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Aston villas

HOUSING: New student housing in Birmingham impresses George Demetri

Student halls of residences have often been dull, uninspiring places with the only 'colour' coming from students' antics. But a trip to Aston University's recently completed Lakeside student residences will soon dispel any such preconceptions.

Located in Birmingham's concrete heart and adjacent to the inner ring road and an unforgiving circuit of underpasses and roundabouts, the new £14 million orange brick and terracotta development brings colour and bold architectural form into a mostly soulless environment.

Design concept

Bath-based architect Feilden Clegg Bradley's brief was to fit 651 students on a tight urban site formerly used as a car park. This has been achieved with two blocks running almost parallel to the ring road, each comprising a sinuous lower section terminated by a tower block. The western block fronting the ring road echoes the scale of the city centre and is therefore bigger, with its eight-storey 'wall' and 16-storey landmark tower block. The eastern block facing the man-made lake bows to the scale of the lower-rise campus buildings and comprises a fourstorey terrace and a nine-storey tower.

Between the two limbs is a space conceived by the architect as a European-style 'courtyard', but which has the linearity more associated with a traditional street, albeit one with security gates at each end. Nevertheless, the result creates a strong sense of enclosure which will no doubt facilitate the social interaction and community feel which the architect intended.

Accommodation

Lakeside comprises flats of between six and ten bedrooms sharing kitchen, dining and living facilities. The larger than average study bedrooms make them some of the biggest and bestspecified student accommodation in the country, equipped with en suite facilities, TV, telephone points and, as most students have their own PCs, cabling for IT.

Materials T

he elevations express a clear and logical hierarchy of materials. Orange brickwork is juxtaposed with a pristine terracotta rainscreen which stands sufficiently proud to be read as a second skin. Slots cut into the rainscreen serve to highlight the hierarchy and to reveal the underlying fenestration: long and thin where individual flats are emphasised and more substantial where five storeys of living-room balconies are revealed. The introduction of galvanised-steel balconies and access stairs to maisonettes adds a further layer. Much of the development is capped by a recessed attic storey which is expressed by dark render and oversailed by an aluminium aerofoil-type roof.

Construction

Brick and block cavity walling is used throughout the in situ concrete frame construction, although the external leaf becomes blockwork behind the terracotta rainscreen. Performance guarantees provided by the manufacturer of the mineral wool insulation allowed the architect to specify fully filled 150 to 200mm wide cavities even at exposed high levels without fear of moisture transmission to the inner leaf.

Facing brickwork is supported on stainless steel angles located every other storey on the taller sections of the development with horizontal movement joints at these locations.Vertical movement joints are provided regularly.

The use of a special 290mm long brick for all facing brickwork was in response to the large scale of the buildings and to harmonise with the module of the terracotta rainscreen.

The longer, flatter-looking brick is elegant and results in fewer mortar joints per square metre. Even though slightly more expensive than a standard brick, the longer length was justified on grounds of laying economies.

Bolted to the external face is an aluminium framework which supports the terracotta rainscreen and incorporates a 200mm cavity, chosen by the architect to make the rainscreen stand sufficiently proud of the adjacent brickwork. The 400mm x 300mm terracotta tile becomes a 1,400mm-long 'plank' on the tower ends in response to the larger scale involved.

The architect has clearly gone to great lengths to provide as much articulation to the brickwork as possible using a number of special bricks. Window openings are unified by a variety of means: special sill bricks form continuous string courses while at the head there is a projecting stretcher course. Piers between windows have stack-bonded brickwork while the flank walls of towers are articulated by square 'panels' within the brickwork which are formed by soldier courses and stack bonding. The gentle curves throughout the development were achieved with no visible signs of faceting although no specially shaped bricks or terracotta panels were used.

On the low-rise maisonette-type housing facing the courtyard, galvanised steel channels built into the brickwork at every floor level allow safety rails and balconies to be slotted neatly into position.

Lakeside is a fitting statement by an institution which boasts that it has the highest graduate employment rate of any mainstream UK university. It joins an elite corpus of student housing developments distinguished by innovative, quality architecture, which is regrettably rare in the sector. But it will be interesting to see what proportion of the country's burgeoning student population can ultimately be housed in such expensive, if enlightened, designs.

PROJECT PROFILE

Client Aston University Architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Structural engineer/M&E Buro Happold Contractor John Laing Photography Dennis Gilbert/VIEW George Demetri

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