Breaking the mould as a highly flexible coworking space open to the whole of Cambridge University, Jestico + Whiles’ socially-focused building helps present a more public face while supporting new collaborations
Although only a couple of miles from the heart of Cambridge and its historic colleges, the departments and faculties in the University’s West Cambridge Site felt slightly out on a limb, and sorely lacking in social facilities. However a groundbreaking new building for the eminent educational body, purpose-designed as an open coworking and social space for anyone within the University, and the wider public, has changed that.
The West Cambridge Site, which has housed a variety of research-oriented science and engineering departments since the 1960s, is to see a “radical transformation,” say architects Jestico + Whiles, which is hoped to turn it into a new “lively destination quarter” in the city – the West Cambridge Innovation District. The “home for research and enterprise,” it will have buildings interspersed by pedestrianised plazas, central gardens, lakes and urban orchards.
The £40m West Hub, which was designed by the practice and opened in April 2022, is key to the district, with the client briefing it to be a “unique meeting place for people to connect and socialise.” It marks a new approach by the university to learning spaces and shared-used resources. Open and accessible to anyone from 8am to 9pm Monday to Friday, the Hub “enables new ways for academics, researchers, students, businesses and the wider community to share, learn and collaborate.”
The site – including the soon to complete Ray Dolby Centre, also designed by Jestico + Whiles and which will be the centrepiece of the Cavendish Laboratory – is a focal point for research in technology and the physical sciences. The ‘Cambridge Cluster’ is the name given to over 5,300 firms centred around the university, which generate £18bn in turnover.
Signalling the three-storey development’s important new social role in the community as well as the university, it includes the first bar on the West Cambridge Site, as well as a shop and cafeteria. Anna Steeden, operations manager at the West Hub, comments on the brief for this unusual scheme: “It was designed from the ground floor up with people in mind. Above all it is a place of collaboration and co-working, designed to foster connectivity and serendipitous ‘collisions’ that spark new ideas. Its flexibility means its spaces can be configured to meet the daily needs of all users – students, staff, and the wider community.” She adds that its external amenities in particular “bring a new vibrancy to the site.”
Much of the accommodation will be used for research collaborations between the university and industry, but will also provide additional learning space. The West Hub accommodates the University’s new Foundation Year programme in the arts, humanities and social sciences for students who have experienced “educational disadvantage,” which welcomed its first students last October.
The scheme’s hybrid nature, part coworking office space, part academic space, part public and hospitality, meant that Jestico + Whiles were able to bring experience from different sectors such as workplace and coworking, and cafeteria and bar design, alongside its work in research and education sectors including for Cambridge. This led to a “truly holistic, blended use scheme that responds dynamically to changing needs, says director at the practice, James Tatham. The research projects that stand out in Jestico + Whiles’ portfolio include the Mountbatten Building for Southampton University and the Graphene Institute in Manchester, as well as the ongoing Ray Dolby Centre at the West Cambridge Site.
Tatham tells ADF that the Hub and the Ray Dolby Centre (also known as Cavendish III), “essentially function as one project, but they are two very different buildings.” So while there is some shared parkland between them (and a shared ground source heat pump), the Cavendish Laboratory project is more complex, with a high level of servicing and research equipment. It is undergoing nearly a year of fit-out, and is due to finish later in 2023. However, with both projects running concurrently, it was seen as a prudent move to have a single contractor; Bouygues.
With Jestico + Whiles’ strong track record in education and research buildings, as well as their history working with the university, they were a natural fit. Tatham says that the briefing itself was “quite challenging,” with this being a world-renowned academic institution; the board interrogated the designers’ suggestions individually, requiring them to demonstrate exactly why design decisions were made.
However, Tatham says that before that rigour was applied to their designs, while the client body wanted a “lively” building, the brief wasn’t clear at the outset. This meant a “prolonged” Stage 0 to establish its actual desires – during which the architects “did an awful lot of interviewing, in some cases one to one.” He says there was also a push from the planners as well as the university to increase the social spaces on the campus – “they felt there wasn’t any social infrastructure at all.” As a result of the loose brief – and budget – says Tatham, “we had to kind of go through a process of gleaning information from people who would use and work at the facility, and consolidated that into a scheme.
The architect said that the “completely open ended” brief – which was fitting for a flexible building with little precedent – was part of what made this a great project for the practice – “it almost felt like being back at university,” he tells ADF. “You could sort of take it where you wanted,” he says. The practice created a number of “high level” schemes showing a variety of options.
This organic evolution of a programme and form for this unprecedented blend of typologies included the designers visiting a wide range of projects for inspiration. “We did a lot of work in terms of seeing buildings at other universities, but also looked at flexible working spaces, and some quite nice restaurants and cafeterias.” Tatham adds: “We were casting the net wide because the university didn’t want another generic kind of student hub building, they wanted something quite special, they wanted it to be somewhere that people naturally gravitated to, because it was a great place to be.”
Tatham says that to not be constrained by budget, initially at least, or building area, and to be able to “just kind of go with our gut instinct in terms of what was right” was very satisfying. “Connectivity and collaboration” were the designers’ guiding objectives, but inherent to that was a challenge to define certain spaces to create more intimate areas for study.
In addition to that instinctive approach to a new typology however, the architects took inspiration for the study spaces from a University of Cambridge research paper, ‘Protolib: Researching and Reimagining Library Environments.’ This looked at needs across the university’s facilities, and prototypes for groupings of users in future facilities. The architects used the document to develop a detailed brief for the Hub, resulting in a concept of “low, medium and high intensity” study spaces.
Each of these would be distributed fairly exclusively on each of the building’s three levels, with each requiring a different approach to acoustics, furniture, space and flexibility. Tatham said it was “interesting to draw on a bit of real research done by the university on the sorts of spaces people liked; even plants, lighting, it added a bit of academic rigour.”
The architects focused on addressing “both the needs of the community and the preferences of the individual.” In practice this meant a mix of “structured” educational spaces with generous circulation areas that function well as breakout and informal social or study areas.
The ground floor houses all of the food and beverage areas – as well as the substantial canteen and cafe/bar; it also contains a shop, and shower rooms to encourage users to travel by bike to the Hub. There is an “oversized” kitchen, designed to eventually also serve other parts of the university. The cafeteria serves as ‘low intensity study’ space and opens directly into the new green space and public realm.
The upper two levels house different ‘medium intensity’ (first floor) and ‘high intensity’ (second floor) study spaces. They are arranged as a mix of traditional library space and a range of individual and small group study areas, in a variety of “semi-enclosed and open plan environments.” There are also lecture rooms ranging from a 20 person to a 100 person ‘theatre.’
In terms of its form, the building is “graduated vertically,” with each storey having a progressively lower floor-to-ceiling height and and being more intimate. The ground floor is a lively set of spaces, the first floor is a calmer and more relaxed environment, and the upper floor quieter, for focused study.
The ‘learning spine’ is a series of tangerine orange-covered bespoke fixed furniture that weaves horizontally throughout the open spaces of the upper floors, taking different forms as it does so. This is a space-efficient and sculptural way to combine space division and circulation, using colour to link the levels and aid wayfinding.
The ‘spine’ encloses private spaces, but also creates openings, frames views and subdivides larger rooms. Tatham sums up the practical benefit of the furniture for the spaces: “It helps contain space without sort of necessarily putting a wall and the door on it.”
It connects visually to the similarly coloured main stair, a striking steel-encased rectangular form extending through the atrium. It has been carefully detailed, including recessed handrails and wooden treads.
As well as lining the stairs, the orange colour has been used on elements like the planters on the first floor terrace, and some exterior facade panels, adding warmth, particularly at night when the facade is lit.
The rigour of the briefing process (which didn’t permit anything “whimsical and arbitrary” says Tatham) came alongside a pragmatic consolidation of spaces across the site – previously each department had its own lecture theatres and seminar rooms but also cafeterias. This meant quite a light space utilisation of spaces compared with other parts of the university that shared more space.
However, the flexible Hub gives the facility for future buildings to avoid needing to have a large lecture theatre, numerous seminar rooms or cafeteria of their own, because its spaces offer all such functions. Giving academic experts from across the university the opportunity to mix and share knowledge informally as well as formally in the new building creates infinite future possibilities for sparking of ideas, which was something that fired Jestico + Whiles’ imagination.
A large part of the building’s function is social, and therefore a lot of focus was placed on the bar and cafeteria design. The clients wanted “a real commercial offer that would make it a destination, not a typical student dining hall.” The idea was also to pull in customers from beyond the immediate campus as well – residents of north west Cambridge.
The canteen is run by the university, but the cafe bar – on the corner of the ground floor – is leased by a private firm. “The idea was to have something that was special, a bit higher end,” says Tatham. Until the new building’s arrival, staff wishing to take an overseas visitor for lunch, for example, were short of good options.
The cafeteria and bar at ground level will open directly into green landscaped to include rain gardens and recreational space, and external seating. This sits close to an east to west pedestrian and cycle path. Its upper floors incorporate a library service, media lab, multi-use spaces, learning resource areas, and workspaces ranging from informal open areas through to individual study booths. Learning spaces and meeting rooms are available to businesses and the wider community outside of core teaching times, for activities including social and networking events, talks and art exhibitions.
Suiting its flexible, blended functions, the building itself is “very blended, in a way,” says Tatham, despite its different atmospheres created on each level. While the cafeteria space on the ground floor is designed as such, “we didn’t want it to be sitting there empty during the mornings and afternoons,” so it was designed to be multifunctional, and to be a pleasant space to work in at any time.
The building is clad in a ‘veil’ of folded and perforated aluminium, chosen to reflect the colours of the surrounding landscape. Being perforated, its appearance changes by the hour, and by the season. At dusk, integrated lighting between the aluminium veil and the rainscreen “brings the building to life,” say the architects, with orange facade panels contributing to it being a glowing beacon at the heart of the campus.
As part of integrating the West Hub into the wider site, access for the local community “will be actively encouraged,” say the project team. The two main entrances have been located to provide a pedestrian route through the building that will encourage people to enter and use the facilities such as the cafeteria, and the gardens beyond. Jestico + Whiles says that its ‘biophilic’ design approach “reinforces the building’s link to the landscape.” As a key example, the external rainwater gardens immediately adjacent to the facade are “drawn into the building,” forming two lush internal gardens which are located in “light filled” atria.
Sustainability & wellness
The West Hub is a low-energy building, having been awarded BREEAM ‘Excellent’ thanks to a range of measures including “high performance building fabric” and passive design approaches such as exposing the concrete frame to bring thermal mass benefits. The form has been optimised to ensure that “the natural movement of heat, air and light keep conditions comfortable, while reducing energy demand,” said the architects. Lighting sensors and heat recovery and the ground source heat pump shared with the adjacent Ray Dolby building have helped achieve a 10% reduction in carbon emissions – in accordance with planning requirements to move away from gas as the primary fuel.
The building, say the architects, “adopts many aspects of the WELL Standard,” including good quantities of natural light, promoting the use of stairs, activity-based working and biophilia; connection with nature. Planting and internal gardens are significant elements both inside and on the external terrace. While there are a variety of spaces to accommodate different types of work and activities to contribute to users’ wellness, a “strong connection with nature” is achieved by integrating plants and trees both internally and externally. Pale green seating areas and interior design elements play off the more vibrant orange stair and ‘learning spine,’ adding to the calm feel brought by the natural elements.
This high quality, innovative scheme demonstrates the importance that the university attaches to encouraging academics, students and the community to come together, in a desirable, exciting shared collaborative space.
Tatham says that the university is using this scheme as a reference point for future projects, adding that “the feedback (from the university) has been really positive.” He says that “within two weeks of opening it was absolutely buzzing.”
Professor Andy Neely, who is the pro-vice-chancellor for enterprise and business relations at the University of Cambridge, commented that the West Hub has created a “new heart for the West Cambridge Innovation District.”
He further explained the importance of Jestico + Whiles’ welcoming, social new building to the West Cambridge campus, adding that it “represents the start of the site’s transformation into a more outward-facing campus, ‘putting the science on show,’ nurturing the entrepreneurial strengths of the Cambridge Cluster, and taking the university’s research and technology to the next level.”
- Architects: Jestico + Whiles
- Executive architects: NBBJ
- Structural engineer: Ramboll
- M&E consultant: Hoare Lea
- QS: AECOM
- Accessibility consultant: David Bonnett Associates
- Landscape consultant: Plincke
- Acoustic consultant: Currie & Brown
- Principal designer: Currie & Brown
- Main contractor: Bouygues