Crystal clear innovation

Crystal clear innovation

The Teaching And Learning Building, University Of Birmingham

Following its completion earlier this year, the University of Birmingham’s Teaching and Learning Building has become a symbol of innovation and collaboration for higher education institutions across the city.

The building was commissioned under the UoB multidisciplinary framework to bring a better quality of collaborative design to higher education buildings in the Midlands and now stands as the flagship facility to enable and encourage cutting-edge education at the University’s Edgbaston campus.

From the outset of the project, the main role of the building was to mitigate the challenges posed by growing student numbers and to increase the quality of the learning spaces offered in a Higher Education environment, where students are both ‘customers’ and ‘learners’.

Subsequent designs also supported the University of Birmingham’s idea of creating a ‘sticky’ campus – a flexible place where students want to stay for work and socialising. As the student profile changes to include more professional development courses, and with the new physical learning restrictions associated with COVID-19, flexibility and access to different learning spaces has become even more important for the university, as it has for many campuses across the country. 

Ultimately, what the building offers students is opportunities for collaboration and reflection, optimising the distinctive value of study in a research-intensive university by actively involving them in enquiry, discovery and co-creation. It is part of the University’s continued investment in the quality of the student experience, providing teaching and social learning spaces that will accommodate the growth of varied learners, researchers, and academics.

A central hub for the campus, the facility also provides state-of-the-art teaching and social study spaces to support the modern learning experience.

The building has excellent access for students with a diverse range of needs and preferences and provides a 500-seater lecture theatre, a 250-seater interactive lecture theatre, 10 seminar rooms for 30 students and learning spaces for up to 1,000 students which include areas for individual study, collaborative group work, creative break-out sessions and a café.

An extraordinary structure

Designed by BDP and delivered by the national contractor Willmott Dixon, the £22.7 million project incorporated a range of innovative building techniques to create an extraordinary structure that is both practical and aesthetically pleasing. Together, they incorporated the use of digital BIM technology to ensure accuracy in the complex design and build process.

At its centre, the complicated design features an iconic crystal structure that sits within the building and houses a 500-seat traditional lecture theatre and a 250-seat collaborative lecture theatre set underneath an exposed Glulam roof structure. This internal structure is surrounded by ten seminar rooms and open learning spaces for up to 1,000 students – providing areas for individual study and collaborative work, as well as a new café. 

Designs for the building were inspired by the historic context of the campus. For example, the deep window reveals, whose proportions and scale echo those within the Aston Webb Building, punctuate the sandstone façade delivering depth, aesthetic richness and interest. The glass-clad ‘Crystal’ protrudes through the roof, drawing parallels with the historic buildings around the campus, making it a fitting addition to the domed skyline of the university, so recognisable from around the campus.

Student experience was top of the agenda at every stage of design of this project, from simplifying access and circulation on a sloping topography, to the choice of materials which seamlessly blend from inside the building to the adjoining ‘Green Heart’ of the campus.

The topographical challenges of the campus led to the design of split-level floor plates, which were carved in the middle providing space for the ‘Crystalline heart’ of the building- the glass clad lecture theatre. This compact arrangement of space allows for a free flowing open study space, with continuous views to the rich landscape of the ‘Green Heart’. The concrete floor slabs are left exposed underneath, and lined with acoustic panels hiding runs of building services equipment, which allows social spaces flooded with natural light through floor to ceiling windows.

The importance of accessibility

The inner crystal structure - which rises through the centre of the building - is surrounded by a cluster of smaller, concrete learning spaces, connected to the crystal by a network of bridges and accessed by roman steps, which give the structure transparency and allow free-flowing movement throughout the building

Accessibility was a key aspect in the building’s design, ensuring that 1,000 students could flow through the space with a 10-minute turnaround every hour - as well as catering for full accessibility in lecture theatres and seminar space.

From very early stages, designers from BDP engaged with the estates accessibility officer and led meetings with various students and academic groups to also focus on disability and mental health, to establish an overall approach towards accessibility.

The University also set up a focus group which BDP engaged with throughout RIBA stages. This process gave the designers a firm brief on where the users of the building, both teachers and students, with specific mobility or neurodiversity needs required accessibility solutions to surpass standard building regulations.

For example, furniture was crucial, not only to provide appropriate and accessible fittings for users with mobility problems, but also to promote a healthy working environment and support users’ mental health. Helpful discussions regarding colour psychology of the spaces created a colour scheme which enhances learning environments and supports neurodiversity. Throughout the process, the design team maintained close engagement with the accessibility user groups to keep them up to date and informed with design progress and to present proposals for internal finishes so that they could raise concerns or suggest adaptations. This is wielding dividends in the current climate as those students who are returning to the building feel safer and more comfortable in the environment that it creates. 

Encouraging Innovation

Students who use the building are encouraged to learn in new ways, in a range of spaces, from quiet to collaborative, empowering them to choose the best environment to meet their needs. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and before the first national lockdown, the social learning spaces were consistently at full capacity during term time with students adapting seamlessly to the new environment. Even now, with reduced capacity and COVID-safe adaptations in place, study spaces are being used as intended, encouraging students to inhabit the building beyond the formal timetable - supporting the ‘sticky campus’ concept. 

The innovative structure not only promotes collaboration and innovation through its design, but it also houses the right environment and resources for these skills to be exercised by its users. The way it has been used and continues to be used - even now - as we navigate a pandemic is testimony to the success of this project and its impact to the improvement of the student learning experience.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir David Eastwood, said of the building: “The Teaching and Learning Building is at the heart of a capital plan that prioritises academic and teaching facilities. We are committed to give our undergraduate and postgraduate students the best place to carry out their studies. I believe this is the kind of building in which people will discover their gifts and demonstrate their perseverance and confidence as they achieve their aspirations.”    

Svetlana Solomonova is Architect Director at BDP 

 

www.bdp.com

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