History of the Information Commons

Since opening its doors in March 2007 thousands of students have taken full advantage of all that it has to offer.

The concept of the IC

Bird's eye view of the construction site


At the heart of the Information Commons is the idea of the integrated learning environment, where students can discover and use print and digital resources in the same space, and access the resources of our virtual learning environment, MOLE.

The IC concept was developed by the University Library and Corporate Information and Computing Services (CiCS) in the late 1990s and early 2000s as an answer to the shortage of study spaces, and the spatial separation of library spaces and PC clusters.

The objectives for the massive new investment that became the IC were:

  • a significant increase in the quantity of study places
  • the creation of new study spaces of high quality and low density, giving students room to use printed and digital resources at the same desk
  • a variety of learning spaces to support a range of learning styles, from silent individual study to bookable group rooms
  • accommodation for a core collection of some 110 000 student textbooks
  • pervasive IT including wireless networking throughout, and desktop PCs on most study desks
  • a fully accessible space for students with impaired mobility
  • an environment designed to be available 24/7, with good security
  • a building that would be both highly functional and flexible, capable of accommodating changing study patterns and technology
  • an iconic building that would represent a major architectural addition to the campus and the city and give the University of Sheffield a leadership position in the provision of student learning space.

Our brief to architects RMJM demanded a solution that, while it embodied many of the features of university libraries and IT centres, would not be constrained by the vocabularies of existing academic buildings.

From early discussion papers in 1998, through final approval by the University´s Council in 2004, to opening in 2007, the IC concept evolved into the award-winning building that today´s students enjoy.

The name

We´re not the first to use the term "information commons", though we´re one of the first worldwide to apply it to a facility on this scale.

The term "commons" has languished somewhat in the UK in the last couple of centuries – apart, of course, from its use to describe the lower house of Parliament. But it´s a good old English word that was originally used to describe common land before the enclosures of the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries.

In the US and Canada, and to a lesser extent in Australia and New Zealand, the concept of the "commons" as a shared resource or facility persisted, sometimes applied to buildings such as refectories. The term "information commons" has gained currency since the late 1980s, both to refer to a physical space, where information resources can be accessed and used; and to a virtual information space or community resource.

We chose to use this name because, like "library", it's rooted in history. And by re-introducing it to the UK we´re signalling the exciting scale and innovation of this new learning environment, with its shared resources providing access to the world's knowledge.

Innovations of the IC

IC showing the external cladding and the atrium


Architectural

The Information Commons is a seven storey building with a gross area of 11500m2, and 7 800m2 of usable space. It utilises a reinforced concrete frame, with innovative semi-precast floor slabs using the Cobiax bubbledeck system. Its external cladding is principally of pre-patinated copper sheet, and grey terracotta tiles attached to a steel frame.

Its dramatic external form, by architects RMJM, features distinctive full-height copper-clad northlight windows that wrap over the ceiling of the top floor.

Internally, the building features a triple-height top-lit atrium, a double-height silent reading room with balcony, and variety of smaller spaces from classrooms down to six-seat group study rooms.

Acoustics are carefully managed, to minimise noise break-in from nearby traffic and rapid transit trams, and internal reverberation. The silent study spaces are acoustically isolated from the rest of the building.

Climate control is achieved through a network of conditioned air modules (CAMs) which use the underfloor spaces as a plenum for air distribution, with floor-mounted fan tiles.

Lighting strategy is optimised for the use of natural daylight, with generous northlights to avoid glare and solar gain. Background artificial lighting is subdued (150 lux), and supplemented by task lighting on desks and bookshelves.
Environmental

The Information Commons is designed to have a low environmental impact for a building of its size and function. Key design considerations are:

  • a grey water harvesting system that uses filtered rainwater for toilet flushing and washbasins
  • energy efficient conditional air module (CAM) climate control
  • high performance thermal insulation
  • intelligent lighting that reduces lighting levels in areas where no students are working, and shelf lighting designed to switch on and off automatically
  • cladding and construction materials that are easily recyclable

Technological

The Information Commons contains technology every bit as advanced as its twenty-first century external form might suggest. This includes:

  • pervasive wireless networking
  • radio frequency identification (RFID) technology for managing the bookstock, including one of the first robotised book return sorters in the UK, and self-service book issue throughout the building
  • extensive use of plasma screens for directional and information signage
  • advanced low-energy low-footprint PCs
  • thin client kiosk-mode workstations for email and online catalogue access
  • group study areas with huddleboards and copycams, enabling students to record whiteboard work
  • classrooms with advanced Sympodium technology for student/teaching interaction and group working

The awards

It's not entirely surprising that a building as dramatic and successful as the Information Commons should have collected a clutch of awards.

RIBA Award, 2008
RIBA White Rose Gold Prize for Architecture, 2008
RIBA White Rose Building of the Year, 2008
RIBA/Sheffield Civic Trust Sheffield Design Awards, Building of the Year, 2009
RIBA/Sheffield Civic Trust Sheffield Design Awards, Sheffield Citizens’ Award, Commendation, 2009
Construct Award for Innovation and Best Practice, 2007
Construction Products Association Awards - Innovation Award, 2007
Building Magazine Sustainability Award (Runner up), 2007

The Launch and beyond

IC opening day


Open day

Construction on site started in May 2005 and the building was handed over at the end of March 2007 by the principal contractor, BAM Construct UK plc.

Like many major new buildings, the Information Commons had two openings. The first, on 10th April 2007 (Easter Tuesday) was when students first entered the IC, and discovered its exciting and modern new spaces. This momentous day followed an Easter holiday of frantic activity by computing (CiCS), Library and Estates staff as the building was readied for use, with final IT connections, the transfer of 100 000 books – many of them brand new – and last-minute snagging.

Then, on 26th September 2007, the Information Commons closed briefly for its official opening ceremony. As befits one of the world´s top 100 universities, with a global reach, the event had an international flavour. The building was declared open by Harsh Srivastav, from Lucknow, India, in the presence of the Consul General of India, Mr N P Sharma, Vice Chancellor Bob Boucher, the Lord Mayor of Sheffield Cllr Arthur Dunworth, and 200 distinguished guests from the UK and India. Harsh is a former President of our Union of Students; and after an excellent speech he unfurled a banner into the atrium of the IC.

Since the building opened, thousands of visitors from all over the world have come to explore its innovative design and operation. And most important of all, the IC has been hugely popular with the universit's students for whom it was designed, with total library visits up by some 50% since it opened.
The future

The Information Commons brief stated that the building should accommodate the needs of the students of 2007, and as far as possible, those of 2057. How can we try to ensure that the IC remains fit for purpose into the second half of this century?

Firstly, it's important to understand that the IC is primarily about student learning and the resources and study spaces that support it, rather than about the technology or the collections that it houses.

Key to the answer, therefore, is maximum flexibility. Most of the IC's internal spaces can be radically reconfigured at relatively low cost. Over the next 50 years, we can expect to see new information technologies, from much lighter and more portable laptop and notebook PCs, to e-paper and other new types of flexible display. We can also expect to see more e-books, as new economic models extend to book publishing the benefits of digital access that have already transformed the library´s journal collections.

But whatever the technology, or the format of the collections, the requirement for high quality learning space where students can study in the style that suits them is likely to remain central for campus-based universities well into the future. And buildings like the Information Commons are showing the way ahead.