The University of Birmingham Green Heart project aims to instil a stronger sense of community within campus life.
Its design will allow for chance encounters and a greater opportunity to work and relax outdoors. We spoke to Chris Churcman of Churchman Landscape Architects to find out more about this project, and how it will benefit both staff and students.
Talk me through your design brief?
We secured this project three years ago when the university was looking for landscape architects to design a new piece of public realm. They had a masterplan for the whole campus, which they put together in 2012 and had got planning approval for. A fundamental part of that involved knocking down their existing library, which had been there since the 1950s – it had been a bit of a blot on the landscape really, since it blocked the grand access which had set up when the university was first established in the 1900s.
In the 1950s they built the library which truncated the formal access running right through the heart of the campus. However in the early 2000s they realised that the library had to be refurbished or refitted to be bring it up to contemporary needs. They chose to build a new library instead, so the old building was demolished, freeing up access to the grand access. Our brief was then to create a quality piece of public realm over the resulting hectares.
What is the grand access?
The original university campus was a semi-circular range of buildings, and at the centre of this semicircle was a clocktower. It was modeled after a clocktower in Siena, so it’s a very classical statement and can be seen from most places in south Birmingham. It is quite an iconic piece of architecture that had a road lined with poplar trees and a gate leading up to it.
What did you hope to achieve with this project?
Our brief was to come up with a piece of public realm that was relevant to today’s universities and to the needs of their students. Obviously in the 1900s when they first established the university there were probably 1,000 students, if that. Now they’ve got 20,000 plus, its sort of a mini-community, a mini-town in its own right, so the green heart project can very much be considered the centre the centre of campus life. Anyone moving around the campus will have to pass through it on their route from their residences to their lectures theatres.
It’s something that all the students and staff will engage with. We wanted to create something that wasn’t just a formal landscape gesture with lots of lawn and some trees, but something that people could to stay within; its very much designed around comfort. Students have the opportunity to both relax and work outdoors and we had this idea of serendipity, which is very much about chance encounters.
We thought about the way universities operated and you need spaces which will allow people to have random meetings. Sometimes you will have formal groupings of students, or other times you are sat next to somebody who is doing a subject which has some interest to what your area of study is. Through discussion and dialogue sometimes you can strike up conversations which have a mutual benefit to each speaker.
Random conversations often spark interesting trains of thought. Companies like Google and Microsoft have these breakout spaces within their buildings for that very reason. They want to allow people to meet their colleagues and engage with, having conversations which are offline and random. This pushes trains of thought down new corridors and avenues.
Could you tell me about your position in the company?
I am the founder director and one of two directors within the the company. I set it up in 1993 so we’re coming up on our 25th birthday now.
Can you tell me a bit more about the design competition you entered to secure the commision?
There was a selected group of about 10 landscape architects who were invited to submit their initial documentation and examples of relevant work. Churchman Landscape Architects have quite a track record in working with universities. We were the university of Warwick’s landscape consultants since 2003 and also we have also been working with Glasgow Caledonian University since 2007. We have also worked for the university of East Anglia and City University in London and Bath. The 10 invited were then whittled down to four and we went to an interview and had to present a submission, a design for the project itself. We were appointed through that process.
What was the process after you successfully secured the project?
So we then developed the scheme with the university over a period over a year-and-a-half and and then in spring 2017 Willmott Dixon were appointed as the contractor.
How will your new design benefit the students and staff?
On a basic level it is about creating something that staff and students can enjoy and relax within. We have 200 meters of actual seating, which sounds a bit overkill but when you’ve got 20,000 students they do need somewhere to sit down. All of the seating is designed with generous proportions, with seats having high backs and armrests. The reason for that is if you’re working on a tablet or on a laptop you have to put it on your knees,so you need to have the right angle to be able to sit with your back supported whilst working.
Tables have charging points and the whole of that area has full wifi coverage. Its very much an area to study; an extension of the internal learning environment. The internal studying accomodations within universities has changed dramatically, since you tend not to have dedicated learning space to specific subjects any more. There tends to be more communal learning space. The new library, which was finished in early 2017, is often full to capacity, to the point that students can’t get a seat. To have a piece of public realm next door which allows students to bring their studying outside gives them a lot more flexibility. We did try to have covered learning spaces but unfortunately the idea ‘bit the dust’, so we don’t have those any more, which is a pity.
It wasn’t just about sitting down and enjoying the sun, the five hectares we are working with are broken down into a series of ‘rooms’ which have specific functions. There is an amphitheatre which can accommodate around 10,000 people without much difficulty, a formal lawn area which will regularly accommodate marquees, so if there is a conference coming in that will take place on the main lawn. There are also areas for farmers’ markets and pop-up cafes. One of the main themes was to create an environment which was flexible, which could support a diverse programme of activities. We have also designed it disabled access in mind, so anyone with a disability will be able to get from A to B.
The other strand that we always try to build into these projects is to try and get the university academics to engage with the project, its something we do on all our university schemes. Normally without success. But with Birmingham university there there have been quite a few academics starting to develop their thoughts for small garden areas and interventions within the scheme. So It’s been quite successful in terms of engaging with the academics for this project.
Did the staff help with the actual design?
In terms of the universities involvement they were totally engaged with design process. In the initial stages we had one of the members of the estates office, Stephen Ashton, who would attend all of the design sessions. The scheme developed with him and with his full support and knowledge. To be honest quite often with these projects you to have some who is able to navigate their way through the university processes and procedures because they’re highly political.
If you don’t have somebody who is able to steer the project carefully through the processes review you can finish up with a design that is diluted. They had a steering group within the university that Ashton basically presented the scheme to. It’s been a reasonably smooth process. We lost some ideas like the smoking shelters, but the scheme is essentially what we designed at the competition stage and hasn’t fundamentally changed since then.
Could tell me a bit more about your plans for greening the area?
To some extent the clue is in the name, the Green Heart project, it had to be something that was essentially soft. If you’ve got five hectares there’s no way that it’s all going to be hard, even though we do have significant amount of hard paving. We are planting 161 trees in total with most of them being semi-mature. We also have rain gardens, so to some extent determines our choices for planting.
The university also has a group called Birmingham Institute of Forestry Research (BIFOR). The group is looking at the effects of global warming on woodlands and also has an interest in the way that greenery and trees can mitigate pollution and poor air quality in cities. Through the project we had opportunities to engage with them, looking at research on how planting can be used successfully to reduce pollution. We have applied that to other projects and I have even given quite a few conferences on the benefits of green infrastructure in terms of reducing poor air quality.
Have you encountered and difficulties so far?
Every project throws up its challenges, but the honest answer would have to be no. There are many challenges but that’s just the nature of the beast – I don’t think any project will be without its issue. Cost is always one of them and working within a budget is always taxing. Since it was a campus there are existing structures and elements that we had to work around and retain, and one of those was an substation that had cables and duct finishes up at that structure so they run through our scheme and we had to accommodate them.
Did your group handle the demolition of the library?
It was handled through the contractors, although it was definitely something I was fully aware of. Until the demolitions had been completed the new design couldn’t actually be locked down, since we didn’t know what we would find after it was destroyed. I was fully aware of the demolition process and even watched the old building come down, which was interesting in its own right.
Was the library still in use?
It was abandoned. Once the library opened up in mid 2016, the old library was closed down.
What would you consider to be the most unique aspect of this project?
I suppose it’s the sheer scale of the project. Five hectares is huge – it must be one of the biggest public realm schemes in the UK at the moment. There aren’t many sites were you’ve got a huge clocktower at the end, imposing this sense of order. There are lots of other things which are unusual and unique, but I would have to say those are the two that really stand out and I think will set it apart.
Where did you draw your inspiration from?
I think the site itself, you have always got to look at the context to come up with a design. We don’t have a house style as such, but we do fairly rigorously at the context and take a lot of inspiration from there.
How big is the team working on the project at the moment?
At the moment we have three full time staff who are being supported by one or two other part-timers.
When do you expect the project to be completed by?
By mid 2018. Unless there is a delay that’s the intended completion date.
Client Team: University of Birmingham: Contact Stephen Ashton
Architect : Associated Architects
Structural Engineer: Arup
Quantity Surveyor: Currie and Brown
Services Engineers: Couch Perry Wilkes
Main Contractor: Willmott Dixon Construction
Size of site : 5 hectares