Jisc case studies wiki Case studies / University of Sheffield - Information Commons Open Plan
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University of Sheffield - Information Commons Open Plan

This Open Plan Case Study originates from the 2007 JISC-commissioned study into the Design and Management of Technology-Rich Learning and Teaching Spaces in Further and Higher Education in the UK by Les Watson, Hugh Anderson (Principal, haa design) and Katherine Strachan (Architect, haa design).


Case Study tags: learning spaces, new build, open plan, information commons, university of sheffield, yorkshire and humberside, higher education 


Opened spring 2007


Respondent Dr Christine Sexton, Director of Corporate Information and Computing Services


The "Information Commons" is a new-build facility that the University started to plan in 1998. It is a concept developed by the University Library Service and Corporate Information and Computing Services and is jointly operated by these departments.


The building ranges over 7 floors and has a total floor area of 8000 square metres, has 1300 learner seats, 100,000 volumes (which are all reference or short loan stock), 520 PCs, 50 information kiosks, 10 group study rooms, and 2 teaching rooms. The building is also the home for CILASS (Centre for Inquiry Based Learning In the Arts and Social Sciences). The "Information Commons" provides an additional resource for the University and is not a replacement for other facilities such as the Library.


The building was visited only a few months into its operation and there were still a number of commissioning issues outstanding. We were informed that there had been a very short time between handover of the building and its opening (a matter of a few days). One consequence of this was the occurrence of power outages. The original aspiration had been to have power available beside all soft seating units in the form of floor boxes. However the floor boxes that had been installed did not have easy access to power sockets. They were of the circular cover type and were difficult to open. Insufficient service sockets (for cleaning appliances) had been installed and cleaners had reverted to using power supplied through the floor boxes which was resulting in fuse failure and power outages.


The building is air-conditioned and uses an under floor ducting system to distribute cool air from the chillers. On the day of the visit the building was a little warm and this was stated as a common problem - indeed on the day it is often very hot, but this was one of the hottest days this year. Since the visit it has been reported that the air conditioning system is functioning well.


A major issue highlighted was litter from food and drink consumption. The building is open 24 hours 7 days a week and the date of our visit was the day after the bank holiday when staff had been on holiday (except for essential security) and students had made heavy use of the building. There was quite a lot of litter around the building. The rules for food and drink are that cold drinks can be consumed anywhere (sports top bottles are advised) and cold snacks can be consumed in the designated soft seating areas, but hot food and drink can only be consumed in the ground floor café area. The café servery is not open 24x7 but the space is available 24x7 for consumption of food and drink that has been brought into the building. However it appears that during the overnight period when the building is staffed by two security staff the students consume all kinds of food and drink throughout the building and leave lots of litter around. We were told "students tend to treat the building like they treat their home".

A number of actions have been taken to change this behaviour and reduce the amount of litter. More and larger bins have been ordered like those in the ground floor café. Following discussions with the Facilities Department additional cleaners are being hired so that the building can be cleaned at intervals throughout the day rather than just at the start of the day. This continuous cleaning regime is likely to significantly improve the situation. A forthcoming newsletter about the building is intended to clarify the 'rules' on food and drink.



There are also issues about the shelving of the books in the building. The books are rfid (radio frequency identification) tagged and short loan books (which can be borrowed for 3 days) are self-issued and self returned. Students tend to leave books lying around on desks rather than replacing them on trolleys as requested, making the job of re-shelving more onerous as books have to be collected first.


The building is on a busy road intersection in the city but does not suffer from any traffic noise inside. Interference from external noise has been 'designed out' using effective double-glazing and other acoustic materials.

Much of the building is open-plan space with a central stair well. Although the building was busy on the day of the visit, conversational noise did not appear to intrude and there was an acceptable working buzz. There are two silent floors which are separated by a wall from the rest of the building and which provide an extremely quiet working environment. Initially laptops and computers were not allowed in this silent space but now they are, in response to student request, on the balcony level. In addition there is a silent study room equipped with PCs on the first floor. It should be noted, as mentioned earlier, that the 'Information Commons' is an additional facility with the remit to provide a variety of learning space and that the University still has its Library which is mostly quiet/silent space.


When the building was opened students tended to be very quiet, as they had only had experience of the University Library. The noise level increased over the first few weeks and then became too noisy. Now behavioural guidelines have been formulated to guide users in expected levels of noise.


The silent study area works very well and the whole building is moving towards a culture of self policing e.g. users will rebuke those whose mobile phone rings whilst in the silent study area.

There are 10 bookable group study rooms. The University previously did not have any of this type of space and these rooms are very popular.


Each of the main floors has a 'business unit' structure that carries a self-issue machine (on 2 of the floors only), colour and black and white printers, photocopiers and "value loaders" (machines for crediting cards that are used for printing and photocopying with cash).


Colour has been used to identify each floor with some repetition of colours e.g. 5 and 6 are both purple.

The building is not open to the public and has received some criticism that is it not a true 'commons'.


Interestingly students have formed a number of "information commons" groups on Facebook with overall feedback being mainly positive. Any negative comments can be addressed immediately and the fact that students have, in effect, started their own feedback channel is useful as it gives rapid continuous feedback on user opinion.

As in most spaces such as this there is an issue with students using the "beach towel" method to make sure that they can access a computer for long periods of time. They leave their ‘stuff’ on the desk and the seat while they go off and have lunch or go shopping. As these are rivalrous resources these behaviours are expected. In the Information Commons when this is seen to be happening a warning note is left for the returning student. Persistent offenders then have all their ‘stuff’ removed and sealed in a plastic bag that is held at the security desk on the ground floor for the student to collect.

An interesting point is that although the new building is an additional facility there has been no reduction in use of facilities elsewhere on the campus. This then raises a question of where were these students working beforehand or has there been a net increase in learning activity?


The evaluation of the building has started through the use of comments cards, a web site for comments, and an independently conducted student survey.