Your next game-changing campus project might be right in front of you

2nd October 2020

Rather than building new, outdated academic spaces can be radically re-worked with the right blend of ambition, vision and commitment into dynamic modern learning spaces, enhancing the character and identity of universities in a time of constrained budgets, writes Renza La Sala, Associate at Sheppard Robson.

Sheppard Robson’s work in the Higher Education (HE) sector often involves re-examining existing campus buildings, assessing the potential for creative re-use. Increasingly, re-use is a starting point for many projects, pushing architects beyond simply recycling a building. The process involves rethinking how structural changes can enable the changing requirements of a space, ensuring that renewed buildings are relevant and work as hard as possible for a campus. This means uncovering how each building can retain its personality, whilst adapting to new forms of teaching, learning, and occupation—for now and into the future.

While university re-use projects can cover a variety of functions and locations, consistent themes have emerged over a number of years that highlight the ambitious nature of these projects. We have revisited a selection of these schemes to draw out their narratives around re-use, to gain a better understanding of their challenges, and to celebrate the unique design opportunities that each one presents.

At Brunel University, Sheppard Robson has a long history with the Wilfred Brown Building—which we originally designed in the 1960s. Since then, the practice has undertaken two renovations of this gateway building, helping to ensure its long and sustainable future. As Lee Bennett, Sheppard Robson Partner on the project, describes:

'It’s rare for a practice to have such a close, historical relationship to a building, and we have used this intimate knowledge to deliver a transformative project. The design’s bold and purposeful remodelling preserved the uncompromising character of the original building, giving the facility a status that would make it a focal point of the campus.'

The updated Wilfred Brown Building maintains and expresses the honesty of the concrete frame, while adapting to a changing pedagogical landscape, offering a great example of how to deliver exceptional value from an existing building.

At Lancaster University, we took on the challenge of working with another 1960s building: the campus Library. Unloved and underused, the previous Library was dark, unwelcoming and difficult to navigate. Again, the design strategy required a deep understanding of the core structure of the building to weave in new approaches to teaching and learning.

Early in the design process, we realised that many of the building’s problems stemmed from an inaccessible courtyard at the heart of the plan, which negated spaces around it and impeded circulation. By covering this space, we unlocked the overall design solution, creating a positive internal environment that became the focal point of the project.

Within the building’s original concrete structure, the design created a space that enables new modes of library use and social learning. This embodies the personality of the University, while significantly increasing utilisation and the quality of student experience.

At the University of Strathclyde, we took on the challenge of renovating the Lord Hope and Curran Building to provide a new home for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (HaSS). Our architectural and interior design teams analysed how occupants of the building would work on a daily basis, organising accommodation primarily by occupant type and offering the University a flexibly divided floor plate that could accommodate future change. Each floor has a large open-plan work space around the perimeter, ensuring maximised opportunity for daylight and ventilation, with attendant support area—including meeting rooms, breakout hubs, touchdown areas and welfare—located centrally.

Often the design challenge is matched by the task of changing how the building’s occupants have worked for many years. Here, a move from cellular to open-plan required a creative communications process to effectively demonstrate the opportunities of an open-plan design.

The challenge of adapting existing structures can be extreme, as was the case at Greenbank House for the University of Liverpool. This Grade II* listed building—the ancestral home of the Rathbones, founders of the University of Liverpool—had been unoccupied for a number of years and required painstaking research to restore its plasterwork, lime render, joinery, metalwork and fenestration, with a structure that had been extended numerous times over the years.

Identifying a positive future for an existing university building requires a deep understanding of what activities the building will need to frame into the future, to help it to thrive while revealing the historical personality of the structure. Greenbank is an excellent example of this, as its previous function as student bar and common rooms had become obsolete, accelerating its decline.

Working with the University within the context of a surrounding residential development, we identified a range of positive uses—including music rooms, seminar rooms and meeting spaces that could support a long life for this significant piece of their heritage.

These four projects demonstrate that, while often challenging, re-using university buildings can unlock value far greater than new structures by expressing the heritage of the institution they represent as it adapts and respond to new forms of teaching and learning. Our clients have recognised this with their ambition and vision for their estates, which is an increasingly astute decision from an economic perspective as budgets come under increasing pressure.

Further, as universities grapple with the challenge of meeting their targets for energy and sustainability, working with what is already there—wherever possible—has to be the right choice.

Renza La Sala