Building an investment

From flexible labs to flight simulators, Steve Wright examines some of the most exciting developments across HE estates

Innovation continues apace across the UK universities sector – and not just when it comes to learning and teaching. The sector is also home to some of the country’s most exciting development and construction projects, where enquiring minds will be able to learn and relax among state-of-the-art, bespoke facilities. 

The University of Wolverhampton is investing in advanced new engineering facilities at its Telford Innovation Campus – and rolling out a series of enhanced courses in response to the national shortage of qualified engineering graduates.

New courses including Motorsport Engineering, Chemical Engineering and Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering will be complemented by specialist equipment including a design and visualisation facility, wind tunnels, engine test facilities, 3D printing facilities, and laboratories dedicated to electronics and telecommunications, metrology and materials testing research.

Professor Ian Oakes, Wolverhampton’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor, said: “This £10m investment in new facilities and courses is creating a lot of interest, with applications up considerably on last year – and aerospace, in particular, proving very popular. This substantial investment demonstrates our commitment to providing the next generation of skilled engineers. In the UK, it is estimated that there will be a shortfall of around 200,000 qualified engineers by 2020. Our new courses combine activity-based learning and live industrial project work with a real focus on creativity and employability.”

Students will get the chance to work alongside academics and peers from across science and engineering disciplines… providing new opportunities ti enrich the student experience

The University appointed local Shropshire building contractor, Pave Aways, to build the new development, with Associated Architects contributing the designs. Wolverhampton will be the only university with the highest level of racing experience (to Formula 3 standards), meaning that students are hands-on both in the workshop and when racing at competitions – the University’s Race Team is currently leading the grid in the national F3 Cup Championship. “This kind of ‘work’ experience offers opportunities that no other university does and really prepares students for employment in the motorsports sector,” says Professor Oakes.

A world away from chalk and talk 

State-of-the-art flight and track simulators will offer students hands-on, practical experience in a virtual classroom, allowing them to put engineering design processes into practice by simulating driving or flying conditions. The enhanced facilities will also include a robotics display centre and a suite of new computers to support virtual learning. Dr Syed Hasan, Head of the University’s School of Engineering, said: “Our new engineering curriculum has moved away from the ‘chalk and talk’ era, and we are now focusing on providing our students with an innovative virtual teaching experience.”

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Further south and west, innovative furniture designers StudyBed have just completed a large refurbishment project for Falmouth University. The University, situated in the centre of the Cornish town, has grown fast since being given the green light to expand from 5,000 to 7,500 student places over the course of a few years. It’s also been named the UK’s top arts university by the Sunday Times for two years running, and demand for student places is strong. 

“This expansion has created some inevitable accommodation issues, for which several quick solutions have been required,” explains StudyBed’s Ben Berry. “One such solution has been for the University to convert existing rooms in halls from single to twin use, using our innovative StudyBed solution which converts a bed into a desk or vice versa in just seconds. This exercise not only creates more instant bed spaces, it also reduces the rent for students while at the same time increasing revenue for the University – a win-win situation.”

The company supplied the University with 416 StudyBeds in total. “StudyBeds were an obvious solution to our increased demand for accommodation, allowing us to offer our students an innovative and attractive shared-room option,” explains Oliver Lane, Falmouth’s Accommodation Services Manager. “The StudyBed team offered a high level of professionalism and customer service during the project, from their first visit to discuss bespoke design through to completion.” 

Elsewhere, global modular flooring specialists Interface have recently helped the University of Hertfordshire to create an inviting interior in its learning and accommodation facilities in Hatfield. Interface supported the University on the vast refurbishment project, which involved renovating three large buildings across two campuses. These included the library facilities in the Buxton Centre for Learning, the Mercer Building at its College Lane campus and the student accommodation at the de Havilland campus. 

In both the Mercer and Buxton buildings, the University wanted an environment that would help motivate students during study and revision sessions, as well as a stimulating backdrop for the Estates, Hospitality and Contract Services department. Accommodation, meanwhile, needed to provide a warm and restful space for residents to relax after lectures. 

An inviting environment

“The Buxton Centre is one of the main communal buildings on the College Lane campus, hosting zones for both quiet and group learning,” explained David Phillips, the University’s Learning and Teaching Space Manager.

“The bright flooring is ideal for all activity zones in the Centre. It helps to create an inviting, appealing environment where students can either relax or study between lectures.”

“Using a modular flooring system in the Mercer Building offered plenty of scope for design creativity,” adds Stephen Chown, Architect at Vincent and Gorbing Architects, who led the Mercer refurbishment. 

“It allowed us to define different activity zones in open spaces or add focal points and other aesthetic details.” 

Interface’s durable flooring will also help to cut maintenance costs for the University’s estates management team. Moreover, the modular flooring means that individual tiles can be easily replaced when worn, rather than changing the entire floor – helping to keep the space looking fresh with minimal care needed. David concludes: “Our buildings are under almost constant use during term time, so it can be a real challenge to carry out maintenance programmes without causing disruption to students’ learning. Interface’s flooring has helped us to achieve our goal to be a home from home for students during term time.” 

State-of-the-art STEM

Over at the University of Loughborough, work has started on the creation of STEMLab, an exciting new teaching laboratory building for the University’s science and engineering disciplines. The flexible labs and workshops will be fitted out with state-of-the-art equipment to ensure students maximise their hands-on experience and gain industry-relevant skills.

The project is part of a wider £50m programme of investment in the University’s West Park (home to its science and engineering schools) that also includes the relocation of the Chemistry department to a fully refurbished building with associated laboratory infrastructure.

Our new courses combine activity-based learning and live industrial projectwork with a real focus on creativity and employability

Professor Rachel Thomson, Loughborough University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Teaching), explains: “Students will get the chance to work alongside academics and peers from across our science and engineering disciplines, including those from our new Biosciences, Bioengineering and Biomaterials programmes, providing new opportunities to enrich the student experience.

“We are well known for our inter-disciplinary research at Loughborough: STEMLab ensures that we will continue to transfer this approach to teaching and learning, enabling students to broaden their experience and increase awareness of other relevant science and engineering disciplines.”

Engineering our future

Last but certainly not least, this summer the University of Manchester received planning permission from Manchester City Council to create a £350m engineering campus. The Manchester Engineering Campus Development (MECD) will be one of the largest single construction projects ever undertaken by a UK higher education institution. At 195 metres long, the centrepiece MEC Hall would easily accommodate Manchester’s tallest building, the Beetham Tower skyscraper, laid sideways.

Due for completion in 2020, the development is part of the University’s £1bn masterplan to create a world-leading campus. The flagship project will bring together a multi-disciplinary engineering and scientific community and consolidate the University’s student campus around Oxford Road. Located opposite the National Graphene Institute and adjacent to the Manchester Aquatics Centre, the new site will act as a gateway between the existing University campus and the city.

The new campus aims to heighten the visibility and accessibility of the University’s engineering and applied science activities – and to help engagement with industry, local schools and the wider public. A key feature will be its dedicated ‘maker spaces’: dynamic workshops in which students and academics will share ideas and work together.

Architects Mecanoo, responsible for Manchester’s HOME, have been appointed to the project. Francesco Veenstra, Partner at Mecanoo and Design Team Leader for the project, said: “Integrating architecture, interior and landscape, we have designed a campus that will assist The University of Manchester’s ambition to become one of the top 25 research universities in the world.”

“This once-in-a-lifetime project builds on Manchester’s proud heritage of innovation and discovery,” explains Professor Martin Schröder, Vice-President and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences. “We will train the engineers of the future and discover and apply new knowledge to help industry and society to increase wealth and employment and to overcome global challenges of climate change, finite natural resources and changing world markets.” 

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