Beyond bricks and mortar

Julie Ferry takes a look at how some older HE buildings are being transformed with innovative refurbishments

Quietly on campus and cities around the UK a change is happening. While skylines around the country have been characterised by imposing cranes, as universities have engaged in a building boom resulting in world-class facilities to attract and retain the best and brightest students and staff, there has also been a recent shift in the management of their estates. Increasingly, as uncertainty grows around funding, universities are looking towards the refurbishment of existing buildings with some innovative and inspiring solutions.

“Universities are spending more money on refreshing the buildings they already have as part of their estate,” explains Jon Roylance, higher education sector lead at architectural practice, ADP. “Faced with smaller budgets, they are spending it more efficiently and spreading it further. This means improving the utilisation of space and considering the importance of IT and AV integration and immersive teaching environments when refreshing such buildings.”

The Fine Arts building, University of Leeds

Roylance is quick to point out that this shift doesn’t mean that universities aren’t investing in completely new projects, just that refurbishment is emerging as a priority. In many instances, working on such projects can bring great rewards, as well as challenges. Roylance points to a recent project that ADP completed for the University of Leeds, which involved repurposing a geography building to create a new home for fine arts and cultural studies.

“Some of our best projects have come from breathing new life into existing buildings,” he says. “That project took a wonderful 1920s building that had beautiful terracotta tiles and ironwork, which gave the building soul. It was really rewarding to be able to retain these features and change the focus of the building into a hub of creativity.”


Extending the life of buildings

Building Transformation can transform your university, creating places and spaces for learning that inspire excellence.

As the students left for holidays this summer, we restored the University of Surrey’s prestigious Leggett Building – home to the Surrey Cancer Research Institute. As well as recoating and protecting against future weathering patterns, we restored uniformity across
all façades.

At the University of Birmingham, the Estates team was keen to restore its older buildings, breathing new life into the campus. With a mixture of stonework, a sensitive approach was required. Through initial test trials on the Memorial Clock Tower and Great Hall, we determined that a combination of the application and manual agitation of a spore neutralising biocide and multi-phased steam clean would achieve the best result and maintain the integrity of the materials.

Our methods and results breathed new life into the historic buildings. From the technical surveys and testing through to completion, we have succeeded in extending the lifespan of these buildings.

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The challenges

Of course, there are myriad challenges presented by refurbishing existing sites. Mike Entwisle, partner and education sector director at BuroHappold Engineering, explains that it can be a mixed bag when approaching such projects.

“With regard to adapting existing buildings, it really depends on where you are starting from and where you are trying to get to. A lot of buildings built in the 1960s or 1970s might now be due for refurbishment because environmental standards back then were very different than they are today. Those buildings may have low ceilings, poor circulation and inflexible frames, which makes them more challenging to use than those buildings with a more generous ceiling height and circulation spaces.”

However, one such project that was blessed with a promising starting point was the refurbishment of the David Attenborough building for the University of Cambridge which BuroHappold embarked upon in 2013. While Entwisle acknowledges that in some ways it was “quite difficult to refurbish because of its architectural nuances”, he counters that it was ultimately a successful build because it already possessed great spaces to work with. Looking at the recent crop of building projects, it’s clear there is no shortage of ambition among estates teams in the sector. However, the challenge for architects when bidding for a project is to balance the long list of elements needed to provide for different stakeholders with smaller budgets and environmental considerations.

This spotlight on making buildings work harder is part of a larger focus on nurturing the health and wellbeing of students and staff

“The sector wants more things – more inter-generational learning, more cross-disciplinary learning, more buildings that help with social interaction – and at the same time there is less being demanded – slower budgets, less carbon and energy being used,” says Neven Sidor from architects, Grimshaw. “So that has become our mantra. We are trying to do more with less.”

The green credentials of a building have become more of a priority recently. Whether driven by increasing awareness throughout the student body of the climate emergency, a sense of responsibility that academic institutions should be leading the way on such issues or legislative considerations, architects are being asked to incorporate sustainable elements into their plans. “We are starting to see universities nail their colours to the mast in terms of sustainability and that can influence the design of the building,” says Entwisle.

However, there are other competing priorities to consider. As the university sector moves into a more uncertain phase, competition for the recruitment and retention of academics, as well as the offering they present to students, is crucial. While there is still an appetite for creating inspirational spaces, Roylance says that the development of state-of-the-art facilities and learning spaces are what students are most interested in. He lists more student hubs including a mix of spaces as key that are quiet and contemplative for learning and social spaces for vibrancy and interaction and has seen a “drive towards spacial optimisation where the university is targeting academic and administrative space and trying to give it back to students”.

This spotlight on making buildings work harder is part of a larger focus on nurturing the health and wellbeing of students and staff and fostering connections with the community beyond the institution. 

“It’s not just about big wow moments when designing projects,” says Sidor. “The most important thing about these buildings is, ‘How do they make you feel?’ Every building doesn’t have to shout and scream. There are moments in a campus where that’s important but it’s the smaller, human stuff that’s just as important, such as the social engineering aspect of the buildings. So do the networks that go through buildings intersect at key points?”

The challenge for architects when bidding for a project is to balance the long list of elements needed to provide for different stakeholders with smaller budgets and environmental considerations

It’s clear that the building boom of the past decade may have slowed yet estate teams are pushing the boundaries with every project they commission. Because university buildings are not simply bricks and mortar; indeed, these spaces tap into the lifeblood of campus, enhancing the whole university experience. 


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