Building for the future with Ramboll

Gavin White, Director of Buildings at Ramboll, explains how clever engineering can help student accommodation stay flexible

It is no surprise that the introduction of tuition fees for universities has increased competition in the attraction and retention of the best candidates. Better teaching and research facilities are key, however it is perhaps less well known that student accommodation can have an equal impact on candidate attraction. A key dilemma facing those working to provide the most attractive campuses is whether student accommodation should fall within the control of an estates department or a private operator? And when investing in a new building, shouldn’t we be aiming to build in flexibility that enables a shift depending on changing future needs? The way we approach student accommodation is changing, so what should universities be considering?

Our recent experience working for the University of East Anglia, on a 514-room student residences project highlighted that estates departments can (and possibly should) develop their own student residences projects. By doing so they are able to work with the design team to maintain the strong future flexibility that is so often encouraged – but rarely used.

Achieving a fully future flexible design is, in practice, hard to achieve. But there are a number of steps that can be taken to assist any future flexibility – whether real or perceived. The structure of the building is usually designed to last at least 50 years to satisfy building regulations, but is likely to last (structurally at least) much longer. Key to planning for future flexibility is the minimisation of the internal structure, meaning a low number of columns and walls, to create areas of maximum open plan. 

UAE Blackdale development, credit: Richard Osbourne

Another crucial aspect of future planning is keeping the soffit (or underside of any construction element) as a flat surface, and avoiding any protrusions below the slab such as beam and dropped column head. This clear soffit is essential to allow the re-routing of services as required within the building over its lifetime, whilst still maintaining an acceptable ceiling void that ensures good clear head room. Additionally, the structure of the building plays an important role in the Mechanical and Electrical (M&E) services, such as heating, power supply or control systems etc, which will be designed to last around 25 years before they need to be replaced. The structure should enable new risers to be formed in the slabs and old risers to be filled in with relative ease, allowing for flexibility in space planning and use of the building. This will enable the layout to be flexible to the needs of the client at the time and avoid long service runs which would be costly and potentially deep causing headroom issues. Any works to replace M&E will be disruptive, but minimising major issues down the line are essential.

For estate management departments, future flexibility is a key design consideration. Teaching styles have evolved over the last 30 years and will continue to evolve. Seminar rooms, lecture theatres and general teaching space need to be adaptable and flexible to accommodate changes in requirements. Student accommodation is also evolving, with many rooms now offering en-suite facilities and some even a small kitchenette. The real opportunity here is to create a wholly modularised approach to the building – by using modular units that are already finished and transported to site, ready for occupancy. Generating modules of student bedrooms – or flat arrangements with shared bathroom facilities – could allow the pods to be moved around within each block or even to a new site with the 60 year design life. 

UAE Blackdale, credit: Richard Osbourne

Another key consideration for the education building sector is how we can build student accommodation quickly and sustainably. This is where the new Hickling and Barton residences for the University of East Anglia comes into its own. This project was taken from inception to completion on site in just 22 months, commissioned by the Estate Management team directly and on land owned by the University. To ensure options for future use, piled ground floor slabs were used avoid the need for pile caps, and Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) was the main structural form. Bathroom pods were also installed, as was a panelised cladding system. The site opened on time and on budget, sold out within weeks of being advertised and was full when it opened in September 2016. This innovative form of structure (using CLT) was encouraged by the university and embraced by the whole design team, as well as the contractor. Despite being a panelised system, CLT is actually inherently flexible – for example forming new door openings in the panels can be as simple as cutting a new opening in with a chainsaw!

By incorporating some of the above approaches we can make student residences that provide a vibrant and lasting future flexible space. This creates a better long term investment for the university long-term, allows for the possibility of changing use or sale, and is an entirely more sustainable approach to education building design.

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