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RIBA Stirling Prize 2015 finalist: University of Greenwich by Heneghan Peng

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Despite pandering to its limestone surroundings the materials of Heneghan Peng’s scheme are secondary to its success, says James Hogan

Photography by Hufton + Crow

Sustainability appraisal

Project data

Architect’s view

Detail

Materials board

Design a school of architecture? A bit of a busman’s holiday, you might say, but any architect would relish a professional opportunity to revisit their youth; only a treehouse commission could trump it.

As you meander up Church Street from the Docklands Light Railway station, Heneghan Peng’s utopian incubator for the next generation of fledgling architects punctuates the rolling vista in a flurry of stone and glass. In the rarest of London’s sunshine, its pale limestone rind seems to rise from Stockwell Street like a chunk of mild, yellow cheddar. And why not? Students love cheese. This is what Heneghan Peng do best; their process brings the craft of an artisan to the prodigious scale of public buildings. Impressively, historic Greenwich represents yet another World Heritage Site for the practice, and one that they have commandeered in a manner befitting its maritime pedigree.

The genesis of the project’s formal arrangement can be read in the furrows of existing topography; raked across the plot, simultaneously restoring the historic block and extending the urban grain. It is a move that links the whole to its parts. This is most evident where the building has been sliced open, surgically separating the library from the studio spaces, to form a purpose-made lexicon of architectural typology – section, elevation and plan become a hybrid visual aid to explain how the building is constructed.

The scheme represents a kind of architectural cadaver

As a tool for learning, the scheme represents a kind of architectural cadaver, with a deliberately raw, anatomical interior. Each ligament of ducting and bone of concrete is meaningfully uncovered in a way that carries far more credibility than the ubiquity of London’s shabby-chic interiors. Schools of architecture are often physical manifestations of a dogmatic style, where fabric and faculty conspire to nurture aesthetic compliance, but the complexities of a building’s context are as divergent as the mindsets of those that inhabit it.

Heneghan Peng deals with each boundary as an independent challenge

Strategically, the Heneghan Peng process deals with each boundary as an independent challenge, while the overall composition moulds the form into a unified mass. Stockwell Street’s formality, for example, is softened by a row of retail units, allowing a sliver of local vibrancy to infiltrate the site. The northern elevation, in contrast, is flanked by an existing railway line. The severity of this tear in the landscape helps to underpin the block’s geometry, while the elevation deflects the clatter of passing trains by turning its huge stone louvres south-westward, allowing quiet light into the reverence of the campus library. This also gives a kinetic energy to the facade; a horizontal cascade lending a pleasant flow to what could have been an intimidating, hemmed-in rat run.

At the eastern boundary, the building dissolves submissively as it stoops to acknowledge a residential terrace. The jagged nature of this periphery is mimicked in a lock-and-key arrangement, and gardens are sympathetically mirrored in the green terraces of the second floor.

Internally, the building’s functional success hinges on its central double-height ‘crit-pit’. It operates as a pivotal confluence of people and ideas; an Italian piazza in the centre of Greenwich, which casually accommodates the concurrent display of drawings, sculptures, models and projections, like a montage of scenes from Cinema Paradiso.

Student life is set against a gritty backdrop of steel concrete and glass. The metaphor of the city is expanded through the interior’s sprawling spaces and long-spanning staircases. And much like any great city, its design feels robust enough to absorb both the dedicated reticence of the most diligent student and the wayward wandering of the perennially hungover.

Meanwhile, back outside on Stockwell Street, Hawksmoor’s St Alfege Church maintains a dignified watch over proceedings. Heneghan Peng may have pandered to the old masterpiece in borrowing its sartorial limestone stylings, but the real testament to the scheme’s conceptual rigour is that its material approach is almost secondary; it feels as though the building would succeed whether it was clad in stone, glass, concrete … or cheese.

James Hogan is an architect at Stiff + Trevillion and joint winner of the 2014 AJ Writing Prize

Sustainability appraisal

Annual CO² emissions 12kg/m²

Heneghan Peng’s Stockwell Street Building at the University of Greenwich delivers a highly contextual building in a sensitive conservation zone. To keep the height of the building low, its footprint occupies the entire site, with individual courtyards dropped into the deep plan for light and air. Glazing has been carefully studied to respond to different orientations, and the sum of these measures results in an impressive 40 per cent improvement over Part L 2006.

Stepping back from the street to the rear of the site, terraced roofs accommodate a variety of green roof types (earning the project a BREEAM innovation credit) and providing a learning laboratory equivalent in size to 12 tennis courts for the university’s Department of Architecture and Landscape and its growing agenda of urban agriculture. The project team also undertook an Innovate UK-funded future-proofing study at design stage to assess ways to make the building more resilient to climate change.

Hattie Hartman, sustainability editor

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Project data

Construction cost £38.9 million
Gross internal floor area 15,200m²
Construction cost per m2  £2,829
Start on site March 2012
Completion October 2014
Form of contract JCT
Client University of Greenwich
Structural engineer Alan Baxter & Associates
M&E consultant/sustainability Hoare Lea Consulting Engineers
QS/project manager Fanshawe
Acoustic consultant Sandy Brown Associates
Lighting design Bartenbach LichtLabor
Landscape Allen Scott

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Architect’s view

Our initial concept was for a building that completed the block. The central space in the architecture and design school should be a working space – the design studio which is a big factory-like floor at the centre of the building, covering almost the entire footprint of the site. We wanted to organise the site in wide and narrow bands – wide bands for programme, narrow to introduce light into the middle of the building. The completed project kept to this concept.

Our concept was for a building which completed the block

The building is located in Greenwich town centre and is designed to be street facing. There are multiple entrances along the ground floor, and much of the ground floor is open to the public. The building is highest along Stockwell Street, stepping down to the rear adjoining residences.

The university was very invested in the project. We worked closely together to tune the requirements of the brief to achieve a massing on the site that worked with the various restrictions. The university was involved in all the design and site meetings and we were able to resolve problems together as one team.

The first challenge was to get it through planning

This is Heneghan Peng’s first big urban project and our first completed university building. At the beginning, the biggest challenge was getting it through planning. During construction, the challenge was to stay within budget.

The project has reinforced a lesson learnt from other projects: the importance of persistence at all stages and especially during construction. You need to keep trying to find an answer that operates within the design while addressing all the other concerns, lead times, budget, time. Just a few extra hours of effort can make all the difference.

Róisín Heneghan, director, Heneghan Peng

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Detail

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The selected detail is taken from the north facade, where a sunken railway line sliced through the historic urban block in the late 19th century. The facade is designed as a series of diamond-shaped fins, stretched along a new public walkway following the railway line. The staggered fins divert views away from the railway line and towards Greenwich and Hawksmoor’s St Alfege Church.

While based on a repeating module, the number of modules per bay is varied. The repetition of the underlying structure provides a serene backdrop to the busy streetscape.

Jura limestone and concrete form the materials palette for the public-facing facades. To achieve the fins’ thin diamond profile, we used glassfibre-reinforced concrete (GRC), which resulted in panels as thin as 25mm. This also allowed us to accommodate the steel structural columns within the diamond form. The colour and finish of the GRC was chosen after extensive development so as to match the tone of the limestone and precast concrete on adjacent facades.

Róisín Heneghan, director, Heneghan Peng

Materials board

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  1. Jura Limestone cladding , honed finish, Szerelmey
  2. Precast concrete panels, Techrete
  3. Yorkstone slab street paving, Marshalls
  4. Internal steelwork. Paint colour: Deutschen Bundesbahn-703 (DB-703), supplied by International Paints
  5. Internal acoustic wall cladding, perforated aluminium with fleece backing, natural anodised finish, Durlum
  6. Ceiling grille, hot dipped galvanised finish, Meiser
  7. Aluminium cover plate for floor-mounted trench heating, natural anodised finish, HCP, SAS International
  8. Power-floated concrete floor, Concrete Flooring Solutions
  9. Rubber flooring tile, Norament
  10. Turf for green roof
  11. Wool mix fabric for loose furniture, Vitra
  12. Laminate-clad plywood with exposed edges for custom table tops, ColorCore® by Formica
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