Urbane sprawl: the pursuit of the perfect habitat

March 26, 1999

Peter Sandy finds that managing campus growth requires a fine balance between immediate needs and future aspirations

Imagine you are flying in an aircraft on a clear night, watching the lights of towns and cities sliding in and out of view. They look like organisms, each with its own unique shape and structure revealed in the neon lattice of the streets below. Like all such human settlements that slowly evolve over time, the university campus develops like a small, specialised city.

The challenge facing estates managers is how to make best use of this shape as the institution evolves. How does a university keep its options open so that development can be accelerated or slowed down according to the vagaries of politics and finance, without prejudicing the future of the site, wasting money and compromising the experience of successive generations of students?

Keeping a grip on all of these threads requires the consideration of both architectural and academic issues. The former is difficult to grasp for many laymen and the latter often seems totally unpredictable.

"To think about the next year is tough enough for most universities; to envisage the 25 to 50-year timescale of masterplanning is so hard for many people that they start to mistrust it as an intellectual exercise," architect John Thacker says.

But such timescales are the norm in architecture because the design process must connect an immediate need - the reason for building now - with wider future agendas. These include how buildings age over their lifetime (typically 60 to 100 years), how buildings work together in neighbourhoods, and how patterns in the urban form are laid down by habitual use. Good architecture creates patterns of habitual use that suit people's natural behaviour.

"You know you made a mistake if people make their own muddy paths across the grass, ignoring the route you laid out for them," Thacker says. "On the other hand, there is nothing more satisfying to us than revisiting, say, Lancaster University and seeing people sitting in the sun where you thought they would like to sit, mixing in the central walkway where you hoped they would mix, and meeting each other in the places you knew they would."

Thacker, chairman of architects Shepheard Epstein Hunter, has for several decades been involved with university clients such as Lancaster, the Open University and King's College. These have very different campuses, ranging from the greenfield to the densely urban, but SEH has devised a set of "golden rules" of masterplanning that it has applied to good effect in all of them.

Lancaster University is a classic of the "plate-glass era" of university expansion. Born in the 1960s "white heat of technological revolution", it was conceived as a collegiate campus for up to 5,000 students, to be built on a hillside three and a half miles south of the city. SEH, which was responsible for its planning, architecture and landscaping, produced a tight-knit cluster of two to four-storey buildings grouped around a sequence of courtyards and encircled by a ring road. A pedestrian spine runs out from the central square, accessed by an underground road.

The original award-winning masterplan of 1963 was governed by two key priorities. First, students should be able to walk from one lecture to the next inside ten minutes, so that the entire timetable could be based on 50-minute blocks of time. Second, 50 per cent of students were to reside on campus, which was made possible by "layered" buildings, with residences at the top above social and academic spaces on lower floors.

By 1991, it was necessary to revise the original masterplan to cater for expansion up to 12,000 students by 2005. The "ten-minute rule" and the requirement to accommodate 50 per cent of students on campus were to be retained. The estates director at the time, now retired, was Donald Clark. He says: "The original masterplan was acknowledged as a success that had stood the test of time, so we went back to the same architectural team. I don't think many universities have done that, and credit must go to John Thacker who spent time making sure he understood the university's requirements."

Because the ten-minute rule could not be changed, the 1991 revision had to abandon another of the original principles - that academic buildings should include residences. In order to reserve space within the ring road for academic use, residences had to be designed on a new site to the south,outside the ring road. It meant a longer walk home, but preserved the vital timetabling rule.

"This showed the importance of rule one," Clark says. "You must be pragmatic. The overriding principle has to be that the buildings support the academic programme." Using the revised plan, another Pounds 35 million of capital works (not all of it designed by SEH - at their own suggestion) was completed via a bond issue. The current estates director, Ernest Phillips, summarises the result: "We have stock worth Pounds 160 million, and people do like it. There is diversity, you can walk short distances to different buildings, and different disciplines share the same common rooms.Building from the centre outwards (rule four) has worked well. We have risen to about ninth position in the research ratings and there has been an influx of new academics in recent years."

The situation at the Open University was rather different. Here a group of disparate buildings had been established, but SEH felt that relationships among them needed strengthening. This was achieved by identifying a diagonal circulation route that has been consolidated over the past 20 years with interlinked squares and new buildings. Now the campus has a clearer structure and a defined central core.

Geoff Clements, the OU's assistant director of estates says: "SEH did its first masterplan for us in 1977. When you look back, its foresight and robustness were remarkable."

But again, the situation is changing. "Now we are having to look more carefully at how we use buildings," Clements says. "There could be more homeworking and so, to be efficient, we should have more open-plan space, which suggests we will require deeper-plan buildings in the future."

Another aspect of the OU campus story has been Thacker's insistence on keeping rule three in mind. "I could see that the long-term potential of the site was limited unless more land was bought," he says. "Perhaps the biggest contribution I made in the past ten years was persuading the OU to overcome this long-term limitation. Now they have bought enough land to allow for their expansion for probably 50 or more years, and the future of the estate is secure."

Teaching facilities, page 43

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