The central stair at Warwick University’s Faculty of Arts Building by FCBS brings together volumes, departments, people and ideas
‘People do call it the FAB building. And we get called the FAB team, which we’ll take,’ smiles Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) partner Andy Theobald of the practice’s £43 million Stirling shortlisted Faculty of Arts Building at University of Warwick.
At eight storeys, the terracotta-clad new faculty is the tallest building at the university. Completed in 2021, the development chimes with the university’s densification strategy for its somewhat sprawling site, which has matured into a verdant landscape since it was established in 1965 a few miles outside Coventry.
Built on the site of a car park, the 13,260m² (GIA) building takes inspiration from the trees that were planted to screen the structure it replaced. Not only has every effort been made to preserve these and showcase views to them, the idea of the tree was the driving concept for the building’s most memorable feature – a spectacular staircase designed to foster communal interaction. Rising dramatically through the central atrium, the ‘trunk’ branches off at different levels to link all the departments and their myriad learning settings. At the base of this showstopper, the roots are conceived as splaying to form a wide stepped area, a particularly popular gathering space in the building.
‘We want users to be constantly bumping into each other,’ says Theobald , it’s a place for interaction.. And while FCBS prefers the tree as the key analogy for the design concept, the timber-clad staircase is popularly known, as the Harry Potter staircase, which does suit it well.
FCBS won the project in a RIBA competition back in 2016. The brief was not only to unite the disparate faculty departments under the same roof for the first time, but to facilitate genuine collaboration and communication throughout – academic, student, university and general public. Another requirement was a to create a landmark building on what is a prime site close to the Senate and Arts Centre.
According to Theobald, the building was conceived as a cluster of four pavilions set at a 45º angle - around a central top-lit space and aforementioned staircase. Breaking down the mass in this way stops the 3260-person capacity building feeling anonymous, and increased the opportunity for perimeter windows. Meanwhile the sculptural staircase ensures the faculty is very much the antithesis of a big empty void atrium building, instead drawing students and staff up into the space and offering dynamic views between different departments.
Along the way, it opens onto adjacent study, break-out and exhibition spaces, with departmental and teaching rooms beyond. It was expected that 60% of users would take the stairs – but in reality the figure is nearer 100% up to level 3.
Pavilions have 21m by 21m square floorplates. Each cluster of pavilion floorplates incorporates teaching and academic spaces, with standardised servicing and structure configuration to enable changing uses over time. Social learning spaces for each department are situated close to the academic workspace, which includes individual offices around a shared reading room-like academic studio. Larger teaching spaces are on the ground floor.
The generous communal and collaborative space has come at the expense of a reduction in space allocation for academics. This at times ‘difficult’ strategy has however resulted in enormous benefits for students and staff alike, according to Faculty of Arts chair Professor Rachel Moseley (see box).
Externally the use of a distinctive terracotta cladding gives the building an instant presence on the campus, its bold ochre hue inspired by local buildings and soil colour – the architects hope it feels almost like a founding building. Initially intended to be glazed terracotta, this cladding changed to unglazed in the value engineering process, a move the architect now welcomes given the accompanying 35% saving on embodied carbon.
The vertical grooves are intended to lend a handmade quality. Internally, this verticality is continued in the copious larch cladding, which gives the building an instant visual warmth and calm, concealing the vital acoustic insulation and softening the exposed concrete structure. The latter was created using 50% local cement replacement – saving 265 tonnes of embodied carbon – and provides thermal mass to assist in the mixed mode ventilation strategy.
The central atrium and staircase are key to the pervading spirit of openness and generosity. The building is open-access with a downstairs café, and a large reception incorporating the wide steps/seating mentioned earlier. A nice touch is the incorporation of display areas for different departments. There is also integral art – a poem by Raymond Antrobus on the atrium wall and outside, a colourful ceramic mural piece by Matthew Raw, and large picture windows frame views out over the campus and countryside.
Following the success of this building, the university is planning two further new faculty buildings with a similarly collaboration-driven approach.
At a time when funding for arts subjects is increasingly threatened, it’s heartening to see such a substantial investment in this most impressive of facilities.
Serendipitous conversation on the stairs
A view from Rachel Moseley, vice-provost and chair, Faculty of Arts
Moving into this building has been a massive culture change on a number of levels. It has given students a greater sense of community. Before, we were spread across three buildings and there was nowhere for students to work. Here, they can be together with their tutors and their peers. It’s helped to build an intellectual community that feels more shared.
Space allocation for academic staff has been reduced in the new building to enable more social learning space. It was really contentious during the planning stage and was a very difficult cultural shift, but has worked really well. The benefits are overwhelmingly positive but it’s a big culture change.
I love the way the staircase manifests the inter-disciplinarity of the building. I was very sceptical about the concept, but serendipitous conversations on the stairs genuinely do happen. I’m currently leading an inter-disciplinary research project which started from a conversation in the corridor outside the kitchen because we’re on the same floor.
The open-sided classrooms around the building have been thoroughly adopted as project working and social learning spaces. This is encouraging us to think about more innovative pedagogical approaches.
Predicted on-site renewable energy generation (kWh/yr) 3.381
Predicted potable water use (litres per person per day) 13.3
Actual annual gas usage (kWh/m²/yr) 0
Actual annual electricity usage (kWh/m²/yr) 53.468
Whole building embodied / whole-life carbon (KgCO₂eq/m²) 1,319
Assessment, RICS modules A1-A5, B1-5, C1-4 RIBA Stage 5
Contract value £43m
Cost per m² £3,243
Contract type Design & build
Lead architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Architectural services for contractor MCW
Contractor Bowmer & Kirkland
Structural engineer Arup
Engineer Buro Happold
Landscape architect Deborah Nagan, LUC
Facade engineer Montresor Partnership
Services engineer Derry Building Services
Theatre consultant Charcoal Blue
Hear the stories behind the buildings from the architects live at Stirling Shortlist talk on 5 October and the winners talk on 9 November.
And coming soon, see inside the buildings in the Stirling Stories online CPD package on RIBA Academy