This £57 million conservatoire successfully filters out the sounds of its busy urban context, writes Rob Wilson
I’m standing in a ground-floor teaching room within the northern prow of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ Birmingham Conservatoire – which fronts directly onto the busy A47 Jennens Road – and a large bus is unnervingly silent as it thunders by just yards away across the pavement. It is witness to the challenges, and architectural and technical success, of designing a world-class conservatoire – for the making, practising, performing and recording of music – next to a busy urban artery.
The new building is sited in what’s become known as the city’s learning quarter, home to Birmingham City University’s City Centre Campus, the ThinkTank Museum and the Birmingham Ormiston Academy. The exterior of tawny-grey brick is relatively blank, cranked and folded to its site, with vertical lines of protruding brick headers providing appropriately rythmic accents: its monolithic form self-contained but expressive of its institutional role.
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It comprises five performance venues, including a public concert hall with over 450 seats and staging for a full orchestra, a recital hall with 150 seats, a smaller experimental music ‘Lab’, 100-seat organ-studio and the 80-seat Eastside Jazz Club – which will be the city’s only dedicated live jazz venue. While these spaces will provide the venues for a rich public programme of concerts and recitals, they are also places of experimentation and rehearsal. For this is not primarily a public-facing venue but a place of practice and learning, and the performance spaces are complemented by 70 practice rooms over five floors. This generous provision is necessary as this will be one of the most intensely used higher education facilities in the country, with on average an 80 per cent occupancy rate. The practice rooms are arranged around the perimeter of the building, and nearly all have a window, while services and storage for instruments – including a 25m² store dedicated to the conservatoire’s Gamelan – are concentrated down the central spine of the building.
The brief demanded construction over just two years, a term dictated by the expiry of the lease on the conservatoire’s former home. The tightness of the site called for a highly complex stacking of spaces over five floors, in a design that FCBS partner Tom Jarman describes as a ’matrix of masonry’ or ’urban castle’. Indeed he references the 3D Jenga-type puzzle of domestic and ceremonial spaces that form Raglan Castle as an influence, as well as the ‘conglomorate ordering’ seen at Alison and Peter Smithson’s University of Bath campus – where he himself studied.
Internally two major organisational moves define the conservatoire – the placing of performance spaces away from the road to the ‘campus’ side and a key axial entrance route that cuts through the building, linking entrances on the road or ’city’ side and the lower campus side. The three-metre change in site level is taken up by a generous timber-lined stair in a lofty atrium-like lobby, from which glimpses of the complex workings of the conservatoire are offered, including a view into the black-walled Jazz Club with its hot pink seats, appearing appropriately basement-like at the lower ground level.
The performance spaces – the experimental music lab, organ-studio and Jazz Club at ground and lower ground level, and the concert and recital halls at Level 2 – are all formed within structurally independent steel frames on rubber mounts and enclosed by masonry box-in-box enclosures, ensuring near-complete acoustical isolation. These double skins then also provide useful voids for all the complex cat’s cradle of services and technology needed. While the main structure is designed to isolate and prevent sound transmission, within the spaces themselves, interior surfaces, wall angles and materials are conversely designed to maximise the transmission of the live music performed there – a complex mesh of acoustic gymnastics that bears witness to the dedication of Michael Whitcroft of Hoare Lea Acoustics.
As students return this week, the conservatoire, with its unexpressive exterior yet lively internal jigsaw of spaces, feels Ike a music box, wound up and primed to play.
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The plot itself gave us some interesting challenges; a noisy road required an acoustically intelligent response, and modestly scaled fenestration and heavyweight construction both made a lot of sense in this context. The major venues all sit on the quieter southern side of the building addressing the campus. The building has two natural fronts – Jennens Road to the north and the campus to the south. Consequently the building has a through-foyer with two entrances, which serves to connect the street to the campus, and also negotiates the full storey level change across the building.
The project was designed and procured to a very rapid programme in order to facilitate a move from the Paradise Circus site which has been vacated to make way for imminent redevelopment. The two-year construction programme required very careful logistical planning, and fortunately main contractor Galliford Try was more than a match for this very complex and challenging build. The working relationships within the team were as good as any we have experienced within the realms of Design and Build construction.
Tom Jarman, partner, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
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Acoustic consultant’s view
The acoustic design intent from the outset was to create truly musical acoustic spaces that would be regarded as among the very best, and with a little luck, the very best in the world.
For sound insulation, it was essential that the internal ambient noise levels in each space were appropriate to their use, with recording or performance spaces demanding particular attention. Directly to the north of the building lies Jennens Road, a busy dual carriageway; although designated as 30mph, it carries a high volume of traffic including buses and thundering HGVs, just a few metres from the building façade. As a result, critical performance spaces were pushed towards the southern façade, furthest from the road, to help mitigate the risk of noise intrusion.
A massed façade was introduced throughout to help with the control of low frequency sound intrusion, with wide cavity secondary glazing systems to key rooms along the northern façade and to performance venues. In order to achieve the very low noise levels required within performance venues, and to provide protection from potential ground-borne vibration, each venue has its own independent structure supported off low frequency bearings. Heavy massed floor and wall constructions were built within the steel frames to form the isolated inner box of the box-in-box construction to each venue.
The relatively compact building footprint necessitated the vertical stacking of venues, with upper venues straddling the lower venues. This added an extra degree of complexity, essentially creating a 3D puzzle of potential flanking sound-transfer path weakness around and between venues; all of which would need to be appropriately closed off without bridging the independence of each structural frame. This complexity was further compounded by the necessity for some of the voids to be used as ventilation service routes.
The high performance internal walls comprised dense masonry blockwork with wide, insulation-filled cavities and independent dense plasterboard linings. It was essential that service routes did not undermine the very high level of sound insulation provided by the separating floor and wall constructions. A combination of strategically placed cross-talk attenuators and high performance acoustic lagging was required to achieve this. In addition, so as not to bridge independent structures and separating constructions, resilient fixings, flexible connections and isolation breaks were introduced to ventilation duct and electrical/AV containment routes. To achieve the very low noise requirements to key spaces, tertiary attenuators were required to be installed to ventilation duct routes plus low air velocities to minimise regenerated turbulent noise.
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Each of the five venues has its own particular character and requirements for acoustic qualities. The Concert Hall is the most complex, a flexible, 500-seat chamber hall for rehearsal, performance and recording/broadcast with variable acoustic treatments to enable the acoustic conditions to be tailored to suit a varied music performance programme.
It has been extensively modelled during the design process. A combination of fine and larger scale diffusion and sound scattering treatments cover the walls and work to produce a rich, even and diffuse sound field with a lush reverberant tail to the energy decay. The on-stage conditions for the musicians are supported by the 15 over-stage reflectors which act both to assist the large spread of musicians to hear each other – and hence form a cohesive ensemble performance – and to provide additional early energy to the seated audience, enhancing clarity and definition.
The constructions of the floor and wall treatments comprise high mass, multiple layers of board bonded together to ensure that any incidental low frequency absorption is minimised. This has resulted in a very pleasing warm low frequency response with a neutral mid frequency, which should ideally lend itself to music performance and recording.
Michael Whitcroft, Hoare Lea Acoustics
Level 00 annot
Source: Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Start on site August 2015
Completion September 2017
Gross (internal + external) floor area 10,350m²
Form of contract or procurement route Design and Build
Construction cost £42.5 million
Construction cost per m² £4,106
Architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Client Birmingham City University
Structural/civil engineer White Young Green
M&E / cost consultant Hoare Lea
Landscape consultant Planit-ie
Acoustic consultant Hoare Lea Acoustics
CDM Faithful + Gould
Theatre consultant Charcoalblue
Communication design consultant Thomas Matthews
Approved building inspector Approved Design
Planning consultant Brook Smith planning
Main contractor Galiford Try
Catering consultant Keith Winton Design
CAD software used Autodesk Revit
Annual CO2 emissions As-Built Building Emission rate (BER) from BRUKL = 18.1/m²