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Cunning plan

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PROJECT PROFILE: PUBLIC BUILDING - Professor Tony Monk reports on sustainable architecture that really stacks up

It is rare for a new building to be truly significant and develop a new approach to design.

The new Library and Resources Centre for Coventry University is just such a project, however. It contains a unique spark of originality and its concept is likely to have a profound influence on the design of buildings that provide large open-plan accommodation.

The impressive cluster of tall towers creates a dramatic new landmark on the Coventry skyline. Its deep plan form manages to achieve 11,000 sq m of flexible library and teaching space on only four floors on a constrained site.

In addition to the exciting sculptural architecture with compact efficient planning, it embodies a radical new approach to energy conservation that reduces energy consumption to a minimum. Like many organisations, the university has a tight annual budget that makes a major new building with minor annual running costs a compelling attraction.

This large, heavily used library and resources centre avoids the capital and running costs of air conditioning and makes a significant contribution to the development of sustainable architecture.

Also of great relevance to sustainability, and to lifecycle costing in particular, is the choice of brick as the main facing material. Brickwork has an attractive appearance and retains its good looks without the need for regular cleaning or supplementary decoration.

This makes its service life costs extremely low.

Furthermore, this advantage is provided without the penalty of high initial cost because brickwork is an economic, cost-effective and versatile form of construction.

Design and planning The new building accommodates a large print and electronic library containing 350,000 books, 2,000 periodicals and media collections.

There are also learning facilities, including a training suite and 300 computer terminals, as well as shops and a cafe. This is all contained in a flexible open-plan building, 46m square and four storeys high, with a basement.

The towering service cores, entrance corridor and stairs are positioned outside the purity of this exact square form and visually relieve its otherwise large bulk. The volume is punctured vertically by a glazed atrium at its centre and four large, full-height light wells.

The structure of the new building is a steel frame and the principal cladding material is facing brickwork supported on the frame at floor levels. Smooth, wirecut bricks are used - they are predominantly cream coloured, but include reds to create chevron patterning associated with fenestrated areas. Massive masonry walling and small windows minimise the intrusion of traffic noise from the elevated ring road beyond the western boundary of the site.

The brickwork is the outer leaf of cavity walling that includes a 100mm cavity filled with mineral-wool insulation to give a U-value of 0.26.

The inner leaf is of 140mm concrete blockwork with a plastered finish. This construction was chosen in preference to lightweight framing and dry lining because the masonry's thermal capacity contributes to the comfort of the building by its stabilising influence on fluctuating temperatures inside.

The library function required deepplan flexible accommodation, but natural ventilation in a deep-plan building is difficult if not impossible to achieve by means of perimeter ventilation. This consideration, together with the issues of noise and security that precluded opening windows on the building perimeter, helped generate the eventual design, developed after several feasibility studies by Professor Alan Short and Professor Kevin Lomas.

It comprises an introverted 46msquare plan around a central atrium, with supplementary light/ventilation shafts within the building and high brick 'chimney stacks' around the perimeter that give the building its distinctive form.

Four 6m-square light/ventilation shafts, linked at ground level into a plenum floor, conduct fresh air into the building as stale air is removed via the large central atrium and 20 ventilation stacks around the perimeter of the building. Heat generated by electronic equipment and the building's users creates sufficient stack effect to achieve the necessary air change rate for comfort. In cold weather, heating coils in the ground floor warm the building and activate air movement.

The tall perimeter brick stacks terminate in metal structures specially designed to react to changing wind and to allow rising air to exit without mechanical assistance under all weather conditions. A sophisticated electronic management system regulates the effects of solar gain and glare, adjusting blinds and monitoring and controlling the heat and lighting requirements as well as the quality of the air and its movement.

Performance testing The Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development at De Montfort University and the University of Wales School of Architecture modelled the air movement using computerised fluid dynamics. Scale models were built for testing in wind tunnels and under artificial skies.

It is predicted that comfort conditions will be maintained and that temperatures will hardly ever exceed 27 o C. Furthermore, it is calculated that energy consumption will be only 18-20 per cent of a typical air-conditioned building.

The Lanchester Library has been built for the same capital costs per m 2as the HEFCE normally approves for an air-conditioned building - but, with predicted running costs reduced by about 80 per cent, Coventry University will enjoy a major advantage in meeting the annual running costs.

Interior Internally, the large universal spaces work well for the changing nature of library and IT use. The open plan, informal layout is well lit naturally by the internal courts and the triple-decker windows. A lofty 4.4m between floors, circular columns, perforated steel beams and the absence of suspended ceilings, all contribute to a pleasant spacious airiness in these busy workspaces. The central atrium and the four light wells also aid orientation in this large floor area.

Use of the stack effect of natural air movement is not new. This application exploits an old principle for new energy conservation reasons. Short and Associates has used it previously, notably in the De Montfort University School of Engineering, Leicester and in the Contact Theatre, Manchester (featured in Brick Bulletin, autumn 1994 and summer 2000 respectively).

But in the Lanchester Library we see the culmination of those evolving ideas.

As at Leicester and Manchester, forms that at first sight might appear to be decorative exuberance are in fact derived from fundamental, functional elements and may be regarded as architecturally eloquent expressions of how the building works.

The Lanchester Library and Resources Centre strikingly demonstrates that comfortable accommodation is possible without energy-hungry mechanical airconditioning. Achieving this does not exclude good architecture, it depends upon it. Short and Associates has created a most impressive building that is an excellent example of sustainable architecture.

It was the worthy winner of the Brick Development Association Building of the Year Award 2000.

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