Neil Spiller of the University of Greenwich gives a client’s view of building its RIBA Award winning Stockwell Street Building
Modern universities are involved in what some commentators have called an ‘arms race’. They are having to compete for students in a fierce and often prejudiced market. One of their weapons is creating new buildings for students to study in.
In 2010, when I arrived at the University of Greenwich, my first meeting was with Róisín Heneghan of Heneghan Peng Architects. It was clear to me that here was a top-class team of designers, consultants and internal estates managers (the key players also architects). I have nothing but respect for Heneghan Peng and its team and the way it steered the project through the difficult planning restrictions of the Unesco World Heritage Site of Maritime Greenwich and the multifarious and ever-changing client steering group.
Powered by the vision of the then vice-chancellor, Tessa Blackstone, the university had organised a two-stage competition to design its main library and an academic building housing the departments of Architecture & Landscape and Creative Professions & Digital Arts. The brief required an aspirational building while meeting the requirements of staff and students for teaching and research, embracing the local community and sitting easily within the world heritage site.
The time of universities as citadels up on hills and secluded behind walls is becoming a thing of the past. Modern universities bring huge investment into an area – hundreds of millions of pounds. They nowadays have state-of-the-art facilities that are often open and shared by the local community. For us at Greenwich, one of the great achievements of the Stockwell Street building is seeing the building establish a place for the university in the centre of Greenwich. The university is now much more visible, and an inviting cultural attraction.
The project is on target for BREEAM Excellent and Secure by Design accreditations. The building has 14 landscaped roofs, designed to enable landscape students to identify and learn about plans, ecosystems and new technology such as algaeponics and aquaponics. Inclusiveness in a broad sense was at the heart of the project, from opening up the university to the public to the detail of furniture and signage.
From a client’s point of view, I believe university buildings architects should be fully competitively selected. We were lucky that Heneghan Peng is a small practice and this was a big project for it, to which it paid a lot of attention to getting right. Some of the corporate architectural behemoths might not have had the same attention to detail and client management.
Universities are key cultural and educational institutions. We must use them and their design as catalysts to enable a high-achieving and inclusive community. We need a procurement process that takes risks, so as to expand what buildings can do socially – so they are ambitious, not staid. We need to find new ways of doing things and Stockwell Street in Greenwich is a step in the right direction. Needless to say it’s also life-affirming to work in.
Neil Spiller is Hawksmoor chair of architecture and landscape and deputy pro vice-chancellor, University of Greenwich
RIBA Award winners
School of Architecture, Greenwich University by Heneghan Peng
University of Greenwich Stockwell Street Building by Heneghan Peng
Source: Hufton + Crow
Client University of Greenwich
Contract value £38.9 million
Gross internal area 15,200m²
Located in the Unesco World Heritage Site at Maritime Greenwich and opposite Hawksmoor’s St Alfege, this building provides the main university library and the departments of architecture, landscape and arts.
Conceptually strong as an urban design, it relates well to the street in terms of its materiality and massing. The plan follows a clear diagram with its parallel fingers of accommodation separated by courtyards, which extend to break up the long street-facing elevation. Externally, the forms are well articulated, giving depth and interest, with fenestration carefully considered to take advantage of key views, vistas and reflections. The building is full of light and generous spaces, and benefits from clear vertical circulation. The acoustics are remarkable and the roof gardens provide added delight.
Hult International Business School, London by Sergison Bates
University campus for Hult International Business School by Sergison Bates architects
Source: Kristien Daem
Client Hult International Business School
Contract value £3.7 million
Gross internal area 4,300m²
The undergraduate campus for the Hult International Business School combines the conversion of a Grade II-listed brewery with a recently completed concrete framed extension to the front. The principal architectural move involves inserting a generous open timber staircase with large landings. This circulation route provides a focus of interaction and movement throughout the building and connects the variety of social spaces, which then lead into acoustically sealed lecture rooms and smaller meeting pods. The staircase is located in what was previously an uninhabited glazed-in atrium and allows visual proximity to the facade of the old brewery building.
With a limited but carefully considered palette of materials and forms of construction, the school has a clear architectural identity and strong aesthetic sense.
The Union, Manchester Metropolitan University by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Manchester Metropolitan University Student Union, Manchester by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Source: Hufton + Crow
Client Manchester Metropolitan University
Contractor Miller (now Galliford Try North West)
Contract value £7.6 million
Gross internal area 3,998m²
Region North West
At its best, this is a cultural building for the students of Manchester Metropolitan University, part of their life beyond core studies. Its exterior is sober and orderly with finely chosen black bricks, which are glazed to almost head-height. At the entrance the brick switches to a vibrant yellow. These form well-considered street facades responding to the overall red brick context and Feilden Clegg Bradley’s earlier Art and Design Building.
Against the conventional geometric format of a street-facing slab block, the building’s interior is robust, spartan and economic. It is not an educational institution and yet, through a rigour of detailed design, it attains a clarity of intent that is almost academic and produces a strong feeling of activity and a fluidity of space.
Engineering Building, Lancaster University by John McAslan + Partners
Lancaster University Engineering Building by John McAslan+Partners
Client Lancaster University
Contractor Eric Wright Construction
Contract value £8.4 million
Gross internal area 4,701m²
Region North West
This is a taut and well-considered building, which accommodates the diverse functions of an engineering department around a central atrium. The plan is a creative slipping of three rectilinear volumes housing labs, workshops and cellular offices. A palette of self-finished materials complements this clear spatial arrangement.
Key to the building’s efficiency is the atrium, turning what might otherwise have been a conventional central-corridor university science facility into a vibrant educational experience where students, staff and visitors experience the learning process almost as if in a science museum.
This elegant building is on track to achieve BREEAM Outstanding through its use of passive techniques, sectional geometry and orientation and the sophisticated integration of services.