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Ideas burn white-hot in UCL’s Here East crucible

Stephen Cousins

With an Autonomous Manufacturing Lab the architectural curriculum is being reinvented at the Bartlett’s high-tech, hands-on ‘play space’ in the former Olympic Park in east London

Supergraphics and industrial style balconies pep up what used to be a rather blank media centre for the London 2012 Olympics. UCL’s Here East research and testing facilities, converted by Hawkins\Brown.
Supergraphics and industrial style balconies pep up what used to be a rather blank media centre for the London 2012 Olympics. UCL’s Here East research and testing facilities, converted by Hawkins\Brown. Credit: Jack Hobhouse

Nowhere are the shifting boundaries between urban design, computer science, architectural history, manufacture and performance in architectural education more apparent than at University College London’s (UCL) new research, robotics and testing centre at Here East in Stratford. Inside its cavernous 2,000m2 hall, affectionately referred to as the ‘play space’, undergraduate and masters students from the Bartlett School of Architecture are expanding beyond traditional confines to interrogate ideas and processes using robotic cells, advanced fabrication equipment, environmental chambers and structural testing rigs.

The facility, the former home of the London Olympics Media Centre recently converted by Hawkins\Brown, forms part of the wider 6,000m2 UCL campus at Here East and was developed jointly by the School of Architecture, the Faculty of the Built Environment and the Faculty of Engineering Sciences to help consolidate crafts and manufacturing efforts with science, technology and design. Resources are also shared by other departments, including Computer Science, the Institute of Sustainable Heritage, and the Institute of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering.

Bartlett director Bob Sheil says: ‘Here East is about fully realising the talent, imagination and aspirations of our students in ways that are not constrained by the stereotype of the profession. Around 50% of all our courses are non-accredited, which tells you an awful lot about where the subject is going. Here East is about offering something new and exciting that can challenge the boundaries of the curriculum and hopefully, one day, be welcomed inside those boundaries.’

Although the site has only been open just over a year, exciting insights are already coming from undergraduates on the MEng degree in engineering & architectural design, and post-grad courses in design for manufacture (MArch), design for performance & interaction (MArch) and situated practice (MA). 

All courses are research-led with input from both students and staff. A key focus is to examine how designers can better exploit and extract value from technology to catch up with peer industries such as the automotive or aerospace sectors.

Students kitted out in blue lab coats and goggles operate brake presses, CNC machines, guillotines and robot-driven plasma cutters in a dedicated manufacturing research space in an effort to augment their understanding of fabrication processes and opportunities to identify and design out issues that architects often miss.

‘A key aspect of learning is we don't do things for students, we teach them to be in position to do things for themselves,’ says Peter Scully, co-director of the design for manufacture course, and technical director of B-Made, the acronym for The Bartlett Manufacturing + Design Exchange, an initiative led by the School of Architecture. ‘This is “industrial-light”, not full-on hell for leather production, but more about encouraging students to think in line with the challenges of manufacturers.’

Other students are exploring the possibilities when the pathway to technology is relatively easy and does not require much development. One PhD researcher on the design for manufacture course is using a Kuka high accuracy industrial robot to imprint steel plates with 3D geometry to boost their inherent strength and rigidity.

A custom effector moves in response to a design in parametric 3D software, pushing against the metal to form ‘ribs’ in stratified layers. It’s hoped the research could result in a new type of facade panel that requires less strengthening, or a design that could be spread across multiple panels to create a self-supporting facade.

The hall is filled with the buzz of drones in a fenced off zone, where researchers from the Autonomous Manufacturing Lab, part of the UCL Robotics Institute, work to develop a team of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) capable of 3D printing concrete structures.

Using drones in place of conventional construction methods have enable multiple benefits, such as the ability to adapt to diverse site scenarios, reduce construction time and eradicate safety risks for human workers.

  • Kuka manufacturing robot at UCL’s Here East research and testing facilities, converted by Hawkins\Brown.
    Kuka manufacturing robot at UCL’s Here East research and testing facilities, converted by Hawkins\Brown. Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • Operating one of the robots at UCL’s Here East.
    Operating one of the robots at UCL’s Here East. Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • Students at the work benches.
    Students at the work benches. Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • Activity in the labs.
    Activity in the labs. Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • Manufacturing research space.
    Manufacturing research space. Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • UCL’s Here East research and testing facilities, converted by Hawkins\Brown.
    UCL’s Here East research and testing facilities, converted by Hawkins\Brown. Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • Researcher Christina Garza Lasierra at UCL’s Here East research and testing facilities.
    Researcher Christina Garza Lasierra at UCL’s Here East research and testing facilities. Credit: Sean Pollock

Adjacent to this is a large scale 5m3 environmental testing rig, the first of its kind in the world, able to simulate the effects of earthquakes, extreme temperatures and driving wind and rain on building structures. Architecture students can also test their concept models in an ‘artificial sky’, a 5.2m diameter geodesic hemispherical dome fitted with over 800 LEDs and a parabolic reflector, designed to realistically simulate the effects of different daylight conditions.

As a heavily tech and engineering-oriented facility, UCL at Here East competes with the likes of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US and ETH Zurich in Switzerland, but the additional focus on humanities and sciences is a key differentiator. ‘We’re not just interested in the measurement of ideas, we're looking at the immeasurable, the social, the cultural and heritage,’ says Sheil.

Part of the play space functions as a garage for the Mobile Heritage Lab, a research vehicle fitted with environmental monitoring, imaging and chemical analysis equipment that can be used by any discipline to engage with the public and professionals in museums, heritage and archaeological sites across the UK.

The sheer number of activities and technologies is vertigo-inducing, but diversity can be a catalyst for creative disruption. Encounters between disciplines that haven't previously had the opportunity to bump into each other have led to ‘water-cooler’ moments whereby new research projects are cooked up. Although projects work at different scales and focus on different applications, many utilise similar technologies that encourage knowledge sharing.

‘Conversations between different departments have been sparked from observing each other’s work,” says Sheil. ‘For example, computer scientists and environmental engineers have taken part in architectural crits and commented on the value of public discussion of a project in its infancy and feedback from experts.’

The Bartlett wants its research to incentivise the wider construction industry to take up new technology and make greater inroads into areas like sustainability, off-site prefabrication, building repairability and maintenance issues.

Closer ties with industry are expected to result from the launch of a new MScI Architecture course in 2020. The five-year integrated Masters for Part 1 and 2 students was conceived to cut the cost of architectural education and will see post-grads spend their fifth year based in practice or industry (the Bartlett can only charge 20% of their tuition fees in the final year).

It is envisaged that students on the programme will spend time at Here East and as a result employers will agree to put them on projects that involve research exchange with the Bartlett. ‘It's about trying to accelerate the exchange of knowledge between places like Here East and practice,’ says Sheil. ‘We want to reduce the typical intergenerational lag, whereby students graduate with state of the art knowledge but their lack of experience means that resource is underutilised.’

With many studios constricted by shrinking profits and staffing resources, investment in research and development can be a difficult cost to justify. Future collaboration with UCL researchers could reduce that burden and drive technology into a sector that desperately needs to innovate.



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