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BUILDING STUDY

Good-quality student residential accommodation is now essential for higher-education institutions if they are to attract students in an increasingly competitive market. In common with many other recent projects in the higher-education sector, the new student accommodation at Buckinghamshire University College Newland Park campus has its roots in an estate strategy study carried out in 1993. At that time the college had only 520 student bedrooms for a total population equivalent to 6000 full-time students. The estate strategy set a target of 2000 bedrooms on campus to serve a population which has subsequently grown to be equivalent to 8000 full- time students. Other improvements to academic facilities, for example a major expansion to the library, have coincided with an application for full university status.

The college has six faculties operating from three separate sites in the Chilterns: High Wycombe, Wellesbourne and Newland Park (near Chalfont St Giles). The 28ha Newland Park campus in the green belt has been designated an area of natural beauty. Obtaining planning permission for major development on the campus was never going to be easy. However, through discussion with the planners it was agreed that new development could take place if the college demolished the extensive pre-war timber-frame huts still in use for both residential and teaching accommodation. On the basis of like-for-like demolition and rebuilding of this temporary accommodation, and subject to an overall campus masterplan showing the full scope of development, the planners granted outline planning consent for a total 11,000m2 of new development.

To procure the residential accommodation, the college initially held a limited competition, inviting bids from housing associations and developers on a design-and-build basis. csk was appointed by Beacon Housing Association to prepare designs to accompany its bid. Unfortunately, the financial basis of the bid proved unworkable, but the college liked the csk design and decided to employ csk directly and fund the development itself. The brief was to provide 405 9m2 student bedrooms on a budget of £14,500 per room. The rooms were to be planned in clusters of five - an economic as well as social optimum - with a common living-room and kitchen for each group. Of these, 124 bedrooms have en-suite facilities so they can be used for accommodation during conferences or as holiday lets. Also included are four disabled suites and two senior resident suites, together with a laundry and linen store.

The site, at the western end of a valley, slopes down 6m from south to north and is enclosed by mature trees which create a distinct Arcadian feel. Close by is a surviving Gertrude Jekyll garden. The existing St Giles Hostel and a water tower were demolished to make way for the development, and the planning authority stipulated that the existing roofline of the hostel should not be exceeded. The csk design makes clever use of the site, with the accommodation organised in two bold forms facing each other across the valley. On the southern slope the buildings are organised around a circular court, while on the northern slope they take the form of a square quadrangle. In addition there are four villas, two on the northern ridge and two in the valley. The effect is to create a strong sense of place and give a strong individual identity to each of the blocks, which would not have been possible with a more conventional layout. The formal spaces enclosed by the buildings are criss-crossed by pedestrian routes which connect to main routes to and from other teaching and administration buildings on the campus. Car parking is kept separate on a plateau at the northern end of the site.

Access is via the perimeter of each block, with external staircases serving pairs of apartments at each floor level. This device minimises circulation space and hence capital cost, while liberating additional potential floor area within the development area granted by the planning authority. Unlike the traditional university quad, the majority of bedrooms are planned to look outwards, with the common rooms facing on to the semi-private courtyards, which are articulated as bays.

Both blocks respond to the site contours by being partially dug in so they increase from two to three storeys across the site and maintain a consistent eaves line. Although they are bulky, they are not visually intrusive and nestle comfortably into the site. Traditional construction methods were used - brick-and-block walls, 75mm filled cavities, precast concrete floors and slate roofs on trussed rafters. Facing brickwork is differentiated with a consistent plinth of multi-stock bricks, terminated by a blue band with red brick above. Windows are thermally broken double- glazed aluminium with Western Red Cedar spandrel panels below. The bay windows and access stairs are purpose-made steelwork. Each apartment has an individual gas-fired central-heating and hot-water system, which has resulted in a 16 per cent reduction in gas consumption compared with similar accommodation on site. Boiler flues are set in square concrete blocks designed as an integrated part of the elevational composition, and rainwater goods are well concealed.

Externally, money has been well spent on good-quality hard and soft landscaping with materials which will stand the test of time. The courtyards are lively, stimulating spaces which will provide a useful amenity for students in the summer. The valley is prone to flooding, so between the two blocks at the bottom of the valley csk has designed a rock-filled riverbed for collecting rainwater during storms before discharging it into boreholes. There are three distinct steps in the long section, each with a slight weir so that the water pools before draining away. All earth retention uses railway sleepers, and large boulders are used to line the riverbed. The result is a pleasing, well-planted landscape feature which serves to integrate the two blocks at the core of the development as well as providing a practical and environmentally friendly solution to the problem of water retention.

Generally this is a very successful project which has proved popular with the students and has achieved a quality through attention to detail sadly lacking in many other student residential schemes built to the same budget. It has a very pleasant 'rustic' feel appropriate to the wooded rural setting. Perhaps the rather ad hoc positioning of the villas detracts from the coherence of the overall composition, but these were necessary to achieve the required density. In fairness they appear less ad hoc when seen in the context of Phase 2 of the development, as yet unbuilt. The external staircases, while contributing to reduction of floor area and cost, are very basic in contrast to the blocks themselves, and somewhat surprisingly uncovered. Apparently the scheme was designed and tendered with glazed canopies over the stairs, but these were subsequently omitted as a cost saving. Internally the 9m2 bedrooms appear to work very well although shared shower/wcs are minimal in terms of space. Also, internal circulation areas are artificially lit and do not benefit from borrowed light. Unfortunately, heavy black curtains used in study-bedroom windows, while ensuring privacy, do little to enliven the elevations, especially as many appear to remain closed throughout the day!

This is csk's first student residential project, although it has established a good track record in well detailed 'modern vernacular' brick-built housing including the competition-winning Elephant Lane scheme in London Docklands. Interestingly, the practice did little research on previous student residential developments but chose to start from first principles, analysing more than 20 alternative site layouts before settling on the final one. The result is a bold concept which works particularly well in its site context and conveys the 'gravitas' associated with a traditional university campus.

Compared with, say, Edward Cullinan's student accommodation in Cheltenham, the site layout has a more definite focus in both public and private terms. The courtyard clusters have more introspection and eschew the urban street adopted in Feilden Clegg's linear blocks for the University of Sunderland.

The contract was let under jct 80 and the resulting quality of workmanship is far in excess of a comparable d&b contract, although standards were allowed to slip in some areas. The project was completed in March 1998, and at less than £14,500 per room it represents extremely good value for money. Unlike many other buildings which often fail to live up to expectations after the seductive photographs have been published, this scheme is a real 3D topographical experience which cannot easily be captured by the camera.

David Turrent is a director and Lynne Sullivan is an associate director at ecd Architects

Structure

From the outset, the aim of the design team was to produce a simple, cost-effective building solution. In terms of the structure, the primary requirement was for repeatability of details which were adaptable to all building plans and could be easily modified for local layout features and elevation details.

The planning of the individual flat units, with no requirement for future flexibility of layout, naturally led to the adoption of an inherently robust cellular structure in load-bearing masonry. Trench-fill footings were adopted for all buildings. These were stepped to suit site topography and varied in depth as necessary where they approached trees, and to deal with the change from two- to three-storey construction towards the lower levels of the valley crossing the site.

Sensible use was made of the regularly spaced cross-walls and central corridor walls to support the floor spans. In each flat unit the span over the larger common room is divided by an intermediate steel transfer beam located within the floor zone to negate the occurrence of unacceptable downstands.

A beam-and-block floor system was chosen for its inherent flexibility of detailing. Of particular importance was the ability to span on to the narrow 100mm division walls without the need for special site-formed details, and the simplicity of adapting the standard edge make-up detail to suit the circular form of the Court building. The lower floors are also suspended beam and block, as the relationship between their levels and existing ground levels varies significantly across the site.

As the system floor spans parallel to the external walls, the feature bays were developed as separate structures, independent of the main buildings except for simple restraint at the interface. These are designed with the external stand-off columns supporting an in-situ concrete floor slab via fin plates passing through the external building envelope.

The depth of plan for the flats permitted the use of prefabricated timber roof trusses spanning across the external walls. Tapered truss spacing was the only adaptation necessary for the circular Court building.

The external stair and landing details continued the philosophy of repeatable, adaptable common details. A basic conceptual design solution was prepared for initial guidance and subsequently developed in collaboration with the specialist stair manufacturer.

External retaining structures are a simple gravity design in masonry. Vertically reinforced collar walls with an integral concrete base under external finishes are detailed as an extension to the retaining walls to provide the essential edge barriers at these hazardous locations.

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