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University buildings take a new course

Josephine Smit

Fierce competition, rising fees, industry links and of course Brexit mean university buildings are requiring very different things of architects

The open days are over, personal statements being crafted and early birds are completing their applications. For the UK’s universities, this is where business starts, and the competition is fierce.

A drop in birth rate in the late 1990s means home universities are competing for a reduced pool of students, while universities across Asia, Russia, Australia and Canada are gaining reputation in global league tables, increasing competition for lucrative overseas students.

On the horizon are fresh home-grown challenges. From September 2017, English universities meeting the requirements of the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework monitoring system should be able to increase their fees, under proposals set out in the higher education white paper. At the same time, Brexit could hit the UK sector’s ability to attract EU students, staff and research funding. 

The universities’ approach so far is to keep building. Estate development programmes remain ambitious, with landmark new builds as well as redevelopments and refurbishments, often of buildings dating from the university sector’s last great building boom some 60 years ago. At the same time, they are developing industry links, which may be fundamental to their future as EU research funding disappears.

‘There is always the need for a robust business case and a need to check assumptions,’ says Trevor Payne, director of estates at the University of Birmingham. The university estate, of some 200 buildings ranging in age from early 20th century to the present, will see some £365 million spent on a mix of ‘purposeful new build and efficient repurposing,’ he says. Having opened a new library this autumn, its next major projects are a new hotel and conference centre, and a collaborative teaching block that will unite laboratories from several departments.

‘Brexit is a challenge but with change comes opportunity,’ says Andrew May, director of estates at the University of Hertfordshire, which has a reputation for its business-facing outlook. ‘Universities can work very powerfully with the private sector leveraging investment to feed local economic benefit,’ he explains.

May says change and challenges are nothing new in the sector. ‘When I came into this job in 2010, we had an ageing estate, needed to invest heavily, and had few available resources to respond to changes not seen for a generation.’ The background was one of austerity and student protest against the coalition government’s plans to raise the cap on tuition fees to £9,000. The university struck a deal with an established student housing provider which unlocked funding to improve and develop the campus and facilities in an estates strategy that extends to 2020. Projects include a new 10,000m2 science building by Sheppard Robson, which opened this autumn, plus informal learning and social spaces and a café, the latter adding to the university’s £5 million a year turnover.

  • Associated Architects’ new library building for the University of Birmingham.
    Associated Architects’ new library building for the University of Birmingham. Credit: Timothy Gordon Combill
  • Wilkinson Eyre’s Fry building for Bristol University’s School  of Mathematics.
    Wilkinson Eyre’s Fry building for Bristol University’s School of Mathematics.
  • Sheffield University’s Heartspace – Bond Bryan attempts to create a new social centre for its engineering faculty.
    Sheffield University’s Heartspace – Bond Bryan attempts to create a new social centre for its engineering faculty.


The university sector is associated with some of the best – and worst – new architecture. ‘Architecture is hugely important,’ says May. ‘Increasingly, students are saying facilities are an important part of their choice of university.’

Associated Architects’ director Warren Jukes says the impression a building can make was evident on its University of Birmingham Library project: ‘Even when the building wasn’t finished, Birmingham was keen to have people in. There was a viewing platform to showcase construction in progress.’ With visitors and new students showcasing buildings across Instagram and other social media, that first impression can be powerful marketing.

However, clients differ across the sector, adds Jukes. ‘Redbricks tend to be more reserved on design and take time to make decisions. Younger universities tend to pay attention to what’s on trend. Libraries can be especially important because they are so highly used.’ A recent trend is to incorporate the library into a multi-service building, like Associated Architects’ design for Royal Holloway University of London’s library and student services centre in Egham, Surrey, which blends library, gallery, careers services and more.

Many such buildings are highly sustainable, for example Associated Architects’ Centre for Medicine at the University of Leicester, which is the UK’s largest Passivhaus. There is a strong business case for sustainability – particularly when facilities, like Birmingham’s new library, are in use 24/7 – but it also adds to student appeal, says Payne. ‘Students are passionate about sustainability. In fact, they’re driving us to create sustainable buildings.’

University of Bristol bursar and director of estates Patrick Finch outlines how findings from the National Student Survey and its own surveys are feeding through to its programme. ‘We’ve been criticised in the past for not [providing] enough library space and learning space – so we’re making a determined effort to enhance our facilities with a major project and smaller interventions.’ 

But the shape of that library space is open to question. ‘In health and biomedical studies there is a demand for social space and they are less concerned about print collections. But arts and social sciences students expect more traditional libraries,’ says Finch.

Bristol is about to launch a study to evaluate what a library means. ‘A library has to be all things to all people now,’ says Finch. While students still want access to PCs in the library,  Bristol also has to consider homes for its print collections, including the Penguin Book Collection, which spans some 550m of bookshelves and needs to be accessible to the public. 

As a century-old university in a city, Bristol has to consider how its listed estate – much of it in a conservation area – fits into its urban context. Its grade II listed Fry Building is being transformed into a new facility for the School of Mathematics by WilkinsonEyre with the addition of an atrium, appropriately incorporating mathematical patterns, lecture theatre and raised courtyard garden. Public realm is important in the city location, says Finch. ‘That often means challenging things like car parking and opening up courtyards to make attractive places. We’re very proud of where we are. We develop for Bristol, rather than for the university.’

  • Sheppard Robson’s new science building for the University of Hertfordshire.
    Sheppard Robson’s new science building for the University of Hertfordshire. Credit: Hufton & Crow

Doing business with business

Blue sky research is out; replaced by a growing focus on business. ‘The industrial collaboration model will be part of research in the future, and possibly teaching as well,’ says Finch.

Buildings like the University of Sheffield’s Factory 2050, part of its Advanced Manufactur­ing Research Centre, therefore make an important statement, says Jonathan Herbert, managing director of Bond Bryan Architects, which worked on the project. ‘It’s not just about creating a technical environment, but reaching out to the wider business community.’

Masterplanning can also maximise potential for industry engagement, Herbert points out. ‘We’re asked to masterplan sites so manufacturers can come and establish their own centres alongside and create jobs in the community.’

As in workplaces, the design of research buildings increasingly emphasises collaboration, whether inter-departmental or between university and industry, through informal meeting spaces. Bond Bryan is working on the University of Sheffield’s Heart-space project, which links the Faculty of Engineering’s two oldest buildings with a four-storey glazed atrium. ‘Its position at the centre of the older structures will provide interesting additional space, and importantly will encourage interdisciplinary collaboration,’ explains Herbert.

Bringing industrial partners into buildings poses challenges, however. Swansea University’s School of Industrial Design is a grade II listed former library that has been refurbished and extended to create a teaching facility for academics and guest lecturers from industry. ‘The guest lecturers want the kind of facilities and equipment that they’re used to in their own businesses,’ says Dr Antony Davies, director at Powell Dobson, the project’s architect. A different challenge was presented by Swansea’s Data Science Building where medical data are analysed. ‘Its security levels mean it has layers of accessibility, with meeting rooms and conference facilities on the ground floor,’ explains Davies. ‘We’ve had to reconcile the need for security with the need for collaboration.’

Another conundrum for designers is the integration of technology. ‘Universities like to specify equipment as late as possible,’ says Davies. ‘You have to accept that the technology may change so the build may have to be flexible, with features like knock-out panels in facades.’ Swansea’s Centre for NanoHealth, which is housed in its Institute of Life Sciences phase two development, brings together experts in medicine, engineering and science, and industry partners. It includes nano-engineering equipment requiring a low-vibration environment, MRI equipment that relies on a magnetic field, and other technology, which all has to be accommodated safely in one building. But there is a ready source of advice on hand, Davies points out: ‘Ironically, the client tends to know a lot about the technology’.

The fact that universities are such expert patrons, entrepreneurs and innovators in many respects makes them the perfect clients for architects. The hope is that it will also stand them in good stead in an uncertain future.


The sector spent nearly £2 billion on property in 2013-14

Capital expenditure was more than £2.5 billion, the highest annual spend on record

More than a dozen institutions spent more than £40 million, with four spending more than £100 million

UK universities occupied almost 21 million m2 of space, adding just over 500,000m2 in a year

Five institutions had estates with a gross internal area of more than 500,000m2



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