Campus close-up: University of Bath

An innovative Building Research Park shares a former RAF base with Science Museum treasures

September 11, 2014

Source: Getty

Unexpected find: Daleks share space at Wroughton with the University of Bath

Inside the hangars of a Second World War airfield just south of Swindon sit a host of curious objects, from Daleks to a collection of royal carriages and a first edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia. It is probably the last place you would expect to find these treasures, which belong to the Science Museum. But the museum group has been storing big items at the former site of RAF Wroughton since it took ownership of the airfield in 1979, and the site also hosts its archives and library.

Searching for low-energy ways to store some of these items in conditions that protect against deterioration brought the Science Museum into contact with Mike Lawrence, a lecturer in low-carbon design at the University of Bath. About two years ago, Dr Lawrence worked on a project with the Science Museum to develop a building material that regulates humidity, which is now in use inside one of the hangars.

The collaboration took an unusual turn when Dr Lawrence began talking to the museum about his desire for a space where he could research full-scale buildings. He wanted the chance to create an open-air laboratory that could be used to test building materials. The Science Museum Group offered to lease him 1ha of the 220ha airfield for a peppercorn rent.

Dr Lawrence approached the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for funding for the project, and it granted him almost £1 million. The Hive, as it is known, will be officially launched by the university’s chancellor, the Earl of Wessex, on 25 September.

It comprises a framework of cube-like “test cells”, each measuring 4×4×3m. Five of the six faces of each cell are sealed, with the remaining one sitting on an outside edge of the building. Researchers can then use different building materials on the sixth face and measure their performance under different weather conditions, because the rest of the environment is controlled.

“It is all very well understanding how things perform in a laboratory, but when you take them up to full scale they perform differently,” Dr Lawrence explained. The set-up will allow researchers and industry bodies to determine the acoustic effect of double versus triple glazing, for example, or see how different materials respond to flooding.

In addition to the Hive, Dr Lawrence also has the relevant permissions to construct 16 small buildings (125m3 each) that researchers can build and demolish over and over again. The whole set-up is known as the Building Research Park, and Dr Lawrence, who noted that it is the first of its kind in the UK, is its director.

“The whole point about this park is that…you start on day one rather than wasting the first six months, or even longer, of your research project trying to find somewhere to put your building, getting planning permission and trying to get through building control,” he said.

The park is currently being used to study a low-environmental impact construction system as part of an EU-funded project that involves a research institute in Spain, and an insulation company is also testing at the site.

Bath’s deputy vice-chancellor, Kevin Edge, said that although Bath has a focus on fundamental research, it also has applications in mind.

“We are very well funded through research councils for fundamental research, but the Hive is an example of both fundamental and applied research that is very significantly supported by the EPSRC,” Professor Edge said, adding that this is a clear reflection that the research council is keen for universities to collaborate with industry.

He explained that business links are coming into “sharper focus” for universities as a consequence of the impact case studies portion of the research excellence framework. “Research-intensive universities in particular are paying close attention to this,” he observed.

The Building Research Park is just one high-profile industry-engaged activity that the university is involved in. It also has a 30-year-old partnership with the Ford Motor Company. “Engine development is something that has been of particular interest to us for a number of years and the fundamental research work that we are doing here is very much valued by Ford,” Professor Edge said.

The university has just been awarded £2 million from the EPSRC to fund equipment to establish a centre of excellence in low-emission vehicle research.

Bath’s relationship with the Science Museum Group continues to expand. Dr Lawrence supervises a conservation officer, employed by the Science Museum, who is pursuing a PhD. The work involves developing a low-energy system for a large centralised store of artefacts at Wroughton, which could be considered for a REF impact case study in the years ahead.

In numbers

£2m EPSRC funding for a new centre of excellence in low-emission vehicle research

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