A centre of learning

Ulster University’s new campus is a significant and complex achievement that knits a formerly suburban education provision into a busy part of Belfast’s city centre. Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios describes the scheme to ADF’s Tom Boddy

The historic and newly vibrant Cathedral Quarter in Belfast has recently become home to Ulster University’s expanded city campus, situated beside Saint Anne’s Cathedral.

In a deliberate effort to benefit both the city and its educational institutions by bringing them closer to the centre of Belfast, the University’s 1970s suburban campus in Jordanstown has been strategically relocated to the capital.

The new 75,000 m2 development boasts three interconnected buildings that host four faculties. These include Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment; Life and Health Sciences; Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; and the Ulster University Business School.

Designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBStudios), it connects to the university’s existing Schools of Art and Architecture, providing an educational hub for 16,000 students.

FCBStudios, in collaboration with McAdam Design, won the commission for the design competition in 2010 and led consultations with the university and community stakeholders to bring the project to life. The project reached practical completion in mid 2022, and was fully occupied by the university by Q3.

The logistical challenge of moving 16,000 students and staff “relates to the management of immense detail,” explains Sam Tyler, partner at FCBStudios. From thousands of pieces of specialist lab equipment to storage for academic books, every detail had to be meticulously co-ordinated, room by room.

A significant move

Ulster University is a multi-campus institution in Northern Ireland with locations in Coleraine, Derry/Londonderry, Jordanstown, and Belfast. The main sites were originally in Jordanstown and Coleraine, both considerably less urbanised areas. According to Tyler, this pattern was typical of the late 1960s in Northern Ireland, and relates to the political turmoil of the period and the “exertion of control” needed.

Tyler says Belfast has suffered decades of “anaemic” levels of investment, with the Troubles having a significant impact on the city’s growth and development. Not only that, but deindustrialisation in the city hasn’t been an easy process, with high levels of unemployment and economic stagnation.

More recently, however, Belfast has undergone significant change, and is a vibrant and dynamic city with a thriving tech sector and a growing tourism industry. The university’s new campus is indicative of this process of regeneration.

The campus sits in the north of the city centre, at an interface between the harbour, city centre and residential neighbourhoods. To the north west of the site, divided communities live side by side, in areas where higher education is not “commonly embraced,” states Tyler.

The shifting of the campus to this area represents an important focus on improving access to higher education for these communities. The move reflects the university’s commitment to providing opportunities for all students, regardless of background, and the institution’s desire to contribute positively to Northern Ireland’s future.

Augmenting the student presence with Queens University located on the south side of the city, the influx of students to the new campus is “already having a dramatic” impact on the local economy, contributing to greater occupation of the centre and steady local investment, according to Tyler. The city is seeing a surge in the establishment of small local businesses such as bakeries and cafes, as well as large-scale student housing developments.

Design development & form

Tyler, along with fellow FCBStudios partners Keith Bradley and Alex Whitbread, assessed various variations on the brief during RIBA Ssstage 1. These options were then presented to the University Council to ensure that the design met functional and aesthetic requirements. Although several options were considered, the final design “closely resembled the original competition proposal,” says Tyler.

Due to the sheer scale and ambition of the project, the team reviewed examples of large urban universities from the US, UK, and Europe to inform their work.

In terms of the local infrastructure, the site presented an “adverse urban context” that FCBStudios saw as both a challenge and an opportunity. The campus is located at an intersection of three streets with distinct histories: Donegall Street – one of the oldest planned streets in Belfast, York Street of the Victorian era, and Frederick Street – what Tyler describes as a “monstrous” road built during the 20th century when spending on car infrastructure was at its peak.

The building proposals needed to manage the present condition of the car-dominated York Street and Frederick Street, while “anticipating a city that could be transformed by a modal shift towards active travel,” said the architects.

From the outset, to combat this precedent, the designers looked to create a more pedestrian-focused area in the project. FCBStudios have achieved this by designing a series of activated frontages that bring vibrancy at street level. Here are located various activities such as the Centre for Sustainable Technologies, teaching kitchens, catering outlets, small shops, classrooms, gallery displays and engineering workshops, all showcase the campus’s diverse educational opportunities.

The campus’s central location also meant that the project faced several height restrictions and density challenges, with the planners being initially worried about changes in scale being proposed by the project. But thanks to FCBStudios’ “careful manipulation” of its form, the building reflects various existing height datums in its four volumes, while going beyond them in other areas.

The architects established a “vertical campus” concept with the client to promote “natural interaction” between its various faculties. Height has, however, been very contentious in the city over recent decades. The architects promoted the concept that the campus could “stitch” into datums in historically sensitive locations while also celebrating its height. This allows the civic institution to take its “rightful place” on the skyline as a significant piece of the cityscape, reflecting its importance to Belfast.

As well as the building’s form deriving from the local context and building height, its largely glazed facades prioritise natural light. Deep-planned areas, punctuated by glazed atria, were adopted – creating good form factor in order to reduce thermal losses.

The “sculptural articulation” of the project’s mass has also been influenced by the surrounding Antrim Hills and the Belfast Lough which can be viewed from the north facade. The lough is “one of the great natural features in Ireland” according to Tyler, yet its presence next to the city is often overlooked. FCBStudios were determined to connect the occupants of the building to this “spectacular natural environment.” The glazing frames views of the landscape, Tyler adds, creating “one of the great pleasures of the campus’s experience”.

The campus’ facades use white brick and red multi as their primary cladding material, reflecting the historic buildings found on York Street – clad in masonry of similar tones. According to Tyler, it is the “natural choice for the largest industrial city in Ireland.”

On the upper levels, gable ends of brick give way to long flanking walls clad in glass. This reduces the impact of the building’s mass and reflects the “dramatic skies which are frequently present in Northern Ireland,” adds the architect.

Structural details

As a way of providing long term flexibility for future change in this busy location, the building is based on a 12 x 6 metre clear span RC structure in which floor plates can be used for offices, classrooms, labs, and “social learning environments.”

The four separate component buildings are linked by three bridges which reconnect York Lane to York Street. The main pedestrian bridge, spanning York Street, is supported by a three-storey bridge over York Lane, achieved using vierendeel and warren trusses that interconnect and support each other.

This structural feat is dramatically displayed on level two, where a massive warren steel truss is expressed on one side of a “social learning gallery” adjacent to the library. This display of engineering “highlights the intricate interplay between form and function in the building’s design,” say the architects.

The new art school building is designed with an impressive feature at the upper three storeys known as ‘The Lantern’. This triple height glazed volume is perched on top of a six storey brick plinth and houses a painting and sculpture studio.

These upper levels cantilever 6 to 9 metres from the main structure. Again, this is achieved through the use of an internally exposed warren truss that supports the extended floor slabs. “We worked with the structural engineers to refine the truss members, integrating them into the industrial aesthetic of the workshops and framing views to the lough and historic shipyards,” says Tyler.

Programme & functionality

Originally the project was going to house six faculties, but this was consolidated down to four during the course of the build: Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment; Life and Health Sciences; Arts, Humanities and Socials Sciences; and the Ulster University Business School.

As well as ensuring each faculty includes the “necessary functional adjacencies” to formal research, study and teaching areas, the design also offers a diverse range of social learning hubs dispersed throughout the buildings. Other areas include spaces for quiet personal work and focused group learning, with “IT-rich” collaborative study zones, informally arranged soft seating, and breakout areas for impromptu events.

Throughout the building, innovative design solutions cater to the needs of an educational environment. On the upper levels, movable folding partitions subdivide the larger classrooms while meeting the acoustic requirements. These areas also feature simple, multi-purpose desks that provide flexibility and can adapt to different learning and teaching approaches.

At the lower levels, the development boasts two “state-of-the-art” lecture theatres with capacities of 350 and 250 people. Located down through two basement levels, the theatres are connected by a “generous” two storey break-out area that doubles up as an event space and can accommodate overflow from both halls.

The significant amounts of break-out space within the buildings help orient users while promoting gathering and interaction. In addition to the triple-height entrance and ‘urban porch’ on York Street, the design incorporates indoor ‘plaza’-like spaces on level 3. The north-facing atria serve to bring natural light deep into the building.

The campus’s major circulation routes act as a connecting spine, linking the break-out spaces and facilitating easy movement throughout the building. Accessed from these circulation spines are the flexible
12 x 6 metre grid floor plates. This design approach allows the spaces to evolve in line with the changing needs of the university. The ‘front of house’ areas have high quality finishes while the ‘back of house’ spaces are more utilitarian in nature.

Another goal of the scheme was for the campus to be recognised as a community asset, which FCBStudios has fully embraced in their design. The university has six catering outlets, as well as two small shops, and a gallery on its ground floor, all of which are designed to welcome visitors to the campus. The main entrance on York Street is linked to an internal concourse that spans the entire length of the primary building. These spaces and amenities are intended to be easily accessible to the general public, as they serve as connecting points to various other facilities, including the lecture theatres and library.

With a design that features a significant amount of glazing, the challenge of overheating had to be addressed. To mitigate this issue, the large atria were oriented to face north, thereby avoiding direct sunlight and glare. This not only enhances the thermal performance of the building but also provides a constant diffuse light, reducing the need for artificial lighting and associated energy consumption.


The project has achieved a BREEAM Excellent rating, a significant accomplishment considering its size. This achievement was made possible by the dedicated efforts of the design team, client, and contractor, who worked collaboratively to achieve this standard, states Tyler.

Large glazed rooflights have been installed at the top of each atrium, along with a high-performance facade; a strategy to effectively reduce lighting loads while preventing glare, and importantly minimise overheating for users.

The use of locally sourced stone for the external paving and internal circulation routes that define the publicly accessible areas of the campus is one material example of the project’s commitment to sustainability, according to the architects. The roof is equipped with a combination of planted green roofing and photovoltaic cells, which not only provides sustainable energy but also provides a habitat for insects and birds.


FCBStudios has been instrumental in easing the transition of the campus to create a centrepiece for the regeneration of this historically challenged area of Belfast. While the building itself is significant, Tyler explains how the most “critical aspect” of the scheme is how the brief reflected the university’s drive to support research excellence, learning and engagement with local communities. The design from the outset has been about integrating the campus into the city, promoting these ambitions and “fostering inclusive regeneration.”

Post-WW2, industrial decline, social upheaval and the dominance of the private car led to universities which were once embedded in cities moving away from key central locations, to more suburban areas. While this offered a measure of control and even a “respite” for challenged areas such as what is now the Cathedral Quarter, the universities were unable to benefit from the vibrancy a capital city like Belfast could offer.

Acutely aware of this important need, FCBStudios developed a design that sought to benefit from and contribute to the bustling central area of a rejuvenated Belfast, while boosting the local economy and expanding access to higher education. A visible sign of this connection is the inclusion of entrances onto every surrounding street and lane; the principal entrance expanding the current city core to encourage people to navigate the entire district and populate the city. The facilities face the city streets, and lend their activity to them.

To mark the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April, the President of the United States Joe Biden visited the campus to give a keynote speech. Speaking about the project, he says: “Where barbed wire once sliced up the city, today we find a cathedral of learning.”