A new meeting place for the University of Utrecht

HU-square. A new meeting place for Hogeschool Utrecht

What was the problem?

The Hogeschool Utrecht is one of the largest institutions for higher education in The Netherlands, and is after the University of Utrecht, the largest educational organisation in the area. For the moment, its 37,000 students and 90 departments are all located across the city. These numbers will keep on rising in the coming years, which generates pressing questions on the available room for education and research. Therefore the HU wants to concentrate its activities in the near future on the Utrecht Science Park ‘de Uithof’. In preparation, the HU will be developing a building project of 40.000 m2, including a square of 10.000: the ‘HU-square’.

For this, the HU poses questions such as: what characteristics should the HU-square have to enable its users to use the space flexibly and effective? Also, how can the HU partners find a space that invites to connect and trigger its visitors?

Accessibility and sustainability were two important points of attention in this case. The designers should develop a rich understanding of what (latent) needs of users are, and visualise their concepts and underlying ideas to convince and surprise the supervisory board with a presentation of the developed concepts.

For the development of this project, the HU commissioned a team of service design experts: Remko/Christa, H2O and Movares. The goal was to develop two new and plausible concepts for the interpretation of the square.

One major precondition however, was the pressing deadline of July 1st, 2012. Only if this deadline was met, the results of the trajectory could be included in the total planning of the new site. This meant that the team only had 3 months to pursue their activities, requiring a thorough planning and the flexibility to, if necessary, making concessions on the depth of certain steps in the project.

What did they do?

To meet the pressing deadline, the design team made a strict schedule of all activities. Central to this were the four planned whole day workshops, in which stakeholders and experts could work together in processing the research conclusions and results from previous workshops. The strict schedule with its planned workshops, serving as pressing deadlines, makes the speed of the project go up.

The project consists of three phases.

  • First, H2O and the design researchers of the knowledge centre take the lead to gather information and inspiration by interviews on the usage of the future square, and the wishes and needs of its users (personnel, students, partners, etc.). The also consulted experts who could have valuable insights: architects, entrepreneurs, developers of creative hubs, etc.
  • The second phase consists of the series of workshops, engaging the subjects from phase one, members of the board of the HU and some architects of Movares. In these workshops, about four personas were created, and an idea was formed on the characteristics, attributes and appearance of the square.
  • In the third phase, the designers and architectural engineers of Movares take the lead to develop the two concept proposals, while using the persona’s. This is the step of merging, combining and selecting ideas, while also posing also critical questions, regarding both financial and technical feasibility. This was not an easy step for the team. How to select the most important functions? How to use the insights of four persona’s to define square meters? As there is no straightforward method for merging all this information, the team needs some more time to let the ideas mature.

What was the result?

This project has different results. First, the designers of Movares have distilled from the research material two thematic directions for spatial planning of the HU-square: building a central place for
reception (a large building), versus organising meetings and meeting spaces in the existing buildings.

The plans for both directions have a financial section that analyses the costs and benefits, and include a section on the consequences for the use of space (how people will get there and how does
it meet their needs). Also, for both scenarios, the plans explains what the organisational implications
for the housing agenda of the Hogeschool Utrecht could be.

The management and the housing office housing of the HU decide to choose re-use its current buildings. From a financial standpoint this is namely a promising opportunity, but also the ideas gathered in this project show that the interesting mix of functions should dominate the vision and decisions.

Next to this, the HU is very pleased to work further with the developed persona’s. They are a perfect tool to make decisions about how to adapt services to their users, to develop the building project further and to use in communication towards staff and students.

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