‘60s university buildings – unloved and misunderstood?

New buildings grab the headlines but most estates and facilities managers are grappling with older buildings, constructed in another era for different uses. This is particularly true for the higher education sector. Even those institutions with well-funded capital programmes have a legacy of buildings from the rapid expansion of university education in the sixties and seventies, following the University Grants Commission and the Robbins Report in 1963.

Some are iconic, listed even, and have been well looked after but many are badly insulated, inflexible, poorly maintained and unloved. A 2008 report by AUDE (the Association of University Directors of Estates) concluded that dealing with this legacy would be “difficult, disruptive and costly.” The AUDE report estimated the cost of putting things right at £11bn and that excluded demolition and decanting costs.

So it was no wonder that the Building Centre, just off London’s Tottenham Court Road, was packed to capacity for a breakfast session at the end of November titled, How do we deal with the legacy of 1960s university buildings?

Organised by New London Architecture the event brought together university estate directors with leading architects to show what could be done.

NLA Chair Peter Murray ran through some of the typical features of these legacy buildings  – single pipe heating, asbestos, single glazing, panel cladding, deep panel buildings – it’s a long list.

The London School of Economics, one of the better funded universities, is currently occupying a new student centre which achieved BREEAM Outstanding status and has recently appointed Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners for the £90m Global Centre for the Social Sciences which begins on site next spring.

Director of estates Julian Robinson took the audience through the LSE’s thinking on how to deal with the older buildings which will make way for the new centre. They had a poor net to gross ratio, and with inadequate insulation and thermal bridging, were too hot in summer and too cold in winter.

As an aside, Robinson said he’d just completed the LSE’s best ever post occupancy evaluation for another building. Part of the reason for the high score was that users said they could open windows!

The LSE looked at the carbon impact of three options – limited intervention, partial demolition and complete demolition and rebuild. On initial analysis the last option was the worst but then the university re-evaluated the options over a 50 year life. Demolish and rebuild moved up to second on the basis of a ‘C’ DEC rating. If a new building could achieve an ‘A’ rating that would close the 5% carbon performance gap, as well as giving the LSE 50% more floorspace.

Of course design energy ratings are one thing and performance in use another. Robinson said they were aiming for carbon neutral but would need to achieve that in operation.

London Metropolitan University does not have the luxury of starting over. “We have to deal with what we’ve got,” said William Hunt, head of estates development, “We don’t have the money for new build.”

We can’t solve the problems of legacy buildings by demolition, said Carol Lelliott of Nicholas Hare Architects, there are just too many of them. She described the approach taken in Cambridge to re-engineer the Arup Building on the New Museums Site, completed in 1971.

The original building included a 500-seat lecture theatre and Museum of Zoology with departmental laboratory space above. Academic and administrative offices were accommodated in two freestanding towers. The building is one of the worst energy performers in the University estate.

The majority of the space will, when the project completes in late 2015, provide a new home for the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) – a partnership of eight conservation charities, NGOs and UN bodies. CCI is an ideal occupier for the building and has said: “The refurbishment of a fine example of 1960s architectural brutalism will demonstrate the highest levels of environmental sustainability and be an exemplar of how to enrich and conserve biodiversity in an urban setting.”

Refurbishment of the Arup Building for the University of Cambridge by Nicholas Hare Architects_2

Refurbishment of the Arup Building for the University of Cambridge by Nicholas Hare Architects

A thermal comfort and user satisfaction survey was undertaken using the Building Use Studies (BUS) methodology. This provided insight into a number of issues, including summer and winter comfort, noise, productivity, building design, image to visitors, way finding, layout and lighting.

Despite its shortcomings, said Carol Lelliott, the building has great assets in terms of space and sustainability potential. The primary aim of the project is to make the building energy efficient and reduce radically its carbon footprint and running costs.

The building will have photo-voltaics and combined heat and power but most effort is going into passive solutions. A new atrium is being inserted and the number of individual offices reduced to allow natural ventilation and to foster collaboration. The concrete frame and exposed soffits will be used for passive cooling and all glass replaced with double-glazing. Low-energy lighting with occupancy detection and daylight dimming will assist in minimising artificial light in occupied areas. A green roof with planting chosen to reflect the local landscape and encourage wildlife will also reduce rainwater run-off and improve insulation.

Perhaps most significantly, the project team aims to close the gap between predicted and actual energy performance through a ‘soft landings’ approach and post occupancy evaluation. Operational modelling has been used to predict running costs. Occupancy profiles for different departments were used, accounting for all sources of unregulated emissions, most notably small power. Results suggest a 40% reduction in annual operational carbon emissions is achievable.

The sustainability focus group set up for the project will continue to operate and the results of the BUS survey will be re-assessed to measure improvement.

I asked about the impact of distance learning on campus development. The panel’s response was unanimous – students want to come together and the focus now is on group working spaces. Distance learning has its place – unlike some universities the LSE is not opening overseas campuses – but the physical university is here to stay. According to Rupert Cook of Architecture PLB, one in three students reject a university after visiting the campus. Now there could be many reasons for this but the quality of university buildings and facilities services undoubtedly influences students’ choices of where to study.