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University of Sheffield - Information Commons

View set on flickr The interior of Information Commons is featured on Google maps.


Background & Context


Type of Project:


New build.


Start and End dates:


Initial ideas formed in 1998. Construction work began May 2005. Building opened Easter 2007.


Case Study tags: learning spaces, new build, university of sheffield, information commons, yorkshire and humbersidehigher education


The vision for the Information Commons (IC) was conceived and jointly developed by the University Library and Corporate Information and Computing Services (CiCS) at Sheffield. The IC represents a customer-oriented, joined-up approach to services.


The IC is designed with an eye to the future. The intention has always been that it should be an iconic flagship building for the 21st Century, the Student Library/IT/Learning Space of the future.


Its open-plan, flexible learning space is open 24/7 with self-service technology that enables students and staff to access resources at any time of day or night.


The main driver behind the development was the shortage and poor quality of study spaces in the library and IT centres - Sheffield was at the bottom of the Russell Group in terms of seats per user. The 1959 Western Bank Library was not easily extendable. There was a spatial separation of library and IT provision - so students got books and wrote notes in the library and then took them to PCs situated elsewhere. Temperature control was an issue in these rooms and the environment generally was not very satisfactory.


The Information Commons was always going to be a facility in addition to current provision rather than in place of it. It was vital that students should be provided with spaces to work together and this was not always possible with the existing accommodation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that group work was regularly undertaken away from the University due to lack of meeting facilities - students would work at home or in other locations.


The idea behind the new development was that it would provide an integrated learning environment - bringing print and electronic resources together, accommodating a range of learning styles - within a research-led university.

The brief was that it should meet the study and learning needs of today's students and as far as possible those of the future - without being constrained by the vocabularies of existing academic buildings.


Staff involved in the planning stages of the IC visited a lot of buildings of different types to get a feeling for space and how it could be used innovatively and successfully. They visited examples from within and outside of the education sector and were influenced by designs for quite different environments, including one for a department store's food hall.


The key design values involved in the development included high quality architecture that is modern, striking and functional and reflects the values of the University of Sheffield. The building needed to offer a wide variety of study environments whilst avoiding regimented spaces.


The major raison d'être of the IC was the provision of an additional facility for users that provided access to book stock, electronic resources and technology, as well as opportunities for group working, all under one roof. The key phrase used in the briefing process was 'the integrated learning environment'.


From the outset of the recognition of the need for the building it was the consensus that the building should be as sustainable as practically possible. As a result the building design includes a number of features to reduce its environmental impact, such as:


  • A rainwater recycling system (grey water) below the entrance plaza to flush toilets.
  • Construction that uses a number of recyclable materials.
  • North lights that reduce glare, solar heat gain and the need for artificial light.
  • Motion sensors that activate shelf-edge lighting only when an area is in use.
  • Recycling bins for paper, cans and plastic bottles.


The IC works very much in partnership with users and with other stakeholders within the institution - features of this type of working include;


  • Pro-active working with academic departments on all issues of information resource provision
  • Strategic involvement with Learning and Teaching policy
  • Holistic view of resource provision

'Since the Middle Ages, the word 'commons' has described a shared resource and expressed the idea of community. So the Information Commons is a shared environment where the University's academic community can come together to access a wide variety of information and learning resources' (taken from University of Sheffield booklet 'Introducing the Information Commons').


As the result of active collaboration between two discrete departments the Information Commons is much more than just an IT centre or a library. It combines the best of both worlds and brings with it a new and fresh approach to the learning experience at Sheffield.

Users are offered a wide range of learning environments within the same building.


  • Soft seating areas create an informal, comfortable environment to read or relax in.
  • Study rooms of different sizes can be booked in advance for group work.
  • Quiet areas are provided 'for study uninterrupted by mobile phones, tapping keyboards or conversation'.
  • There is a 'flexispace' area on Level 4 where students can choose to work in a number of different ways.
  • The café area on the ground floor has kiosk computers for checking of emails.


The building has been optimised for 24/7 operation - including motion sensors for lights, self-service return and issue machines and self-service photocopying and printing facilities.


An innovative approach to the construction of the building was used. It has a concrete frame with cobiax/bubbledeck slab - this process involved pouring concrete around recycled plastic spheres. This approach was lighter than standard concreting and provided a better finish. The building has been clad in prepatinated copper sheet (this was chosen deliberately as if ordinary copper had been used and left to patinate naturally it would have ended up with a patchy finish) and grey terracotta tile.


The building is separated into three zones:


  • Zone 1 is North Lights
  • Zone 2 is The Void
  • Zone 3 is The Pavilion


The floor levels cut across these Zones. Each level has its own identity and identifying colour. Level 0 has the Information desk and Café. Level 1 is blue and has the CILASS collaboratories and group spaces in Zones 1 and 3 as well as books in Zone 1, the Level 1 Information Desk is in Zone 2. Level 2 is orange and has a study balcony and books in Zone 1 and Zones 2 and 3 are given over to silent study. Level 3 is green Zone 1 has a 32 seat classroom and Group Study spaces and books, Zone 2 has a silent study area. Level 4 is yellow and Zone 1 has a 24 seat classroom plus study areas and books, Zone 2 is the Flexispace and Zone 3 has further study rooms. Levels 5 and 6 are purple and appear in Zone 3 only - they house over 100+ PCs over the 2 floors. Level 5 is now designated as a silent study area, and all the PCs on that level are bookable in advance.


The IC has become a space for use mainly by undergraduates. For level 1 and 2 undergraduates the IC is their main resource; final year undergraduates and postgraduate students make greater use of the Western Bank Library and other libraries on campus where the research collections are held.


Some facts and figures about the Information Commons: The building has 8000 m2 of usable space over 7 floors - with room for expansion. There are 1350 study spaces (including 120 in CILASS (Centre for Inquiry Based Learning In the Arts and Social Sciences, a HEFCE funded CETL)) and 70 in the Café). Generous study space was allocated - up to 4.2 square metres per place. Desks have PCs but are not IT workstations. The study spaces come in a variety of shapes and forms, so students can come together in groups or work independently depending on the nature of their work. Group study tables are available on all floors and some have widescreen PCs on them - ideal for group working. There are 22,000 students at Sheffield.


  • 10 bookable group study rooms seating between 3 and 10 people and 2 classrooms are available to users.
  • 520 desktop PCs, 50 internet kiosks, wireless throughout.
  • 100,000 textbooks including reference only (copies of most titles) - out of a total university stock of 1.5 million.
  • RFID (radio-frequency identification) is used on stock and a robotic return and sorting facility is available in the building.
  • Acoustically isolated silent study space is available to users.
  • 24/7 opening of the IC supported by security staff in a concierge role There is a flexispace area that is ideal for larger group work - tables, chairs and screens are all on wheels and users are encouraged to set the space out to their own requirements.


Study spaces have space enough for books and PCs. Some are more comfortable for left-handed people and other desks have adjustable height work tops.


Some of the silent study spaces are laptop friendly, others have PCs. All silent study spaces are mobile phone free zones. Level 2 is laptop free silent study and Level 3 is a laptop friendly silent study balcony and

Level 5 is a silent PC room.


Toilets and water fountains are available on all levels - a mix of male, female and unisex accessible facilities.


Shower facilities are available on Level 1, these have been provided as part of a move towards encouraging people to cycle or walk to the University.


Funding Sources


Approximately £7M came from 2 tranches of HEFCE capital teaching funds, the rest from University sources. Some £150K was contributed by alumni and other donors.


Cost of Project


£23 million including fitting out.




The whole building is wireless enabled. Data and power points are distributed throughout the building making it easy for furniture to be moved around and laptops to be plugged in.

Huddle boards and copy cams have been added since the building opened - these enable users to share ideas, record them and edit them later. Large plasma screens are available for users to project work on to.


Accessible technology is a feature of the IC with a large screen PC with large text keyboard available on every floor. RFID (radio-frequency identification) is used on book stock with a robotic return and sorting facility provided. Flat screen monitors are available throughout the building. Both classrooms are equipped with interactive 'Sympodium' technology which allows the lecturer to 'write' in digital ink over documents open on their PC or laptop, highlighting concepts and making notes. These notes can be projected onto any or all of the plasma screens so that the students can see them as they appear.


'Web kiosks' are available on every floor for checking of emails, etc. There are Business Units on each level - these include black and white and colour printers, photocopiers, value loaders (for cards) and print release stations; there are also book issue machines in the units on three floors. Users of the building log in and out of the building using their Ucards (magnetic strip and barcode) - this helps to monitor occupancy and usage of the building.


Adding Value


The technology is widely available and accessible to users. It allows the user flexibility in the environment and the way in which they choose to work. Previously students did not have such instant access to technology alongside the book stock and the Information Commons has provided them with the additional flexibility of being able to use the book stock and PCs at the same time within a comfortable environment.

The technology is available to support both individual and group work. PC usages, borrowing and entry statistics are all being collected and analysed. Evaluation processes are being developed in conjunction with Learning and teaching and CILASS.


What Makes The Space Successful?


As well as offering a flexible space for independent learning, the IC provides a platform for developing innovative learning and teaching techniques. Users are able to enjoy continuous access to the full range of services and resources. To support this flexibility of access IC staff are available for 12 hours a day, Monday to Friday plus 4 hours on both Saturday and Sunday. Outside these hours users can get help from the Concierge staff at the front reception desk on the ground floor - this desk is staffed at all times - 24/7. There is also a call out list of other IC staff for any emergencies that may occur outside of core hours.


In addition to a traditional counter service, IC staff operate a roving support service throughout the building. This service gives students access to 'at-desk' help without having to leave their seats to visit the ground floor information desk.


IC staff work closely with academic liaison staff in the Library and CiCS to ensure that they are all aware of recommendations and advice that academic staff are currently giving to students, this ensures a joined-up service that can provide the best possible level of support for users.


All staff are trained to take personal responsibility for the queries they receive, from the point of origin until the query is resolved. A wealth of knowledge and experience shared among IT specialists and Library professionals means that staff can provide a comprehensive and seamless service.


The building is situated on a very busy roundabout in Sheffield City Centre and there is a large volume of traffic passing the building on a regular basis but special consideration has been given to acoustic insulation and the outside noise is barely noticeable inside the building - even at the closest points to the road.


The building is accessible with lifts to all floors; it is air-conditioned and uses the underfloor space as a plenum to distribute cool air from the conditioned air modules (CAMs) located around the building.


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


What Is Innovative About The Design And The Use Of The Space?


The building provides a vast open, light and comfortable space for users. Zoning of the building has provided users with a choice of environments, both bookable and freely accessible to match their moods or working requirements.


Flexibility has been built in with wireless available everywhere and access to electricity power points throughout the building. Furniture in several areas is very mobile and can be reconfigured to suit user requirements. Careful attention has been paid to

the acoustics within the building. The IC is located on a very busy traffic roundabout in Sheffield. The heavy traffic can be seen but not heard through the excellent

double glazing. Acoustic boards appear throughout the building dampening noise whilststill allowing users to generate a healthy working buzz in group and social areas.


The building is available to University students and staff all day every day and this open door policy encourages a sense of ownership with students feeling 'at home'

in the space - this has resulted in some teething problems with over-familiarity with the space and subsequent litter issues but these issues have been addressed appropriately.


Top Tips


  • Before committing to anything go out and explore developments in other HEIs and outside the sector - you can learn a lot and form opinions on features you might want to include or not based on other people's experiences.
  • Don't underestimate the need for team building, use away days, give regular communication, let people know what to expect - it's vital that staff are on board.
  • The Information Commons involved the bringing together of staff from two different departments, with cultural and operational differences, to work in the same space. This had change management issues and in order to minimise any potential issues it was important to spend a lot of preparation time prior to the opening of the IC building up relationships and training and developing staff.
  • Liaise regularly with other relevant departments and their staff - prior to and after launch - e.g. Estates and Facilities.
  • 24 hour buildings require a wide range of self-service options. Vending machines don't always need to vend food! Other consumables are also required - e.g. disks. More choice available equals less conflict!
  • Ensure that any furniture or fittings are extremely robust and if possible, have a good track record of being successfully used in high-use buildings. Avoid aesthetically pleasing but impractical solutions.


Lessons Learned


The procurement was a 2 stage design and build process - the initial phase had the architects working directly for the University. The second phase involved the architects working for contractors making communication between the clients and architects less informal. Dialogue about the building's detailed internal design (which mostly happened in the second phase) was not as comprehensive as for the exterior and general interior spaces. The two-stage process delivered good cost control but was less satisfactory from the viewpoint of client/architect communication. But generally the engagement of the architects was reported as outstanding, with a real commitment to deliver a successful building in operational as well as design terms.


As noted above the time between handover of the building and its opening was very short - a few days. There have been some teething issues as a result. The provision of power has been an issue. The original aspiration had been to have power available near to all soft seating units in the form of in-floor power boxes. However the in-floor boxes that have been installed do not have easy access to the power sockets. They are of the circular cover type and are difficult to open. Insufficient service power sockets (for cleaning appliances) have been installed and cleaners have reverted to using power supplied through the floor boxes which results in fuse failure and power outages. Some retrospective work is being carried out to improve this issue.


The long opening hours and reduced staffing levels over large chunks of those times has resulted in some issues regarding the tidiness of the space. As mentioned previously this is being tackled by the provision of more regular cleaning activity and the encouragement of users to tidy up after them.


There are also issues about the shelving of the books in the building. The books are RFID tagged and loanable copies can be self-issued and self-returned. Students

tend to leave books that they have used lying around on desks rather than replacing them on trolleys as requested. This makes shelving a more onerous task as staff have to collect the books first. The robotic sorter is now being used to sort

unissued books for reshelving and additional shelving staff have been deployed.



Post Occupancy: Changes Made As A Result Of Feedback


The IC is designed to evolve according to its users' needs. So IC staff are always interested in hearing suggestions and comments about what they do well and what they could do better. They encourage users to talk to staff or email the infocommons mailbox with suggestions.


Students have formed a number of information commons groups on Facebook with overall feedback being mainly positive. Any negative comments can be addressed immediately.


The evaluation of the building has started through the use of comments cards, a web site for comments, and an independently conducted student survey. Initial staffing requirements were underestimated and as a result of feedback and 'bedding in' evidence the staffing has been supplemented by students working on 15 hour contracts.


Also, due to the 'open all hours' nature of the building there have been some challenges in keeping the space clean and as a result additional cleaning staff are being provided in order to provide a cleaning service at regular intervals throughout the day - initially cleaning was carried out once, in the mornings.


Additionally, hand driers have been installed in the main toilet blocks and paper towel dispensers removed. This has reduced littering and blockages in the toilets.


Cold drinks can be consumed anywhere in the building and cold snacks can be consumed in the designated soft-seating areas. Hot food and drink however can only be consumed in the ground floor café area. The café space is open 24/7 but the servery in the café is not. Hot food and drink brought into the building can be consumed in the café space only.


As only two members of staff are available in the building overnight it is understandably difficult for them to police the consumption of food and drink and the subsequent generation of litter.


The cleaning issue is one that has been something of a challenge in the initial months of operation. Students are being encouraged to clean up after themselves and 'rules' on food and drink in the building are being widely advertised, including in the Information Commons newsletter.


Rubbish bins and recycle bins are available throughout the building for the collection of litter. The number of rubbish bins provided has been increased in size as a result of the amount of litter produced by users being greater than initially estimated.


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

The use of laptops and computers was not allowed in silent study areas originally but as a result of student feedback a silent study balcony area now permits their use. Also, an entire PC room has been designated silent study space.


The IC can become very busy and the availability of study spaces can be at something of a premium at times. 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 bags and belongings on the desk and the seat while they leave the area - and often the building. When this sort of behaviour is seen to be happening IC staff leave a warning note for the student on their return. Any student found to be persistently using this method of saving a space will have their belongings removed, sealed in a plastic bag and held at the security desk for collection by them on their return.


If users leave a PC unattended they will receive a warning email, and the second time they offend will be logged out and their belongings removed as above.

A longer-term evaluation strategy for the IC using the 'Theory of change' process is being developed.


Contact Details:


Martin Lewis, Director of Library Services & University Librarian, m.j.lewis@sheffield.ac.uk
Dr Christine Sexton, Director of Corporate Information and Computing Services, c.sexton@shef.ac.uk
Alex Hunt, Information Commons Manager, a.hunt@shef.ac.uk