Future proofing

The Gardens Pavilion set up for Science Week at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, London. Horniman Museum and Gardens
The Gardens Pavilion set up for Science Week at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, London. Horniman Museum and Gardens

Whether your project is to rethink, refurbish or build a new learning space, it is essential that you explore – from the very start – how you might incorporate the potential to adapt to changing circumstances or demand. Technology will, of course, be the aspect of a learning space that is most problematic when it comes to future-proofing.

As part of your consultation process you will identify the different groups and types of individual who will use the space – including staff. It may be that the site caters for specific ages because of the nature of its collections or archives: even so, try to build in some flexibility to enable the space to be accessible to, and compatible with, a wider range of user, in case the institution or education team extends the reach of its work.

Consider the following:

  • Do the location and layout of the space suit the different ages and physical abilities of all users?
  • Are the fittings, furniture, equipment and materials compatible with the range of users?
  • Will all types of user be able to develop a familiarity with, and feel ‘ownership’ of, the space?

If in the future you might want to offer more services to adults with a physical disability can you provide adult change facilities, or build toilets large enough to enable this to be added at a future point? Are you buying furniture that can cater for a range of needs, eg chairs with and without armrests. If you expect to work with SEND young people can you ensure you create spaces that can have limited visual and aural stimulus with sufficient storage for equipment they might need to bring with them eg oxygen tanks or medical supplies.

In planning for the future, your first steps should be to:

  • rethink or locate the space with the possibility of future extension in mind
  • install electricity, water, network cables and other services with the option to ‘open up’ those services at any feasible point within the space, and even beyond it, through comprehensive wiring, trunking and piping
  • where possible, use fittings, furniture, equipment and materials which can be reused or resited in any expansion or reorganisation of the learning space

Planning for the future also means learning from experience. For example:

  • What hasn’t worked?
  • Where are there gaps in facilities?
  • Are there aspects of the learning space that do not suit specific groups?
  • Are there barriers to supporting particular learning styles?
  • Is the space unable to deliver new educational or cultural policies?
  • Are there opportunities for expansion?

Site staff, education teams, funders and architects need to research and agree how best to design and equip learning spaces to meet the three challenges of:

  • adapting to a site’s developing vision and programmes
  • catering for technological advances
  • responding to new trends in educational and interpretative thinking

More specifically, sites might consider how to respond to:

  • support for diverse learning styles
  • new developments by institutions and sites as a whole
  • extending and improving the quality and variety of activities that can be offered
  • making the site more accessible and relevant to a wider range of people
  • advances in technology
  • developments across particular learning phases, including adult and community learning
  • strategies and policies for the cultural sector, e.g. Inspiring Learning for All and Arts Council quality principles
  • government funding linked to specific social or educational strategies

Understanding what is happening and why can enable a site to address effectively the tensions and complexities of a brief that continues to evolve and to be rethought long after the building is complete. Significantly, this can often be done for little cost and with only minor upheaval. It requires a fresh and critical look at a learning space, identifying and realising its potential.