Learning from context

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When Design Engine designed a trio of buildings for the University of Winchester, they used corten steel to emulate the local built heritage, while creating spaces that supported students’ wellbeing. Roseanne Field reports

Located on one of the main routes into the centre of the city, the West Downs Centre is a major new scheme for the University of Winchester, finished in eye-catching corten steel. Completed in September 2020, it’s the work of Winchester-based architects Design Engine, with the project having been driven by practice cofounder Richard Jobson.

The practice have a good relationship with the university, having worked with them on several projects previously. It was while working on one that Jobson spotted the potential of an empty site in front of a halls of residence.

Design Engine put forward a proposal for a new building to decant students and give more “breathing space” at the King Alfred Quarter, next to the historic, Grade II listed West Downs building. After the university approved the concept, the practice were enlisted to undertake feasibility studies, including developing more detailed ideas and establishing a potential budget.

With the estimated cost overstepping the OJEU procurement threshold, the university had to go out to tender. Design Engine were among five firms to interview, which Jobson says was a “pretty fraught” process; “we were in danger of losing a job that we’d created.” Thankfully, their existing relationship with the university continued, when in 2015 they were appointed to take the project forward.

Project evolution

Following their appointment, Jobson says “a number of things came forward” that the university were keen to include. It was always the intention to include a 250 seat auditorium, but as the project evolved, so too did the university’s ideas. Tentative discussions were had about relocating part of the library, which expanded into a plan to bolster the law faculty. It was also decided to include a food hall for student residences behind the site, as well as several teaching rooms, and a new Digital Technologies department.

Part of the reason for the project was that the university’s existing buildings, were says Jobson, “hidden away.” The governors were frustrated that the institution wasn’t adequately recognised for its role in the city’s built environment, so the design “was very much about creating something which had the sense of a gateway building,” Jobson explains. He says it was designed not to be a “shrinking violet,” but to be a striking signal that “this is the university.”

Design inspiration

There were several design iterations before settling on the final composition, in part due to the complexities of accommodating a variety of requirements in a complementary way. The final design comprises an auditorium rotunda, a triangular library; and connected to it and the largest of the three, a rectangular building housing a range of spaces to the rear. The library’s design in particular took a lot of time to get right, having a “very complicated” roof geometry, which was “challenging – structurally and architecturally,” says Jobson.

The practice were focused on being respectful to the adjacent, listed West Downs building, and “didn’t want our building to be jarring,” says the architect. They approached the design by including the West Downs building within their scheme, viewing it and their buildings as one entity.

Placing the largest building at the back of the site “reduced its dominance,” says Jobson; “we could play around with perspective to make it kind of recessive to the site.” The auditorium/lecture theatre was seen as “almost like a piece of sculpture,” he explains, whereas the library provided an end point to the whole composition.”

The site’s topography enabled the landscape to ‘wrap’ around the rotunda building – there’s a four metre drop from the West Downs building side, which allowed the building to sit within the bank. The architects were also then able to manipulate the rest of the site to improve access for users with disabilities, which had previously been an issue with the halls of residence.

The materials chosen were strongly influenced by the surroundings. The West Downs building features flint as well as brick, which is common to the halls of residence. The architects specified the same brick on the rectangular building which faces the halls – albeit with a different, grey coloured mortar.

The south-facing front facade is glass, so solar gain needed to be controlled. What Jobson describes as a brise soleil “canvas” was created using corten steel, to match the colour of the West Downs building’s brick. The architect explains that they took the  opportunity to “treat it not just as a facade, but also a piece of artwork,” he says. “We played around with the textures of it using different blade depths, widths and gaps where we could.” The final design was a product of around 30 different computer models: “We chose one that had that lightness of touch but also a sense of backdrop, an artistic element.”

The architects decided to continue the corten on the rotunda auditorium, but in a different way. “Because it’s an auditorium space on the main road you can’t have any windows; acoustically it had to be pretty much a sealed box,” Jobson explains. Angled corten fins were specified to offer something “quite textural” to enliven what’s essentially a windowless form.

Another key element is noticeable when approaching the site – a flint wall, which echoes Winchester’s history as a fortified city – parts of the old flint city wall are still visible. The architects’ concept was to create a new wall which actually felt like it “existed before we got there, like a found object,” Jobson explains, thus helping “connect to the old city,” although in a “very contemporary take.” This is one example where the architects’ strong relationship with the university was crucial, with the high cost of building a hand ‘knapped’ flint wall. Luckily the university “were keen on having that sense of history.” Corten elements such as window frames were incorporated, suggesting rusty metal objects often found in stone walls.

A final, and subtle, element is the use of glass reinforced concrete panels using a pure white stone aggregate around the entrance, a “slightly poetic” move, says Jobson. It refers back to the chalk found when digging anywhere around Winchester, again tying the building back to its landscape.

Environmental considerations

The project team settled on an MVHR system to provide the right air quality internally, with warm fresh air brought in from the roof. The difficulty with introducing this sealed system, says Jobson, was that lecturers “don’t like not being able to open windows,” so the architects included individual openable windows among the majority non-opening windows.

Acoustics were naturally crucial to get right; the architects worked with specialists Sandy Brown, who used 3D modelling on a room-to-room basis, compiling a schedule of the reverberation or absorption levels needed. The teaching rooms were reasonably straightforward, but the food hall, library, and auditorium required careful acoustic treatment. The food hall has glass and concrete surfaces, plus ceramic flooring, so acoustic rafts were integrated into the coffered concrete soffit to absorb sound.

By contrast, timber over a quilted acoustic fleece fabric was used heavily to line the major public areas, the library features a timber slatted acoustic ceiling, and the material was also used in the auditorium, assisted by a curtain on the upper level to vary reverberation. Both low reverberation, for speech, and higher reverberation – for music recitals, were required, explains Jobson. The curtain on the first floor can be pulled back to reveal timber panels which help to diffuse sound; and permanently-exposed triangular acoustic reflectors also contribute to achieving the desired acoustic for the particular use. “It’s been designed to ensure there aren’t any awkward reverb times, or ‘flutter’ echo,” he says.

The other key material used throughout was concrete. While the architects are very conscious of its environmental impact, Jobson says it’s “very difficult to deliver such a flexible building using timber structures.” He adds: “I think it’s something we can advance in the future, but at that point it wasn’t going to work.” Concrete offered important benefits to the project: it was finished to a high standard and left exposed to maximise its thermal mass, as well as offering inherent fire protection. Ceramic flooring was used throughout most of the public areas, also for robustness, while the quieter areas – the library, auditorium, and teaching spaces, have carpet made from recycled material.

From the outset the university wanted to achieve BREEAM ‘Excellent’ – the practice encourages all its clients to aim for such certification, while accepting it isn’t easy to achieve. Measures taken to provide the necessary credits included rainwater harvesting and the inclusion of a green roof on top of the auditorium.

Layout & student wellbeing

The buildings’ layout was designed around the concept of what Jobson calls “procession in architecture” – i.e. the movement of people into and through buildings. “It’s quite interesting if you start analysing buildings in that way,” he says. Usually with large public buildings, the architects would design a large opening but here that. Instead, they “made it obvious” where the opening on the main building was, “not by how big it is, but by how the walls and buildings direct you to the front door.” Near the main entrance, a section of the base of the rotunda was cut away, and features an artwork consisting of concrete letters, that signals the “front door.”

The practice also wanted an element of surprise, following entry, so included a large bay window that overlooks the garden. “This sequence of moments happening as you come in through the buildings is really key,” Jobson says. “It’s an experiential process.”

How people navigate and move through the building was a major driver for the specification of materials. The staircases, for example, are timber clad to guide people up through the building. “The materials and colours were chosen to try and help people move from one space to the next,” he says.

The university focuses heavily on student wellbeing, so with this in mind the practice wanted to give students a space for reflection. With the requirements of a multi-faith room proving too complex, the thinking evolved into creating a ‘collaboration’ space, and then finally a ‘contemplation’ space – a place for students to escape from the outside world. “It’s a combination of a space in which students can gather together – in the central circular area – and where they can sit, in little soft-furnished pods around the edge.” These are “integrated into the architecture,” says Jobson, and have controllable music and lighting levels – some are two-person, some single, and one is accessible. “It’s right at the heart of the university, and says ‘it’s ok to sit around, you don’t need to be under pressure to be working.’ It’s a key space.”

The design discussions around the contemplation spaces sparked further conversation about wellbeing aspects, which is where the idea for the project’s central courtyard garden came from. Located between the three buildings, with a lot of water, it’s visible from most public areas, as well as having dedicated space for students or staff to sit. “It has become a tranquil hidden garden, full of fantastic flora fauna and wildlife,” says Jobson. “It goes to the root of the way the university thought about the buildings – the type of spaces they wanted to create.”

Illustrating the client’s confidence in the wellness aspects of the building is the fact that it has submitted the centre for WELL certification, one of the first university projects in the UK to do so. As part of this, the university’s food outlets focus on healthy food options.

The finished product

Following some construction delays from Covid, as well as other factors, the university finally opened the buildings in September 2020. Although there were at times worries from the university – notably nervousness over the use of corten, and about the overall cost of the building – it’s a project they’re now incredibly proud of. “From the university’s perspective it was a big call, they hadn’t built something of this scale and budget before,” Jobson says.

The practice are hopeful that over the next few months the building will be fully used, as the pandemic eases. Despite not being fully utilised yet, the building has been very well received: “I don’t think we’ve ever designed a building that’s had so much positive support,” says Jobson.