Open, porous, sociable buildings are demonstrating their worth in higher education, and combining these facilities with enriching adjacencies is helping students receive the most vibrant learning experience on all fronts
INSPIRED ADJACENCIES are the dominant trend in new higher education buildings: even the sometimes seemingly counterintuitive placement of facilities that wouldn’t normally be situated anywhere near each other has proved a winning strategy for innovation and engagement. But the real alchemy happens only when these facilities are woven together in a flexible and sociable design and in a way that resonates with the prevailing – or aspirational – culture, and with the right levels of consideration paid to those who will be sharing that space.
Grafton Architects’ Stirling Prize winning project Kingston Townhouse is a case in point. A remarkable building with a most unusual combination of facilities, it features a highly visible dance and performance ‘courtyard’, plus rehearsal spaces around which are wrapped library services, a wide range of social and study spaces, plus a community café that is genuinely open to its residential and business neighbours. While it may seem brave – or even foolhardy – to place library facilities next to the 85/65dB noise levels of dance studios, never mind an auditorium, the client was fully on board with the idea that generous acoustic paneling (wood wool) in walls and soffits would dampen general noise, and high quality acoustic isolation would resolve all other issues.
The roof beams were CNC machined off site, assembled and dropped into the steel primary grid structure. Image Credit: Hufton+Crow
In practice, how has this unlikely pairing worked? Kingston’s director of estates, Sean Woulfe, says: ‘The first thing it gave us is just visibility. It’s a real beacon, especially lit up at night.’ This has attracted new and more frequent library visitors, he says: ‘Now we have engineering students going into that library, going to wander into the courtyard and see dancers and the studio theatre on the ground floor. That was an important aspect.’
Though there are blinds that can be drawn down if dancers want to rehearse in private, they’re rarely used says Woulfe: ‘They’re quite happy to be seen. People are just exposed to dance, to performance. And we were keen that students just come across contemporary art, contemporary dance, like it’s not a big thing.’
The 200-seat auditorium can be used to host live performances, conferences, or even lectures. Image Credit: Hufton+Crow
Having that dynamic, physical practice going on at the centre of a library building has done wonders also for student recruitment. Says Woulfe: ‘We had an open day on a recent Saturday, and the Townhouse was just buzzing. Our colleagues in recruitment tell us that Townhouse is a huge influence because people have heard about it, number one, and when they see it, it just has a big impact on parents and prospective students.’
Multi-disciplinary, educational mash-ups are occurring with increasing regularity all over the world, especially where there are topical similarities and overlaps – such as the University of Arizona’s enormous new Health Services Innovation Building by CO Architects, which unites the colleges of medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health, and clinical skills, but also where adjacencies are less obvious. For example in Feilden Clegg Bradley (FCB)’s recently opened Central Quad at TU Dublin Grangegorman Campus, ten different schools from the College of Sciences and Health, the College of Engineering and Built Environment and the College of Arts and Tourism, are dispersed in a porous, sociable arrangement across a contemporary interpretation of the classic university quadrangle.
A deep terracotta facade was chosen to compliment Warwickshire clay. Image Credit: Hufton+Crow
Luring the student and teaching community into more regular physical engagement and cross-fertilisation on the campus is one of the drivers for another FCB project – the Catalyst Building, at the University of Staffordshire. It was designed to support the client’s desire for a ‘sticky campus’, according to FCB partner Andy Theobald: ‘Here, the whole ground floor is completely open plan. It’s called a catalyst because that’s what they’re trying to do – to bring people in from off campus.’
The purpose of many of these buildings – and a key driver in their design – is also to articulate a particular culture and ambition for the clients. That was certainly the case for York St John’s University, in commissioning Tate & Co (formerly Tate Harmer) to design a supremely sociable, but also sustainable building at the heart of the campus, in York’s city centre. Here, the subjects also might be seen as counterintuitive – the dry and technical study of information technology together with music and drama. But given the growing importance of virtual reality and gaming disciplines within the creative arts, that combination may well end up seeming even quite visionary.
Socialisation has been heavily factored into the interior design, but the Town House is still very much a place to work. Image Credit: Ed Reeve
Certainly, the social staircase at the heart of the large, timber atrium, and breakout spaces around each floor, will facilitate those cross-disciplinary conversations in a way that departmental silos never would. And triggering conversations between departments is what it’s all about, says Lara Michael, project architect at Cullinan Studio, of their unique arrangement of manufacturing, research and design facilities at the National Automotive Innovation Centre (NAIC) at Warwick University (see case study).
Being the first to blend different disciplines and technologies requires understanding between client and architect, and a really thorough consultation process. Says Michael, who was involved from the very beginning of the NAIC project: ‘It was a major challenge to bring quite different facilities under one roof. Usually they would place design separate to manufacture, separate to testing. All have different acoustic requirements and privacy requirements (intellectual property issues around automotive innovation are protected like state secrets). That was challenging. And having students mixing alongside these spaces was another challenge.’
An effective design champion is vital in such evolutions. Luckily, the whole project had the backing of Lord (Kumar) Bhattacharya, professor of manufacturing systems, and the individual who first established Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) having come to the University of Warwick as a lecturer in 1980. He served as WMG chairman until his death in 2019 – sadly, just months before the building completed.
That top-down commitment must have been crucial in arguing the benefits of doing something that has never been done before – such as stacking departments one on top of each other, which involves bringing heavy loads like the cars themselves, or the full-size clay models which are used for fine-tuning their contours, onto all levels of the building.
Previously, those hands-on modeling and mechanical activities would be sited on the ground floor. But by accommodating cars on all floors, they have achieved something that benefits all inhabitants, in the wide and flowing avenues and terraces on every level, which are turned into an enjoyable part of the journey through the building thanks to sweeping vistas at every opportunity onto the campus through ample glazing and outdoor space.
The resulting civic and generous qualities of this building have given rise to other, less obvious programming for a manufacturing and research hub: the gleaming, white foyer has been used for banquets already, the height and warmth of that timber roof and the way the staircases and landings fold and recede, like gentle ski slopes, creating a rare aspirational setting for socialising.
If there are clear collaborative benefits for less likely disciplinary bedfellows with this new, porous education typology, the same is possibly even more true for more topically aligned subjects. That certainly seems to be the case with FCB’s new Warwick University Faculty of Arts, where a number of arts and humanities subjects that had been scattered across this sprawling midlands campus are now co-habiting in one gleaming, ceramic tiled tower (see case study).
Where NAIC is the biggest building on campus, FCB’s new arts faculty is now the tallest. Together, they make visible two of the university’s core assets: automotive engineering and the arts. With the arts building, FCB Partner Andy Theobald says, ‘I think they’re representing their standing within the wider community, which is important, and creating buildings of quality that reflect that is a way of attracting the right students as well. You can be visibly part of that collaborative world, which is in stark contrast to the building where humanities come from – all rooms off a simple double-loaded corridor with blank doors.’
This trend is set to continue for the forseeable future, for a multitude of reasons. One – especially post-pandemic – is the motivation to gather the student population back together in physical space. Says Theobald: ‘As the digital world becomes more sophisticated in its fostering of the ability to collaborate, so the physical environment should enhance the social and sensory experience. You need a reason to be in the physical environment. If it’s not interesting enough, why would you bother? There is a risk that people will stay in the digital world and not benefit from the intensity of a face-to-face discussion. Now that matters almost more than when the building was designed…but it actually satisfies the current criteria rather well.’
The second and third floors are dedicated to library services with impressive acoustic panelling. Image Credit: Ed Reeve
Though it has only been fully operational since late spring 2022, it has fulfilled aspirations, says Theobald: ‘What we’ve heard has all been incredibly positive. People are really wanting to come in, to be in the building rather than working from home. I hear that it’s getting quite competitive – students have to make a beeline early in the morning to get the optimal spaces for social learning.’
There may have been concerns that a highly interactive learning environment would be more hazardous for those returning, especially in the more uncertain, postlockdown months. But Kingston’s director of estates, Sean Woulfe, says that proved not to be the case. ‘When the university reopened in July 2020, the first building to open was Townhouse. It’s kind of odd to remember how terrified people were: pre-vaccination, social distancing was incredibly important.
People had to feel comfortable about going back to a public building. But because of the generosity of the staircases, it was easy to put the chevrons on, make one side up and the other side down, and on each foor it was easy to create clear one-way systems because they are such big, open floorplates. That made it a no-brainer that Townhouse would be the first building to open up. And it was able to stay open all the way through the remaining lockdowns that happened. This was vital because quite a large proportion of students were in halls of residence and they needed somewhere to go to study, because their options were so limited.’ The key lessons learned from this building will be carried through, says Woulfe, in the remaining campus improvements.
CASE STUDY NATIONAL AUTOMOTIVE INNOVATION CENTRE (NAIC)
The design evokes the mid-century heyday of both motor and aeronautical engineering. Image Credit: Hufton+Crow
A remarkable blend of motor manufacturing, design technology, and academic research, the National Automotive Innovation Centre (NAIC) at the University of Warwick is one-of-a-kind. This £150m complex, designed by Cullinan Studio offers its client partners – the University of Warwick, Land Rover and global steel giant Tata Motors – a 21st century collaborative workspace to progress every aspect of automotive design within the same 33,000 sq m site.
Parked on a prominent spot just beyond the entrance to the university campus, its design evokes the mid-century heyday of both motor and aeronautical engineering – with its wide, sweeping lines, elegant curves and chrome edgings – combined with the new, ecological aesthetic of the 21st century, as articulated in gleaming, pale surfaces, light touch technology and its use of timber, most notably the diagrid beams of the huge timber roof, which appear to float above the curving, glazed exterior.
Undulating mesh cladding across the south facing exterior provides a touch of space age aesthetic and solar shading, and softens the scale of the building against the landscaping by Grant Associates, which includes a water course, wild native plants and spaces for relaxation and casual congregation.
Entering the white, triple-height atrium reception, below the timber canopy, there is exhibition space to the right, a large and welcoming café (open to all) to the left and rear, and an impressive engineering hall visible straight ahead: behind its glass wall, the Jaguar Land Rover current models are displayed, being tweaked, fine tuned either in their clutter-free parking bays or festooned on gleaming metal poles. Project architect Lara Michael says in theory this display space was supposed to be ‘like Kwik Fit – but not.’ It’s way up the innovation and sophistication hierarchy from Kwik Fit.
The central, collaborative core is signalled by sweeping stairs that rise at intervals to meet each layer of internal terracing that sits above secure spaces for technical laboratories and engineering areas; these upper terraces evoke both ski slopes and amphitheatres, and include generous free-form seating and tables for collaborative break-out sessions, as well as bookable meeting rooms of varying sizes. All the internal terraces have views out onto nature, as well as access to outside terraces. This connection with nature and daylight means those inside are firmly anchored both to the elements and the passage of time and seasons.
The driver for this combined facility was to halve the time from idea to production, as well as cut down travel between distant departments (trips were allegedly reduced from 700 to 100 in the first year). But doing this meant bringing vehicles up onto every floor for every department to participate in research and testing; hence the wide corridors and heavy duty lifts to each floor. Future-proofing comes through reconfigurable walls and writable surfaces, and a range of meeting spaces of all sizes, in all areas except the secure central core.
Constructed from glulam and cross-laminated timber (CLT), the roof beams were CNC machined off site, assembled and dropped into the steel primary grid structure. The walls comprise CLT ‘megapanels’. This use of timber is intended to flag up NAIC’s ambition to prioritise environmental considerations.
Client Warwick Manufacturing Group, University of Warwick, Tata Motors and Jaguar Land Rover
Architecture Cullinan Studio
Site Gross internal area 33,000m2
Completed February 2020
Services, structural and civil engineering Arup
Fire engineering Buro Happold
Acoustics Buro Happold
Landscape Grant Associates
Contractor Balfour Beatty
Interiors fit out Peson
Specialist lighting Arup
Awards FX Awards 2020 finalist, Building Awards Project of the Year, BCO Regional Award for Innovation
CASE STUDY THE CREATIVE CENTRE, YORK ST JOHN UNIVERSITY
Music is not the only subject taught here, with IT being a core offering. Image Credit: Hufton+Crow
It takes vision and determination to compete in the same town as a blue chip, Russell Group University. But York St John University – which started out last century as a teacher training college – certainly has plenty of both. It has just opened a building at the heart of its city centre campus that communicates bold values of excellence in the performing arts, as well as the less likely bedfellow of IT, and does so in a warmly welcoming, enveloping building made largely of timber that is designed to be a sociable hub for all of its students.
The building sits in the heart of the campus in the centre of York. Image Credit: Hufton+Crow
What’s more, it plays to Generation Z’s increasing passion for sustainability with that quality writ large in Tate & Co’s architecture, both in the low embodied carbon materials such as glulam and CLT used for its construction, and the Passivhaus principles they deployed to achieve a BREEAM Excellent rating, working closely with environmental design consultant Atleier Ten. The building has triple-glazing, but also simple, openable windows to offer both mechanical and natural ventilation, where appropriate, throughout the building.
There are 2,000 sq m of flexible teaching spaces that can be adapted to suit changing needs, with column-free floors that allow for multiple configurations. Where technology can provide the obvious link between performance and creativity, state of the art facilities are provided, including professional standard TV and film studio spaces.
The social staircase at the heart of the large, timber atrium and breakout spaces will facilitate cross-disciplinary conversations. Image Credit: Hufton+Crow
Teaching spaces are wrapped around the main attractions – the atrium space, and a 200-seater auditorium, for live performances, conferences or community events. Lined in pre-fabricated timber, the latter’s slatted surfaces reference the thin vertical niches that are such an architectural feature of York Minster nearby. The Minster itself, and the college’s enviable location right at the heart of York’s medieval street plan, are reinforced through careful framing of views from the atrium, the recital hall and the critical listening room on the upper floor.
Taking its cue from its home city, the auditorium also references the York Minster with its timber slats. Image Credit: Hufton+Crow
A glass and timber glulam roof allows daylight to pour into the atrium and throughout the building, while a series of connected routes now link the Creative Centre to its adjacent Design Centre, all part of a larger integrated, easy-to-navigate pedestrianized masterplan designed by Tate & Co for this central campus.
Client York St John University
Architect Tate & Co
Engineer Atelier Ten
Completed Spring 2022
CASE STUDY FACULTY OF ARTS, WARWICK UNIVERSITY
Although there are clear synergies between the subjects – arts and humanities – taught in Feilden Clegg Bradley’s new Faculty of Arts building for Warwick University, their colocation in this unusual, sculptural building, filled with social and flexible learning spaces, is highly conducive to learning enrichment.
The large staircase is designed to faciliate social interaction among the students. Image Credit: Hufton+Crow
The new arts faculty embraces classics, history, English, languages, film and theatre, all of which have access to the studio and performance spaces on the ground floor, as well as the warm and inviting, inhabitable large staircase that curves up through the building’s core from its flared, informal amphitheatre-style base.
The building comprises four light-filled pavilions of up to eight storeys arranged around this staircase, with each pavilion offering a variety of teaching, office and academic environments. The staircase’s spiralling form also creates a variety of informal spaces for learning and gathering at each level.
With its contoured ceramic-tiled façade – a deep, earthy, unglazed terracotta chosen to tone with the local Warwickshire clay – it is one of this distinctive mid-20th century campus’s most striking buildings, and it transforms what had been a dead car parking area into a beacon for the arts. Says architect and FCB partner Andy Theobald: ‘Its location required it to be a building in the round, presenting a façade to all the structures and landscaping around it. The scheme is based around the organisation of flexible spaces that can either be academic or teaching, which can chop and change, to suit different departmental uses through the day. At the same time, the intention was to draw students into the building for both formal and informal learning, with open plan areas as well as offices. There are some simple square footprints in the plan, and the building is made up of four of them on every level…The idea was to create both a sculptural feel but also get departments to occupy one, two, three or four of these clusters.’
The communal spaces are intended to facilitate socialising as well as face-to-face learning Image Credit: Hufton+Crow
The unusual structure was apparently inspired by Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida, says Theobald: ‘We have three rectilinear clusters and one twisted. That one twist really started to make the interior more dynamic. The geometries had to be resolved around it. We felt that complexity was going to be a real addition to the interior.’ The gaps between the pavilions create slots through which mature trees and surrounding landscaping are framed, and windows (many of them openable), where possible, are oriented into the leaf canopy. There are open, west facing roof terraces on levels three and five. The pleasure of being in these spaces is intended to ensure that students fully enjoy the opportunity to gather and converse in real life, after the restrictions of the last three years.
While the building was devised before current environmental performance ambitions, a low carbon cement substitute was used in the concrete frame, saving an estimated 264.8 tonnes of carbon. Its foundations comprise recycled concrete from the previous car park. It features smart internal climate control technology, and achieves a BREEAM Excellent rating.
Client University of Warwick
Architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Completion Spring 2022
Engineers Buro Happold
Construction Bowmer & Kirkland
Landscaping Bowmer & Kirkland
CASE STUDY KINGSTON TOWN HOUSE
Kingston Town House is a £50m, 9,400 sq m knowledge, research and performance hub that opened in January 2020. Conceived by its architects as a piece of ‘social infrastructure’, its sociability was of course radically curtailed by the events that unfolded in March 2020 and the lockdowns that followed.
But the original intentions for this six-storey, porous building of glass and tall pre-cast concrete beams and pillars still holds good.
The interior is organised as a 3D social matrix, with social staircases and wide spaces. Image Credit: Ed Reeve
The interior is organised as a three-dimensional social matrix, navigated via a wide social staircase, and animated by a three-storey interior courtyard, which acts as amphitheatre and performance/ event space. Soundproof doors can be closed off for events but when not in use, they are open, leaving these tiered benches available for study, interaction or just relaxation.
Dancers moving between studios on the first floor are visible from the benches, and vice versa. A long, spacious café that fronts onto the main public thoroughfare also doubles up as bar/food space for performances, whether those of the students or hired out to local companies. The welcome to the wider community is reinforced by the café’s visibility from the adjacent busy road, and the wide, ground-level undercroft colonnade.
The second and third floors are dedicated to library services. Really comprehensive acoustic paneling – as well as the acoustic isolation in dedicated performance and rehearsal spaces – make the building calm, voices barely rising above a gentle, conversational murmur.
The second and third floors are dedicated to library services with impressive acoustic panelling. Image Credit: Ed Reeve
Fourth and fifth floors provide a mix of office, study and meeting space, with a second café on the fifth floor offering a roof terrace with panoramic views across to the River Thames.
This and two other exterior terraces, plus the generous landscaping, planting and seating along the building’s base, reinforce the perception of the Town House as part of an open, urban, civic landscape. The generosity of study and seating spaces is partly driven by the unusual nature of Kingston’s cohort: around 60% of students are drawn from the local area, and living at home. This building offers somewhere to suit all contemporary social or individual study requirements. At the opening, director of estates, Sean Woulfe stated: ‘I think this is actually a built expression of our philosophy of openness and inclusion.’
Client Kingston University
Architects Grafton Architects
Area 9,400 sq m
Completion January 2020
Awards RIBA Stirling Prize 2021