Skip to content

The Art and Science of Hubs: Q&A with Architecture Counsel’s Oliver Beck

ACI Hub Flexibility

Q: Where did the idea of hubs come from?
OB: I’ve been designing hubs for about 20 years. Conestoga College in Waterloo, Ontario was one of my first hub projects under ACI, which incorporated a Welcome and Recruitment Centre, registration and various counselling and student support services. We took a maze of spaces in a late 1980’s building, once focused on back of house administration, and created a new entry sequence connected to a network of pedestrian pathways that tied this area of the College together.

I’d say hubs actually came from the healthcare sector and patient-centered thinking. Instead of silos that serve patients, healthcare providers realized they needed to bring services to patients. The concept translates well to academic and public sector environments, because it’s about looking at a suite of services within an institution and reconfiguring them in a way that focusses on creating a positive user experience while consolidating operational resources.

For example, a student service hub is not restricted to a specific service or a single kind of student, but instead lets the student community receive services they need in an integrated way. Sort of a “no door is the wrong door” approach.

Q: How important is it to begin thinking in terms of hubs?
OB: Defining the central purpose for how students need and want to interact is key and reflects a shift in the way institutions want do business. It demonstrates how they’ve moved from operations-centred to stakeholder-centred service delivery by consolidating resources for the benefit of their stakeholders.

When we think of hubs, it comes down to how do we, as storytellers, find the heart of what matters for students – what do they need to succeed in a given area. That can include a learning hub, student service or administration-oriented hub. We know that every year higher education is facing new challenges in competition, learning environments and student expectations. Service hubs have emerged as highly interactive, collaborative and supportive environments. In these environments, we design spaces that encourage a sense of comfort and belonging as soon as people walk in. These spaces message well-being, which can be done by something as simple as locating the coffee shop by the door. The smell of a nice cup of coffee triggers a positive emotion.

Another good example of clear messaging is the Toronto Community Housing Corporation Hubs (TCHC). They came to ACI after a lot of internal discussion, where they realized they weren’t serving their residents as well as they should. This was largely because they’d centralized their services in one place that wasn’t near the housing communities. As one of the most at risk communities in the country, these residents can often feel alienated, isolated and confused about accessing services. Their first language might not be English. They need as much help as they can possibly get, so the TCHC came up with a mission to create 88 Hubs to bring the services to their residents and communities. It was a brilliant way to say: “we are here to serve you, you are part of a community, we aren’t just your landlord.”

Q: What are the three must-haves in a successful hub?
OB: I think there are some common elements shared by every hub.

1. Flexibility
A hub should represent comfortable, flexible space: if the space allows, it should be converted into other functions, like events or smaller gatherings. Often these are high traffic regions within an institution that need to be ready to adapt to multi-use, multi shifting priorities. Someone might want to do some homework while waiting for student aid staff, so perhaps there needs to be a laptop bar. Maybe student aid staff are only scheduled to work for a few days a week at certain times of the year, so there should be a series of hotelling offices. Another student or staff member may want a private conversation with a counsellor. There might be a presentation at night, where the space needs to accommodate larger numbers. A flexible design should permit space to be reassigned for different uses – and users – on an ongoing basis.

2. Balance
There needs to be balance between animation and spaces that offer a higher degree of privacy. People like going into places that have activity and life. For example, you grab a snack while you wait for a service. Versus sitting in a kind of fossilized environment where you wait until you are called. But the design also has to accommodate more private meetings, where glazed partitions with translucent aspects can make an area feel part of the space, but also separate from it.

3. The Right Mix
Determining the services that go into a hub can be one of the most challenging parts of a project because owners, often with our assistance, need to assess what people need, and weigh that against what the organization has to offer. Getting the mix right can often result in a change management exercise. If you change the physical environment, then the way you deliver services may also have to change.

Q: Does one size fit all with a hub?
OB: It would be great if we had a hub folder we could just access on a server. The fact is every hub – whether for a university, community housing project or healthcare centre – is completely unique. We, as designers, need to listen to what a-day-in-the-life is like for the end users to determine what will work. We use this detailed investigation to craft a functional program – or blueprint – for the needed elements.

Q: Why can a hub fail?
OB: Sometimes the location is wrong, and a hub can’t deliver, because there isn’t the right traffic flow. Or, there’s a disconnect between its purpose and its location. Hubs can also be made too rigid, like creating an old-style, bank-like atmosphere, where there’s a wall of formality that’s not perceived as being welcoming and engaging. Location, location, location – coupled with flow, visual connections, and a complimentary suite of services – is key. Needless to say, good staff are critical to actualizing the space too, but we like to think that the positive, respectful environment lends itself to the provision of good service as well.

Q: What is the best aspect of hubs to you?
OB: They’re inventions. They’re taking bits and pieces of things that weren’t once together and aligning them in a space that tells a story or reflects the mandate of an institution. They represent all those good altruistic things – the caring nature of an institution, putting the needs those who are to serve ahead of historic operational efficiency, and generally bringing people together. That includes a range of stakeholders, whether they’re students at a university, staff or tenants in a low-income building.