Nobel laureate stepping stones in the entrance foyer. The message is clear: this university has succeeded, you are walking in the footsteps of greats, take the challenge!

The redevelopment of the University of Hull's Brynmor Jones Library is an ambitious multi-million pound project to transform the library into a "modern, flexible, technology-enhanced learning environment meeting the needs of all its users. It will build on the strong heritage of the library's place at the heart of the Hull campus and the student experience." But most importantly it is the embodiment of a series of strands within the university's brand positioning; a celebration of its history as the 14th oldest HE institution in the country and a showcase of the power of their academic offer for today and tomorrow.

The design of the new library facilities had to address this, and by doing so differentiate the university from its more recently founded peers. All of this had to be done in a contemporary fashion which looked to future. In the original 1950s parts of the building, like the Reading Room, we've taken care to preserve original details where possible or reproduce authentically, in contrast to newer areas where the interpretation, whilst still nodding to the 1950s, does so in a bright modern way with its deployment of new materials such as back-painted glass. Such is the success of the development that even during the refurbishment works NSS student satisfaction results went up.

Dr Richard Heseltine, university librarian, University of Hull: "When people come into our new library, they should immediately have a sense of what the University of Hull stands for. The building should say that this is a serious academic institution that values excellence, that is open and connected, and that places the student at its heart. It should say that here is a university that is modern and technology-enabled yet at the same time is respectful of its heritage. We believe that the new Brynmor Jones Library does exactly that. It stands as a symbol of the university's confidence in the future."

As the above examples show, a building can do a lot more than deliver space. They can inform prospective customers about your brand. In developing a brief for your next building, do not simply arrange the required functions in an efficient and effective manner, consider what the proposed building says about your organisation.

Alex Solk is partner at Sheppard Robson in Manchester

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