The University of Birmingham (UoB) shares the top step with forty-three HE institutions as critics claim the new teaching excellence framework (TEF) has faltered under starter’s ordersWritten by Erin Santillo on 24th June 2017
Green Heart Project Manager Shares Exciting Plans
Redbrick spoke to Green Heart project manager Stephen Ashton and Guild President Ellie Keiller about plans for the new open space on campus set to be completed by 2019
‘A really good entrance from the North [...] and you’ve got the killer view.’ Many students believe that that’s all there is behind the plans for the new open space that will replace the old Main Library, set to be demolished by the end of this academic year. But Stephen Ashton, the Green Heart project manager, went on to tell Redbrick that there’s much more to it, sharing some of the intricate features, testing challenges and exciting potential of the project.
“University decided to do something that brings everyone together, providing the 'opportunity to meet, to spark ideas off each other...'
Ashton, who is also project manager for the new Main Library, the old Library demolition and the multi-storey North East Car Park, told Redbrick about the decision to move the Main Library and create an open space in its place. He said that refurbishing the old Library would have taken seven years and cost half of the new building just to solve existing problems. ‘Disrupting students for seven years wasn’t good,’ Ashton said, ‘spending lots of money not to get any benefit wasn’t good either.’
According to Ashton the architectural company that developed the recent campus masterplan considered rebuilding a new library in the same spot as the existing building, but saw the opportunity to do something special with that space instead. In agreement with London-based MJP Architects, the University decided to do something that brings everyone together, providing the ‘opportunity to meet, to spark ideas off each other [...] and a different kind of space for students to work in.’
Guild President Ellie Keiller, told Redbrick that many students, herself included, liked the old Library, the building and the memories associated with it, and were sad to see it close. Nevertheless, she emphasised the importance of the University investing in the ‘academic experience’ of students, adding that the old building ‘wasn’t fit for purpose’.
“One of the biggest factors in prospective students deciding where to study is having open spaces on campus
‘We always tell the University that if they’re going to start taking more students, then they really have to put more money into being able to support their students,’ Keiller said, ‘and they couldn’t have done that with the old Library.’
The idea to open up the centre of campus was inspired by the original vision of Sir Aston Webb, who designed the first phase of buildings on campus over 100 years ago. Ashton also added that one of the biggest factors in prospective students deciding where to study is having open spaces on campus. Whilst he admitted that UoB is already ‘winning’ on that, MJP Architects suggested that they could do better and make these open spaces more effective.
Nevertheless, it was clear that Ashton believed that the Green Heart project, as it is officially called, has taken student consultation seriously too. Nomad, a specialist company that does consultations on university campuses, was appointed to conduct two rounds of campus consultation last academic year, with further consultation taking place in the autumn semester.
‘Although the initial structure of these big outside spaces was put in place quite early on,’ Ashton told Redbrick, ‘the details of exactly how the seating’s going to work, what kind of facilities, how do you want to use these spaces, what the footpaths would look like, any ideas about planting of trees [involved students].’
Ashton explained the initial challenges that were addressed by the company consequently appointed to design the Green Heart project, Churchman Landscape Architects, who also designed the area around the Greenwich Maritime Museum. The three main challenges were: disability access, working around an electricity substation and covering the bottom of the Muirhead Tower, which Ashton described as ‘pig ugly’.
The accessibility challenge of bridging an eight metre height difference between the North Gate and the market stalls at University Square will be addressed by building a wheelchair accessible raised walkway across the front of Muirhead, down towards the Library, touching on the electricity substation, and then to University Square.
This proposal got Churchman the job as it simultaneously provides wheelchair access and covers the bottom of Muirhead Tower, as well as the electricity substation which would be too costly to move. Beneath the walkway, there will also be space for another food outlet on campus that overlooks the open space. ‘The three really terrible challenges we threw at them, they nailed,’ Ashton said.
Churchman also suggested reconfiguring the footpaths in the existing open spaces on campus - Chancellor’s Court and University Square - as well as creating three more external spaces. These spaces include a green square between the new Library and Muirhead Tower enclosed by trees, and a more ‘domestic-scale space’ by the listed buildings at North Gate. Additionally, Ashton described the grass banks that will replace the North Car Park as an outdoor ‘auditorium-cum-amphitheatre’ that could be used as a staging area for performances.
Ashton suggested that these new spaces can be used for campus events such as Grad Ball, which may be moved to this new location, and has been made possible by replicating the necessary electricity supplies in this new development. In addition to this, he hinted that the BBC Proms could consider holding a performance in such a space. He told Redbrick: ‘We’ve tried to provide a series of different spaces that you can use for lots of different ways.’
Ellie Keiller, who is part of the Green Heart project task group as Guild President, told Redbrick that she would have had a ‘serious issue’ if the rise in tuition fees hadn’t been followed by more building on campus, and that she’s happy that the University is still building for the sake of students. But she also said, ‘If they were just knocking it down and putting a fancy garden in [...] then I’d kick up a bit of a fuss.’
‘I think it would be great if they build another big fancy lab that students can come and do some amazing research in, or some amazing study spaces,’ Keiller said, ‘but the Green Heart is not the only project happening. The important thing is that students can use that space.’
Stephen Ashton told Redbrick that the University has a ‘huge’ capital program that will be spent on developing the campus, and that the Green Heart project is just a small part of that. In fact, the Green Heart project will cost £16.9 million, not including the old Library demolition, which is incorporated into the £60 million cost of building the new Library.
‘What [the Green Heart project] does, is that it’s the glue that joins all of the other projects together,’ he said. ‘It provides the space in between all of those other buildings, all of the new buildings that we’re planning, all of the refurbishment of the existing buildings that we’re planning, to try and make sure the campus works together as a whole’.
What’s more, Ashton said that improving sustainability and accessibility were two of the big priorities for the project. When asked whether high costs were a constraint in achieving these goals, Ashton said: ‘We didn’t allow ourselves to be constrained by it at all, so that we haven’t had to make a decision which makes things worse for somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who uses a white stick.’
One of the key aspects of improving sustainability through the project has been promoting sustainable transport, specifically building more cycle storage below the raised walkway that will be under shelter, well-lit and at the front and centre of campus. ‘Having just done the library, and now looking at this,’ Ashton said, ‘I’ve worked very closely with our sustainable transport and there’s more stuff going around the library as it stands, even before we do the Green Heart.’
Another impressive feat of the project, is its efforts to maximise the sustainable constructability by aiming to reuse as many materials used in the construction process as possible.This means reusing materials on site, and when that’s not feasible, making sure that it is reused elsewhere rather than going to landfill. Ashton revealed to Redbrick, ‘All of the spoil from the new Library site was reused somewhere, there’s nothing that couldn’t be reused’.
And when materials can’t be reused on site, Ashton told Redbrick, companies have to tender for them, using the example of Carillion, the construction company behind the new Library, who reused materials for tarmacing in motorway projects. ‘If they have a system in place either within their company or their subcontractors where they can reuse that,’ he said, ‘that gives them a competitive advantage and we’re more likely to use somebody that’s able to intelligently reuse stuff.’
In keeping with the environmentalist stance, another objective of the project is increasing biodiversity on campus. Ashton said that the Green Heart project will involve planting 160 new trees to replace just over 100 trees that will be removed, which includes young trees as well as older feature trees. ‘That’s a really nice balance, because we want big stuff so that it feels complete to start with, but the younger ones are better environmentally.’
In addition to introducing new species of trees on campus, the project will put in ‘a wide range of fauna and flora,’ such as introducing bird boxes including some specifically designed for swallows. Also, following an idea from students about having a water feature, there will be running water along one side of the open space which Ashton said will concurrently form a key part of the campus’s flood strategy.
The burning question though, is whether these grandiose plans can realistically stick to schedule and be completed by 2019 as planned. Speaking about the delays to the 360 Sports Centre, Ashton said: ‘When you’re constructing something as big and as complicated as the Sports Centre there are always going to be things that will try and catch you out.’
However, whilst he insisted that the University has taken a ‘conservative view’ on the time schedule suggested by external companies, he admitted that the time schedule is still ‘reasonably tentative and very fuzzy.’
For the time being, the next step towards the Green Heart project will be the demolition of the old Main Library which will make its first signs of visible progress in the Easter break, and then continue in the summer. Whilst Keiller acknowledged that those studying on campus over the Easter break, as well as postgraduate students studying over summer might be affected by the schedule, the Guild President ensured Redbrick that around study and exam period, ‘disruption will be kept to a minimum.’
Keiller also informed Redbrick that the Harding Library will reopen before the Green Heart project is complete, providing students with more study spaces.