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Birmingham Uni’s park is succour for students

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Words:
Stephen Cousins

An ambitious zoned lighting strategy provides year-round illumination for a huge landscaped parkland at the University of Birmingham, the most ambitious estates project in the campus’ history

Since students returned to university the news has been plagued with stories of them either crammed into venues sparking fears of the spread of Covid-19, or of the mental distress of living on locked down campuses, stuck alone in a room with pure laptop learning and Instagram socialising. So it’s encouraging to report on a campus project that celebrates outdoor space, vast amounts of it, where youngsters can roam free in nature, or find a secluded spot to study.

The Green Heart is the University of Birmingham’s largest estates project to date, a 5ha block of landscaped parkland at the centre of the historic campus in Edgbaston.

The design, by landscape architect Church­man Thornhill Finch, exploits an 8m level change and various topographic features to create a network of intersecting paths, lawns and zoned spaces for study, relaxation, and outdoor learning.

The concept for the project dates from 2011, when the university was considering how to upgrade its library services. The Verner O’Rees library, built in the 1950s at the centre of the campus, was deteriorating badly and no longer fit for purpose so it was decided to demolish it.

Rather than build a new library on the same spot, it was relocated, effectively freeing up the 5ha for use as public realm and an impressive new focal point for the campus.

Chris Churchman, founder and director at Churchman Thornhill Finch, told RIBAJ: ‘There was an intention historically to create a formal open space in the middle of what became the campus, but that was denied by the library building, which cut the axis in two.’ The concept was clouded further when the area behind the library was converted into a carpark, he adds.

Green Heart reinstates the original 1920s axis, running between North Gate and the Joseph Chamberlain clock tower, modelled on the iconic Torre de Mangia on the Piazza del Campo in Sienna, to the south. It also visually connects and improves navigation between the academic buildings that surround it, which include the historic Aston Webb range, Staff House by Casson Conder, and two buildings by Arup Associates – Metallurgy and Materials and Muirhead Tower. The new library, completed by Associated Architects in 2016, and a Teaching and Learning building by BDP, due for completion later this year, define new boundaries of the space.

  • The 5ha site unifies the university’s campus of buildings, making full use of the 9m slope from north to south.
    The 5ha site unifies the university’s campus of buildings, making full use of the 9m slope from north to south. Credit: James Newton
  • Aware that the campus is in use in depth of winter as well as height of summer lighting is part of the wayfinding strategy.
    Aware that the campus is in use in depth of winter as well as height of summer lighting is part of the wayfinding strategy. Credit: James Newton
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The principal highway around the Green Heart is an inclined path. Secondary and tertiary pathways divide the landscape into areas tailored to different functions and activities.

‘The concept from day one was to maximise opportunities for serendipitous encounter, using space as a mechanism to allow people from different disciplines and faculties to randomly meet, engage in conversation and exchange ideas,’ says Churchman. The strategy mirrors approaches made popular by the likes of Google and Facebook in their HQ buildings.

Lighting was an important aspect of the scheme from the outset, not least because the campus operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The southern end of the site is a key route across the university and students regularly spill out of the library into the night.

‘After students and staff return to university in the autumn, much of the time they see the campus after dark so it was important to create a positive and welcoming lit experience,’ said Philip Rose, senior associate and group leader at lighting designer Speirs + Major.

  • The night-time Masterplan illustrates how the warmly highlighted key routes and social hubs are balanced by environmentally friendly pockets of darkness.
    The night-time Masterplan illustrates how the warmly highlighted key routes and social hubs are balanced by environmentally friendly pockets of darkness. Credit: James Newton
  • How lighting intensities are scaled across the park, to ensure safe passage and a good sense of security, while enhancing character and protecting ecology.
    How lighting intensities are scaled across the park, to ensure safe passage and a good sense of security, while enhancing character and protecting ecology. Credit: James Newton
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However, the sheer scale of the site dictated a targeted approach, with a focus on illumination to support navigation and define areas ‘of dwell’.  ‘One of the big questions was where we didn’t light, we had to use lighting judiciously,’ added Churchman.

All primary routes are lined with 8m high timber-clad columns, from Aubrilam, mounted with LED projectors from Meyer Monospot. Secondary and tertiary routes, running either east-west, or diagonally across the site, feature smaller scale 4m high timber columns mounted with Thorn Avenue D LED lanterns.

‘The lighting equipment needed to be sympathetic to the large scale landscaped approach yet not feel too urban, hence the use of timber,’ said Rose. Wood was also used to create bespoke high backed benches and other furniture.

Green Heart features 100% internet coverage so every corner can be used as an academic space. Some columns conceal wifi hubs and CCTV cameras, which helped avoid unnecessary visual clutter in the environment.

The brief to inject innovation into the project also led to the installation of a 13m² Pavegen walkway array, which harvests energy from footsteps to power USB charging at nearby work benches. In addition, an advanced drainage system allows planting beds to function as large soakaways that drain rainwater naturally into the ground; in rare flash flood conditions they fill up without harming plants.

The use of LED luminaires minimises energy consumption and provides greater control over functions such as dimming and colour temperature. The lighting control system was supplied by Helvar.

Linear LEDs, from Lumino Vector, in the undersides of benches and stone steps along the sides of paths cast diffuse light onto the ground. They also create a soft halo of light around the raised central lawn in Library Square.

Vertical LEDs run up handrail balustrades at regular intervals along the pedestrian bridge and alongside ramps and steps. The space is fully inclusive in terms of accessibility.

  • 160 new trees, part of the landscaping proposal, are uplit to give lighting a ‘three-dimensional’, spatial component.
    160 new trees, part of the landscaping proposal, are uplit to give lighting a ‘three-dimensional’, spatial component. Credit: James Newton
  • Large swathes of grass between pathways allow for external group learning.
    Large swathes of grass between pathways allow for external group learning. Credit: James Newton
  • Path intersections are characterised by ‘meeting point’ seating; downlighting emphasises them in the relative darkness around.
    Path intersections are characterised by ‘meeting point’ seating; downlighting emphasises them in the relative darkness around. Credit: James Newton
  • Even permanent seating is part of the lighting strategy. External USB sockets are charged by paving ‘collectors’.
    Even permanent seating is part of the lighting strategy. External USB sockets are charged by paving ‘collectors’. Credit: James Newton
  • Campus buildings, with their dappled lighting effects, are part of the broader lighting approach.
    Campus buildings, with their dappled lighting effects, are part of the broader lighting approach. Credit: James Newton
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Green Heart is planted with colourful wildflowers, native plants and 160 new trees. Some existing mature trees are uplit, by a Light Up system from Iguzzini, which in combination with luminaries in circular benches, helps define several breakout spaces within the scheme.

‘Some trees are 15-20m high and date from the early 1900s,’ said Churchman. ‘We worked with the university and Speirs + Major to create several live mock ups, using generators and uplighters to map out where the best effects on the major boughs could be achieved. Uplighting can provide an impressive enhanced three dimensional quality.’

Not all the designers’ ideas made it to the final scheme. A plan to build three glass pavilions, partly inspired by 3D holographic projections in sci-fi movies, was value engineered away, as was a plan to up-light certain heritage buildings.

However, these omissions should not take away from the grand scale and ambition of the project, which may be the last of its type for some time. Churchman said: ‘From around 2010 to 2015, various university master plans were designed, but that era has sadly come to an end and Birmingham is probably one of the last to be realised.’ As Covid-19 sees designers co-opting more outdoor areas into useful space, perhaps there is room to hope not. 

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