I recently took part in a whistle stop tour of The Diamond at The University of Sheffield. This is the newest building on their campus (opened in September 2015 at a cost of £81m) and it is an incredibly modern and impressive facility. I visited with Simon Bains (Deputy Librarian and Head of Research Services) and Katy Woolfenden (Head of Teaching, Learning and Students) and the visit was attended by a range of other library colleagues from universities across the country.
The Diamond is part of the University Library and is an excellent example of how library buildings are evolving to meet the needs of modern day visitors. The opening of Sheffield’s Information Commons in 2007 aimed to integrate technology throughout an entire study space facility, at a time when such requirements were quickly emerging as a standard expectation rather than a requirement. The Diamond is seen as the next stage in the Library’s evolution in terms of facilities.
The building is a comfortable mix of library functions, study spaces and teaching zones. The University’s Faculty of Engineering was a key stakeholder in this project and the result is a huge (19,000m2) study facility that provides a range of high demand and reference material, a variety of effective and well planned facilities and a window into the world of engineering – students and tutors can be seen undertaking a variety of activities through the large glass partitions that separate these areas.
The visit was opened by Alison Little (Associate Director, Learning Strategy and Student Engagement) and Jonathan Crockett (Senior Project Manager) who gave an overview of the building, the history of its development and the role that their Estates and Facilities Management department played in initiating and managing the project through the completion – a rapid process that took only five years. This was a huge feat for the University, its stakeholders and the construction team. So efficient was this project that it stayed within its timescales; the development completed on a Friday and the building opening to users the following Monday. This, however, brought its own legacy of challenges.
Rene Meijer (Information Commons Manager) provided a presentation offering an exciting glimpse into how a greater understanding of the development of teaching and learning had helped to shape the project. Rene was asked to use his experience from his role as Information Commons Manager to ensure that the lessons learnt from the Commons were instilled into the development of learning spaces in The Diamond. The aim throughout the project was the creation of a space that would be a new milestone for Sheffield’s library and related spaces.
The façade of the building is beautiful – as well constructed and solid as the Faculty of Engineering facilities it houses. Alison even stated that the involvement of the Faculty in the design of the building was reflected through its industrious and structurally clinical finish (or could this be more an ode to the history of the Steel City in which it is located?). Design details throughout the building are very functional, a definite move away from form. There are few aesthetically radical elements, although the vast communal area and stilt-like inner sections are startling enough . The inside of the space reminded me of the proposed ‘insect building’ next to the Great Northern Warehouse in Manchester City Centre (to critics of this proposal I would now say ‘don’t knock such designs until you have tried them!’).
The space inside The Diamond is fantastic. Rene explained how users were engaged in the design of the spaces, furniture, fittings and equipment, which was a crucial element to making the building as effective and usable as possible. The team stated that ‘ultimately we have to build the thing and must accept we cannot future proof immediately’ but the level of thought given to the design of the study spaces and variety of rooms provides a large range of adaptability. Study spaces are not complicated – The Diamond ensures that the core elements of a seat, desk and power supply are provided, and provided well. All tables are ergonomically designed to support study and collaboration of all types with practicality and comfort as priorities. All seats are sturdy and easily moveable and there is power to every space.
Lighting is a crucial element in the building, but not just day light. There is a wealth of natural daylight flooding spaces but the large interior is also illuminated with a variety of other lights that are effective and well measured. A variety of lighting types provide a variety of perception and understanding of depth in the building, limiting the chance for a user’s mind to get tired of the same view. The choice of task lights (the same ones as used in the Brynmor Jones Library redevelopment at the University of Hull) was deliberate in order not to obstruct a user of a PC monitor and to provide as much light across a desk as possible.
Through opening up a working dialogue with users, the feedback the project team received (comments like “I don’t need somewhere fancy or extraordinary, I just need a space to work with my laptop” for example) was critical in shaping the inner spaces;
I’d listened to presentations at the Liber LAG conference in April on the blurring of boundaries between informal and formal learning spaces, and Rene reflected on the growing acknowledgement that whilst users are often doing collaborative or individual work separately, they are also often doing both at the same time. With this, it’s important to recognise that a number of case studies are showing that library users are seemingly happy to undertake focused work within a communal setting. However the desire to feel isolated and insulated at the same time within this setting must be considered. This is a complex issue considering that distraction in a library is no longer reserved to noise. The specific use of furniture in The Diamond aims to achieve this. Isolated study ‘tabooths’ (my take on a study space which is part table, part booth) allow users to work in a large communal setting but in a focused manner – complete silence with little distraction from movement . The Diamond does not enforce rules of how the spaces should be used (I don’t think I saw any); instead the furniture, setting and location of each area creates a ‘social contract’ with all users. The lack of complexity across the zones supports this approach very well. Concentrated study seats, communal areas and social spaces are easy to interpret and there is no confusion amongst users as to the implied environment. From what I observed, this was working very well, especially considering how busy the facility was. The building does the essential things very well. The High Demand and reference sections provide a more traditional library feel. The work taking place in the engineering labs is plain to see. The focus study areas are obvious.
It was incredibly interesting to learn that not only is the building monitored throughout for heat, light, air flow and tension but that every study space is also monitored for use. Although the data of this use hasn’t been collected yet, the team believe that this may be a treasure trove of information. The building may start to know more about its users than its users know about the building.
As with every development, there have been a range of lessons learnt. There was initial concern about the possibility of distractions to students from observers looking in through the glass partitions. This never materialised and instead the chance to see such learning in action has been a huge success. The IT Support triage points on the upper floors have received a less broad and lower number of enquiries than first anticipated. Some of this space will be repurposed in due course for other functions. Many of the group study rooms are too big (most redevelopments struggle with too little space). Off plan, the dimensions seemed suitable but in reality they were too generous. In future the team will look at using mock-ups of temporary spaces to understand proportions better. A number of study areas with specific furniture provided to allow for maximum flexibility by users are seldom reconfigured, with the chairs being the only element that are moved. The desktop PC booking system was disbanded after the building opened and has left its purpose designed space idle. The level of detail invested into choosing the right furniture for The Diamond and engaging users to help advise these decisions has been incredibly effective in making the space as successful as it has been since opening. One personal observation that wasn’t discussed was that I would never choose spiral staircases in any building or leave the under-stairway areas open as you will always have to block up the area at some point. The team also wanted to make sure the when inside the building, users were inspired by the immensity of the inner atrium – both on entry on by looking down from the fourth floor and that this stayed with them as part of their learning experience. It is impressive and will certainly stay with me for a while.
My first impression of The Diamond was very positive and I would like to return at some point. The development gets the basics right but allows room for manoeuvre should things change in the future. It is incredibly functional, supporting users with one thousand study spaces, lecture theatres, engineering labs, media rooms, PC hubs and library services. At such a busy time of the academic year, the building was handling all these different functions effortlessly. The environment was slightly warmer than I would have expected (is this part of the building settling in and going through it first cycle of seasons?) but the noise levels were more than comfortable and in part, enjoyable. It was refreshing to be able to be viewed by users, observe classes comfortably and see out across the city of Sheffield through the variety of glass walls and large windows that separated and framed the building simultaneously. The building, its facilities and spaces are exciting and inspiring but not overwhelming nor distracting. The Diamond has delivered the user’s core requirements very well and provides a great space to learn. I truly believe this is a glimpse into the future of multi-active library spaces.
Mike Kelly, Library Space Project Manager