Thursday, 3 March 2011

Re-Placing Flexibility

This is not my title it is Ken Woodman's an architect just completing his PhD and this is the title of his Thesis.
I was invited by Clare Newman, one of Ken's supervisors to Ken's thesis presentation this evening. To say that it was relevant to my wrestle with this term and to many of you who I know are following this blog is an understatement.
Ken has been researching 'flexibility' and what meaning and impact this has on school learning space design.
It was a stimulating presentation which helped me to redefine my understanding of the word.

Most reading this will know I prefer the term adaptable but Ken had suggested others which may be more appropriate dependant upon what it is that the proposer is asking for. Examples are responsive, convertible, extendable, scalable, versatile, polyvent (Ken can explain that one), diverse, agile , malleable, modifiable and fluid. What was apparent was that the language of space is a complicated one as proposed by Bryan Lawson in his book 'The Language of Space' recommended to me by Peter Jamieson.

Ken carried out mapping of space usage and movement which provided some interesting results.
He looked at traditional pedagogy, progressive pedagogy and heutagogy, which is self determined learning
I am not going to attempt to re-produce his presentation here as I hope he will subscribe to the blog and further explain his research.

Coincidentally, Richard Leonard of Hayball Pty Ltd, one of the industry partners, was in attendance who happened be the architects commissioned at the St Columba's projects referred to in blog 7.

This was a very constructive and instructive evening. Earlier I had been musing over the term flexibility and wondered if a table that usually seats 4 but extends to seat 8 is flexible or adaptable. Perhaps I should now consider if it is scalable or extendable etc. On the other hand I can't imaging Ferrari being asked to design  a 'flexible car' although this may be useful when cornering at speed !

9 comments:

  1. Ken transformed our university conference room into a lounge for his PhD completion seminar dragging in comfy chairs to replace the more corporate tables. It was a surprisingly powerful move and quite disarming. It made me think a bit more about how and where my children choose to learn at home and how different their places of choice are to their school environments. Each of our three children have a desk in their room. We have also set up a family study but more often than not, they can be found working on their beds, on the floor, on a couch or in the kitchen with us.

    I was reminded of a visit to a school in Perth. A couple of kids were speaking about how great their classroom was. On a later tour of the school, I asked the principal to show us this great classroom that we had heard about. She looked a bit bemused and said that it was just a normal classroom with an old couch in it.

    After tonight's presentation, we have each come away with an understanding that the term flexibility means quite different things to different people. Ken research suggests that children value the ability to move whereas teachers are more concerned with a variety of uses in a space, architects want a variety of spaces and providers are interested in adaptability of use over time.

    We have all heard that space must be flexible. Nigel wondered what a flexible car would look like. How come we all have our own ideas about what a flexible space is but the idea of a flexible car seems strange?

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  2. Nigel...thank you for posting this blog and inviting me to participate. I now look forward to checking it each morning over coffee, and to echo Peter's sentiments, in our Student Affairs Division at UVA, I'm really the only person who thinks about space beyond its functional utility and considers it an important tool in our toolbox. It is wonderful to have a (virtual) space for this collegial and instructive dialogue. Do most of us work in isolation? Strange given the focus of the work.

    I have always enjoyed our conversations (debates?) about the term flexible and your outspoken disdain for the word. In my opinion I think we are moving past the "flexibility" trend, efforts to create spaces intended to be the everything to everyone and then ending up with an end-product that is not great for any purpose, but mediocre in supporting a handful of purposes.

    I was guilty of this mindset a few years ago when we had an opportunity to create a small "black box" theater space for student performance clubs at UVA. We were limited by size and ceiling height, and at the time, what the student groups needed more than anything else was a great rehearsal space. While it can be difficult for the groups at UVA to find space to perform, they can usually find a spot to stage their productions without too much trouble. On the other hand, it is almost impossible for the groups to find spaces that are consistently available for regular rehearsals. Rather than creating a GREAT rehearsal space, we attempted to create a performance/rehearsal space. As it now exists, the space does not work for performance but it is a well-used, solid rehearsal space. It is over-equipped for rehearsals and the money spend on the extra equipment required to support performance could have been better allocated elsewhere. I succumbed to the pressure to attempt to accomplish too much in a space that in retrospect I can see had serious inherent, physical limitations. I should have accepted this fact during design, I knew it intuitively but didn't listen to my gut and instead attempted to achieve the impossible.

    It has been interesting to engage in our current student center renovation project with a mindset that we will create a collection of individual spaces to serve well defined purposes. I spent a good deal of time writing descriptive program statements for each space and provided them to the architect during the feasibility study and design processes, we then worked collaboratively on how to use common spaces, passageways, exteriors, etc. to bring some coherence to the building. We talked a lot about creating an "experience" and "pathways." We are striving to create a collection of GREAT, purposeful individual spaces that when combined offer the visitor/user a memorable experience.

    I'd suggest that when we receive approval and funding to create a new learning space rather than buckling down with an intense focus to determine how we're going to spend the money to satisfy every need with one project, our first step should be to broaden the lens and think about what unique niche a space can fill and how it will enhance and contribute to the total experience of the community (building) in which it will live.

    Nigel, remember our many fun and informative walks around and through the buildings in Dublin where we gained an appreciation for the views and adjacencies before we ever began to think about our specific assigned task?

    Keep at the 8-ball, if you played him close in the early stages of your studies, I imagine as you continue to collect information and process into knowledge all that you're learning about spacial relations new shot opportunities will begin to appear all over the table, regardless, you'll be in a better position to dismiss the inevitable claims of "luck" and argue that the shots were all well thought out visionary strategies...right?

    Take care.

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  3. Hi Bill,

    I have just read your this posting with interest.

    One of the greatest problems expressed by my (SCHOMS) colleagues up and down the UK is the difficulty they have with writing a project brief that will give the Architect/Designer or Estates Office the vision of what is hoped to be achieved.

    I am fortunate in that I have a terrific Estates team to deal with, and they now know that there is nothing simple or straightforward with any of the projects that include teaching space, so I don't have to rely on the project brief because the team sits at the table and talks everything through.

    From your message it looks as though you have resolved this with your "descriptive programme statements for each space"

    Is this skill something that you could share more widely?

    I can't add anything interesting to the discussion about the pool, other than, didn't they both get wet?

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  4. The various range of terms shown above do not relate to each or all of these categories such that an adaptable space is considered over ‘time’ a convertible space over ‘time’ and ‘space’ but a fluid space only over ‘movement’ for an example -hence the confusion. Further, my research showed that (with a small sample size and with some overlapping) the term flexibility was seen differently by different parties - facilities provides thought mainly about ‘time’, architects mainly about ‘space’, teachers about ‘use’ and students (and only students) about ‘movement’. This has the potential to cause problems when someone says ‘I want a flexible space’ and someone else is thinking something completely different. I would advise a further exploration of anyone using the term flexibility in terms of ‘What do you mean by that?’ to ensure a clear and mutual construct of the term. I have proposed some sub-terms to help narrow down the term in relation to the categories:
    Time flexibility = adaptablity
    Space flexibility = transformability
    Use flexibility = Polyvalence
    Movement flexibility = Fluidity

    I found that spaces in my secondary case study school were not being used flexibly in the day to day living of a school. Spaces were generally rigid and students generally static despite the pedagogical approach (with the exception of a heutagogical (Hase and Kenyon) student determined approach) and this was generally due issues to do with timetable in secondary schools and to teacher control. On the first of these two accounts the time table restricted flexibility as the teachers and students had no connection to their learning spaces – constantly on the move between different learning space with no time to change and personalise the space. Perhaps a more collegiate approach may be better for timetabling where groups of students and teachers are responsible for a larger learning area with a range of learning settings and the teachers negotiate between them on the best location for their task with a certain group of students on a weekly or even daily basis. The attachment to that learning place would also grow as the students and teachers operate out of spaces for which they are responsible.
    As to the issue of control, my research showed that if some of the control for spatial and personal movement was moved from the teachers towards the students then the spaces would start to work for the students, the students feel responsible for the spaces, they feel ownership over the spaces and they feel that their learning improved as a result.
    As mentioned in a previous posting by Bill flexibility may be on the wain – however I think that there is a danger that we will just replace it with some other term that nobody understands and greats more confusion – my suggestion is to Re-Place Flexibility – to fully understand it and to make it work for us and more particularly the students rather than it being a thing we ask for without understanding why. To me flexibility is not a product of building but a process of learning.

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  5. Nigel,
    (Not sure this posting got up so I have added it again)
    Thanks for your patience in waiting for me to complete and submit my PhD thesis before contributing to your blog. Those last few weeks are somewhat intense and after was a daze!
    Now to the issue of flexibility … It is confused and contested. I managed to find the following range of terms that it is related to, or described as in the literature
    Adaptable: Large magnitude, low frequency
    Responsive: For educational and societal needs
    Convertible: To suit change in educational programmes
    Extendable: Allow for ordered growth
    Scaleable: Permits expansion or contraction
    Divisible: Subdivision of space
    Versatile: Allows for multiple uses
    Polyvalent: Allows for different uses without changing form
    Diverse: Separate but connected settings
    Agile: Quick moving, nimble, active
    Malleable: At once and at will
    Modifiable: Invites manipulation and appropriation
    Fluid: Permits the flow of individuals
    Flexibility though can be divided into four categories of time, space, use, and movement with these descriptions
    Time flexibility relates to the ability of a structure to change over an extended period of time to satisfy significant changes in need. These could be pedagogical trends, expansion or contraction, or a complete change in use. Some changes in this category could require significant planning and implementation. So, if a school building was time flexible it could be converted with some significant changes from a traditional space into an open learning centre, or it may be required to have some extra space attached to it to accommodate extra classes. Alternatively, a vacant shop space may be leased, fitted out, and used as a learning space for a limited period, then returning to be a shop when the lease expired.

    Space flexibility relates to the manipulation of elements to create different spatial arrangements and could be described as a transformational type of change. This would be in response to shorter term requirements than time flexibility, such as a change in use, learning activity, or size of group. Changes in this category would require some planning, implementation, and management generally at a local school-based level. So, if an environment was space flexible it could have the interior rearranged or elements of the architectural enclosure moved. For example, the positions of operable walls, sliding doors, moveable stages, or bleacher seating might be changed.

    Use flexibility relates to changing the use of a space without altering the space itself. This change could be to permit different pedagogical activities to be undertaken within the same space. Changes under this category would require little planning and implementation, and would be generally undertaken at the room level. There would be no significant change to the architectural envelope or the internal arrangement. Thus, a space could be temporarily occupied and used for a presentation, or small group work, or individual work.

    Movement flexibility relates to the movement of students, teachers, and others within and around the learning space. The movement would require little or no alteration to the physical space, and would be undertaken on an individual or personal level. Little spatial planning or implementation would be required. Therefore, with movement flexibility, students could freely move between areas to satisfy their learning needs, and teachers could circulate among the students to access, assist, and educationally challenge students. This movement flexibility would provide for significant numbers of social and educational interactions.

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  6. (Part two)
    The various range of terms shown above do not relate to each or all of these categories such that an adaptable space is considered over ‘time’ a convertible space over ‘time’ and ‘space’ but a fluid space only over ‘movement’ for an example -hence the confusion. Further, my research showed that (with a small sample size and with some overlapping) the term flexibility was seen differently by different parties - facilities provides thought mainly about ‘time’, architects mainly about ‘space’, teachers about ‘use’ and students (and only students) about ‘movement’. This has the potential to cause problems when someone says ‘I want a flexible space’ and someone else is thinking something completely different. I would advise a further exploration of anyone using the term flexibility in terms of ‘What do you mean by that?’ to ensure a clear and mutual construct of the term. I have proposed some sub-terms to help narrow down the term in relation to the categories.
    Time flexibility: adaptability
    Space flexibility: transformability
    Use flexibility: polyvalence
    Movement flexibility: fluidity
    I found that spaces in my secondary case study school were not being used flexibly in the day to day living of a school. Spaces were generally rigid and students generally static despite the pedagogical approach (with the exception of a heutagogical (Hase and Kenyon) student determined approach) and this was generally due issues to do with timetable in secondary schools and to teacher control. On the first of these two accounts the time table restricted flexibility as the teachers and students had no connection to their learning spaces – constantly on the move between different learning space with no time to change and personalise the space. Perhaps a more collegiate approach may be better for timetabling where groups of students and teachers are responsible for a larger learning area with a range of learning settings and the teachers negotiate between them on the best location for their task with a certain group of students on a weekly or even daily basis. The attachment to that learning place would also grow as the students and teachers operate out of spaces for which they are responsible.
    As to the issue of control, my research showed that if some of the control for spatial and personal movement was moved from the teachers towards the students then the spaces would start to work for the students, the students feel responsible for the spaces, they feel ownership over the spaces and they feel that their learning improved as a result.
    As mentioned in a previous posting by Bill flexibility may be on the wain – however I think that there is a danger that we will just replace it with some other term that nobody understands and greats more confusion – my suggestion is to Re-Place Flexibility – to fully understand it and to make it work for us and more particularly the students rather than it being a thing we ask for without understanding why. To me flexibility is not a product of building but a process of learning.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Ken
    Thanks for your comments, they were worth the wait. There was a slight delay to the comments being posted because they had been marked as spam.
    The use of:
    Time flexibility: adaptability
    Space flexibility: transformability
    Use flexibility: polyvalence
    Movement flexibility: fluidity
    Is extremely useful and will help to tease out what the different contributors to the design of a space mean by flexible. A similar discussion needs to take place around the term ‘collaborative space’ (see earlier post)
    The points you make, based on your studies, about connection with and control of spaces are very important. Lecturers often have no connection to a space and, due to rigidity, the students feel no ownership. In these cases the learning \ teaching process is a less enjoyable experience than it should and could be. I think these points can be partly addressed by ‘educating’ the teachers and students about how to get the best from any given space. It is usually the case that a space is designed and built then the students and teachers are expected to instinctively know how to use it. I want to clarify that in this case I am not referring to the AV and IT but of the space itself. This is why it is important to include the educationalists in the design process. Dedicated experimental spaces like the one at Melbourne which Peter Jamieson designed can assist with this ‘education’
    I agree whole heartedly when you say ‘my suggestion is to Re-Place Flexibility – to fully understand it and to make it work for us and more particularly the students rather than it being a thing we ask for without understanding why. To me flexibility is not a product of building but a process of learning.’
    When we ask the decorator to paint the room blue s\he asks what shade. In the same way when the client asks for a flexible space the designers need to get a clear understanding of what is being asked for.

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  9. Hi Mr. Woodman
    I am a final year under graduate student from India.
    I'm doing a research on the topic which is on the similar lines as this blog.
    I found your views on flexibility to be highly Insightful.
    I have some queries regarding the same..
    what is the need?
    How beneficial is it compared to traditional learning spaces?
    To what extent the spaces need to be flexible in a learning environment?
    If you could throw some light on these it would be very helpful.
    Thank you.

    ReplyDelete

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