Keep the library lights burning

March 31, 1995

Bill Grimwade reports on the progress of Britain's first purpose-built university in 25 years. To design the University College of Lincolnshire - Britain's first purpose-built university for 25 years - architects, engineers and planners RMJM have needed a completely different approach from the one which once won them acclaim for the universities of York, Stirling and Bath.

For those universities were nationally funded, on campuses away from city centres.

"The impetus for the University College, to be built in Lincoln city centre, comes from the pride and unity of the county," says David Cook, chief executive of the University Project Company. "Not only do we wish to prevent the drain of our youth, vitality and enthusiasm out of the county, but we wish to attract potential students and new industry into the Lincoln area."

When York, Stirling and Bath were designed it was still respectable to talk of universities as "ivory towers". Now things are different. One reason behind local authority and private sector investment of more than Pounds 20 million in the project, is to stimulate the local economy.

The long-term nature of this strategy is evident in the planning of an Access Network, based on IT systems in the Lincoln buildings, which will eventually provide information and community-based learning from the Humber to the Wash.

RMJM project director John Calder says the 39-acre site, "lends itself to an extraordinarily close integration of town and gown". He has had to deal with all the political problems of putting a university in the middle of an ancient cathedral town. The site is a few minutes' walk from Lincoln's historic centre, and there have been frequent meetings with the Royal Fine Arts Commission and English Heritage, to discuss design proposals.

In addition there has been an extensive programme of community consultation, with exhibitions in the high street and several well-attended public meetings.

RMJM design director Colin Moses calls it "a missing piece of the urban jigsaw, a very sensitive place, which now has to be connected to the city". The northern edge of the site, closest to the city centre, is defined by Brayford Pool, which was Lincoln's port in Roman and Medieval times. It still has moorings and a boatyard, which will be retained and integrated.

Colin Moses explains: "We will have the university buildings, with pleasure cruisers moored alongside, maintaining a mix of existing users and students. This gets back to the ethos of our brief, which was to make the university a public access place. We did not want to create a place which you wouldn't go to unless you were a student."

The buildings will be in use 24 hours a day - you can expect to see lights burning in the library even on Sunday evening - and the intention is that it should be seen from the town as "a glowing beacon." The cathedral stands on high ground known as The Lincoln Edge, 70 metres above the university, giving a clear view of the university roof.

Generally architects worry most about the look of the four elevations, the walls, but at Lincoln RMJM have also had to concern themselves with what they call the "fifth elevation" the roof.

York, Stirling and Bath were designed as a whole. In Lincoln, because of the way the funding works, RMJM have designed in detail only the first phase, to open in October 1996, which will consist of 110,000 square feet of social and academic space.

Colin Moses says: "The University College of Lincolnshire is mostly privately funded. So we have had to change what we have been doing to cope with that. At the same time, what we have done has had an effect on the rate the money comes in."

So the first phase of building, the work that is going on now, "was inevitably going to be a microcosm of the final university. We had to design a building that was going to be so flexible it could cope with a number of different uses. It could cope with teaching and social needs, and at the same time could change its spots as the university grew, as the schools developed. So flexibility was paramount. The space had to be flexible enough to be used as, say, a 120-seat lecture hall, or a social space or a language lab."

The result will be "a series of open floor spaces, a series of trays trays if you like. In between are core spaces - services, toilets, stairs - and the bridge connections at the upper levels. These spaces stack up and they are carefully sized to accommodate the optimum range of rooms. They are column-free spaces. Potentially each is one big room 15 metres by 24.5 metres. The design enables acoustically efficient partitioning to be erected at will."

The academic space is accommodated on four floors in five of these modules. A covered street runs through the centre of the building, off which opens a three-storey high space - the sixth module. This is the social heart - a meeting place, with restaurant and exhibition space, which opens out onto a terrace and deck at the water's edge. The railway crosses the site, and a new link road is being built which will cross it at right angles to the railway.

Colin Moses says: "That effectively divides the site into four quadrants. Our master plan was to meld those four quadrants together for the future and at the same time have a clear approach to how we were going to handle people, cars and parking."

The railway line creates another problem: noise. "In an ideal world we would have as much natural ventilation as we can but if we have a railway line beside teaching space we can't have the windows open. So the back part of the building by the railway is essentially hard and has mechanical ventilation. But the edges beside Brayford Pool can have opening windows with views towards the water and the city."

The problems of ventilating, heating and cooling the building were given to RMJM's Barry Redman to solve. He worked closely with the architects and structural engineers to design a building which would limit the energy requirements. As many spaces as possible have been naturally ventilated, rather than air conditioned.

RMJM offers a multi-skilled approach, from landscaping to boilers. This overcomes a common problem in the construction industry of lack of integration of building services with structural support. It also enabled fast work. RMJM was commissioned in November 1993 and the building work went out to tender last December. Nottingham Trent University should be able to take over the first stage building on schedule in October 1996.

The brief was to create a building which would work socially, and yet make the most efficient use of space. Both these demands led to the same conclusion: the building should have spaces which were used for more than one purpose. There are lecture spaces, library spaces and the rest, but Lincolnshire will also have circulation spaces where people can sit, read and rest. Teaching space will not be "owned" by a particular department. There will be small areas of specialisation, but most teaching space will be common. "We needed to avoid the beginnings of fiefdoms," says Colin Moses.

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