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No ivory towers at Sheffield School of Architecture

Stephen Parnell

Collaboration and practical experience underpin an ethos of social and environmental responsibility at Sheffield School of Architecture

Sheffield Youth Takeover: Forge the Future! Student Anna White’s live project, codesigned via workshops with 12 local teenagers, proposes  a headquarters for youth-led city design and activism.
Sheffield Youth Takeover: Forge the Future! Student Anna White’s live project, codesigned via workshops with 12 local teenagers, proposes a headquarters for youth-led city design and activism.

As I approach the Arts Tower in Sheffield, I pause to take a photo and tweet ‘Home is where the Arts Tower is’. By the time I’m on the paternoster, nearly 30 years after I first ascended to the 13th floor to start my architectural education, likes start infecting my Twitter feed. HLM’s 2011 refurbishment has clearly not diminished people’s affection for the country’s tallest university structure, home of Sheffield University’s School of Architecture (SSoA) since it was completed in 1966.

‘The School’s ethos is about social and environmental responsibility through architecture,’ says  its head, Karim Hadjri. ‘Sheffield graduates are professionals concerned with the wellbeing of communities and societies and who are committed to tackling environmental challenges – the key crucial issues of our time.’

Sheffield has long had a strong reputation for architecture. In the 1970s, with ­David Gosling as head, BDP founder Sir George Grenfell Baines set up his teaching practice there. Its reputation for social engagement emerged in the new millennium under ­Jeremy Till, when ‘live projects’ became a foundation for architectural pedagogy. ‘Live Works’ maintains an office in the city centre, a cross between an Urban Room and an architectural office providing design and research services for the local community, in which students can get involved. Students do their first small live project in the first year, experiencing direct exposure to the Sheffield public with a small construction in the city. The bigger projects happen in the first six weeks of both MArch years; students have been involved with a range of live projects for over 20 years now.

So the school engages with the community, but what about practice? SSoA doesn’t do apprenticeships. Instead, it started a ‘Collaborative Practice’ route through the MArch four years ago. Students spend four days a week of the first year in practice, with modules focusing on reflective design and practice replacing the university-based design studio. They are paid for their time in practice and receive a subsidy on their fees. The programme director, Satwinder Samra, explains that ‘we wanted to create a better relationship between university and practice. Students actively reflect on their everyday experiences, which become live academic content.’ There are only 12 students on this route, mostly in London practices. These students meet weekly at one of these offices and fortnightly with Samra too, either via Skype or in an office. The practices that first signed up to the programme were alumni Carmody Groarke, Hawkins\Brown, Proctor & Matthews, AHMM, and Penoyre & Prasad, but the list is growing annually as the programme gains interest from both students and practices (around 40 practices are signed up). A nice benefit is that the programme demands responsibility from the practice: they must be willing to mentor students and take their development seriously which means they can’t be employed as CAD monkeys, a common Part 1 student complaint. The arrangement also handily frees up studio space in a very full Arts Tower.

But does this kind of practice-based ­programme constrain the students’ critical and ‘blue-sky’ speculative thinking about what a future architecture and practice could be, the kind of thinking that MArch courses around the world famously encourage and which tend to grab the headlines? The students I put this to responded that regularly meeting other students and maintaining their reflective journal created a space for this kind of dialogue between themselves, a space which liberated them from the inevitably vested interests of both practice and academia. Touché. 

The same students also claimed that their time management and work/life balance was better when they returned for their final year (studios close at 9pm). And they were more likely to do a joint thesis project with another student, a feature of the SSoA MArch that has obvious mental health benefits.

  • Arts Tower, Sheffield, home to Sheffield University’s School of Architecture.
    Arts Tower, Sheffield, home to Sheffield University’s School of Architecture. Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Emily Glynn, School of Architecture, The University of Sheffield
    Emily Glynn, School of Architecture, The University of Sheffield
  • Students work with playworkers and local families to co-design play structures in a live project with Pitsmoor Adventure Playground.
    Students work with playworkers and local families to co-design play structures in a live project with Pitsmoor Adventure Playground.

Peer-learning and co-operation is the cornerstone of an SSoA education. In a fiercely competitive and masochistic world, where students wear badges on their sleeve for how many all-nighters they’ve achieved, or how destructive a crit they’ve survived, a more collaborative, non-confrontational, less heroic/­macho approach sounds like progress. And the empowerment that they gain results in student initiatives that address current issues such as, for example, the Matri Arch collective (@Matri_Arch_) – ‘raising issues facing women and non-binary people in architecture’ – and the Climate Emergency Committee set up to interrogate SSoA’s response to the climate crisis. ‘The staff were kicked out at the first meeting,’ says John Sampson, MArch co-director, with Cith Skelcher. He explains that as a school, they try and practice what they preach, with field trips only to places students can get to by train, for example.

Sampson invited me to sit in on some reviews (‘crit’ is considered a four-letter-word at Sheffield). Students presented their work on two immense touch-sensitive screens (each big enough to accommodate four A1 sheets apparently), rather than pinning up paper. While this experiment clearly alleviates the time pressures and expense of printing, it also inevitably tends to result in a very linear narrative and a discussion around the last slide, losing any chance of an overall ‘exhibition’ effect of the student’s work. Nevertheless, it was obvious how comfortable and confident the students were with leading the discussions – becoming an equal among the invited critics (including Andy Groarke, Anna Liu, and Stephen Proctor). No badges for surviving destructive crits here, then. But like everything at SSoA, the emphasis is on process rather than product, which is probably why I’ve not written about the projects themselves – all of which, across Parts 1 and 2, feature unheroic, socially engaged buildings ‘tackling the key issues of our time’. 

Stephen Parnell is an architect and historian of post-war architecture

Part 1 students 415 (including dual honours Architecture & Landscape and Structural Engineering & Architecture)
Part 2 students 120 MArch, 24 Collaborative Practice, 8 MALA (dual Architecture & Landscape)
Floor area for Parts 1 & 2 1684m2 (3.01m2/student)
Tutors per BA student 
Y1 1:16/17 (2 tutorial days per week) 
Y2 1:15/16 (2 tutorial days per week)  
Y3 1:14/15 (2 tutorial days per week)  
Tutors per MArch student 1:12 (1 tutorial day per week)
Studio opening times 
Weekdays: 8am–9pm  Weekends: 9am–5pm


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