Places & spaces: May 2021

Julian Owen rounds up the latest developments for the modern university estate – from stunning new student accommodation to cutting-edge teaching spaces

Canterbury Christ Church University

Canterbury Christ Church University has named its recently opened £65m STEM facility for Verena Holmes, the first woman elected to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and, in 1919, co-founder of the Women’s Engineering Society.

“One of our key ambitions when developing the Verena Holmes Building, and our new engineering and technology courses, was to address the skills shortage in STEM industries, especially through attracting more women into the professions,” said vice-chancellor, Professor Rama Thirunamachandran. Canterbury Christ Church claims that the 17,000m² facility will also widen access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Opened in January, with a classical-referencing design fronted in brick and glass, the building features 3,588m² of dedicated engineering space, including an engineering workshop, thermofluids lab, mechatronics lab, and Internet of Things lab. It will also house a new medical school, with an anatomy learning centre and high-definition hospital simulation suite among the high-spec facilities.

Heriot-Watt University

Robertson Construction has begun building what is claimed to be the UK’s largest, most advanced robotics and AI research facility. Slated to open next spring, the £22m National Robotarium at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, will convene academics and global companies exploring fields including offshore energy, healthcare, hazardous environments, assisted living and agritech.

The 3,700m² facility will house three distinct R&D areas: robotics and autonomous systems; human and robotics interaction; and high-precision manufacturing. Collectively, it is intended to act as a catalyst for both entrepreneurship and piquing public interest, with plans to host regular school visits and open days.

“Our existing and new students will have the opportunity to apply their knowledge by working on real-world problems through internships and industry-led group projects,” said Professor Yvan Petillot, joint academic lead on the project. “We hope to inspire subsequent generations about the positive impact of robotics and artificial intelligence, building trust, ethics and understanding into our research.”


A striking £82.5m development has opened in Manchester, comprising studio flats and cluster bedrooms for 603 students. With 32 storeys in a stack of four offset blocks, the off-kilter design softly echoes the city’s most famous 21st-century building, Beetham Tower.

In walking distance of both Manchester University and Manchester Met, boasting panoramic views across town and out to the Peak District, Artisan Heights includes two common rooms with study areas, cinema, meeting rooms, laundry, bike store, games areas and karaoke room.

The build was nothing if not challenging. During groundwork the team had to contend with land contamination, archaeological discoveries, disused culverts and a long-lost well. Later came Brexit-related material shortages and the intricacies of working in a Covid-safe environment.

“It’s with great pride that we are able to open the doors of this fantastic building to students, especially in these uncertain times,” said Unite Students’ project development manager, Luke Brooker.

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