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Yorkshire uni proves design-and-build is a fine art

The University of Huddersfield’s new art school is pushing Morgan Sindall and its team to rethink everything from tricky groundworks to exposed services.

Project: Barbara Hepworth Building
 University of Huddersfield
Main contractor: Morgan Sindall
Architect: AHR
Start date: October 2017
Completion date: July 2019

Amid the structures of the 19th century textile industry, a new building aimed at providing young people with skills fit for the modern economy is rising out of the ground in West Yorkshire.

The University of Huddersfield’s £30m Barbara Hepworth Building, named after the renowned sculptor and Yorkshire native, will house the School of Art, Design and Architecture and occupy a tight site alongside the Huddersfield Narrow Canal at Queen Street South.

It is already an imposing structure and, once complete, will provide cutting-edge design and construction studios, computer-aided design laboratories and fine art studios, as well as more generic educational offerings such as lecture rooms, research space and a library.

Perhaps most strikingly, the 7,500 sq m building features a daring cantilevered floor projecting out towards the canal. 

The project’s design and build is being driven by main contractor Morgan Sindall and local architect AHR, which previously worked together on the award-winning £28m Oastler Building – now home to the university’s law school and humanities department.

An appealing client

Morgan Sindall area director Chris Brown explains how the University of Huddersfield is an important client for the contractor, so when the opportunity to bid for work on the Barbara Hepworth Building came up he jumped at the chance.

“We delivered the Oastler Building for the university and then did three other smaller schemes,” he says. “Then this project came forward. They are a good client and good payers, which is great to have in this industry. You know where you are with them from the beginning. You know what you’ve got to deliver and what they expect from you.”

The University of Huddersfield does not have a formal contractors’ framework, so the job was tendered through the usual OJEU process. However, Mr Brown says Morgan Sindall’s track record stood the company in good stead, particularly when it came to understanding the needs of universities.

Source: Patrick Stewart on the Barbara Hepworth Building

“We have obviously got to be on our best behaviour and do a good job, but we’ve also got to deliver on time,” he says. “That’s fundamental for them. We finish in July, they come in come September and they want bums on seats and to be teaching. They don’t want builders still running around the place sorting out doors and carpets.”

The Barbara Hepworth Building was the subject of a design competition, which saw Morgan Sindall compete with multiple other contractors for the job. Essentially, the university provided a design brief and budget and then invited proposals. A shortlist of five was initially drawn up, which was then whittled down to four and then three companies. “They liked our scheme more than the other two, but they thought it was lacking something,” Mr Brown says.

The university recognised that all three bidders had been constrained by the budget, so went back to the funding pot and came up with an additional £2m. “We went away and enhanced the design,” Mr Brown says. “They gave us some direction on where they wanted the £2m to be spent without going into too much detail. We came back and presented, and it went down to two and then very quickly after that we won.”

Substantial rethink

Of course, winning a design competition is one thing; executing the design is another matter. An early issue related to the groundworks. “One of the main aspects of it was to come up with a ground solution to enable us to start building quickly,” says planning manager Adam Hey.

Morgan Sindall Barbara Hepworth Huddersfield CREDIT AHR 7

Morgan Sindall Barbara Hepworth Huddersfield CREDIT AHR 7

Source: AHR

The building will feature a cantilevered floor projecting out towards the canal

“We had quite a substantial rethink. Some of the initial piling designs would have meant bringing in quite a lot of materials onto the site, so we went back to the drawing board and some more investigations were done. We were able to come up with a solution where we used some more of the materials we had on site and re-engineer that to get a solution for the ground slabs.”

Equally challenging was the design’s cantilevered deck. “The main issue was the cantilever, which we had to design quite closely with the structural steel frame contractor and the subsequent cladding contractor,” explains design manager Simon Taylor. “The main issue is minimising deflection and movement. It’s designed for use – so people walking around and so on – but the question mark was the load under construction.” 

“Some of the initial piling designs would have meant bringing in quite a lot of materials onto the site, so we went back to the drawing board and some more investigations were done”

Adam Hey, Morgan Sindall

The solution Morgan Sindall devised was to build the structure in sections on the ground and then lift it into position, while at the same time providing temporary support. “We decided to build some temporary bases and build the cantilever sections on the ground,” Mr Hey says. “They were then lifted into the positions. We weren’t having to be so high in the air stitching pieces together.”

Another obstacle – and one still to be fully surmounted – has been driven by the university’s desire to keep the building as internally exposed as possible. In part, that means exposing services to allow students to see the key components that go into designing the structure, while at the same time making the internal design aesthetically pleasing.

“We’ve kept the services exposed so that the building becomes a teaching tool,” Mr Brown says. “The students can see all the M&E and the steelworks and so on. All the bits are there for them to use as a teaching tool.”

BIM teaching tool

According to Mr Taylor, the use of BIM on the project adds another dimension from a teaching point of view. “It’s a Level 2 project, which allows the university to use the project as a tool for their students,” he explains. “We’ve done a number of lectures with the university to increase their knowledge on BIM.”

Morgan Sindall Barbara Hepworth Huddersfield CREDIT AHR 1

Morgan Sindall Barbara Hepworth Huddersfield CREDIT AHR 1

Source: AHR

CGI of the finished building

However, Mr Taylor adds that the university’s own knowledge of the topic has also been invaluable. “Really it’s been a two-way process because in some ways they are closer to BIM than we are,” he says. “The students are BIM natives and a lot of the staff here are ex-Salford University, which was at the forefront of it a few years ago and were poached.”

The ‘open’ philosophy also means removing barriers between different teaching and learning spaces to facilitate the free flow of knowledge and ideas. From a education perspective, all that makes sense, but it also presents major headaches in terms of acoustics.

“They didn’t want it segregated into room after room,” Mr Brown says. “They’re very much used to individual rooms, but this is very much about open spaces. That meant that there were a lot of issues around how the acoustics were going to work. You’ve got a teaching space and then no wall and then another teaching space, so the use of 6 ft-high screens is very important.”

Some activities, of course, will have to be housed in dedicated spaces. “For instance, we’ve got some quite noisy sewing machines,” Mr Taylor says. “They’re industrial, air-driven sewing machines, so we’ve had to identify exactly where these activities are going to happen and screen them off. They’re pretty noisy.”

External challenge

The design conundrums are not limited to the building’s interior, thanks the substantial amount of external glass specified. Again, that adds to the openness of the building, but it also raises concerns in terms of both heat and solar glare.

morgan sindall barbara hepworth huddersfield credit ahr 3

Morgan Sindall Barbara Hepworth Huddersfield

Source: AHR

Much of the internal services will be left exposed as a teaching tool

“They didn’t want blinds, so we’ve gone with the darkest glass we could do,” Mr Brown says. “If we had gone darker we would have had to put more lights in and that would have meant more energy. It is a bit of a balancing act.”

The solution, Mr Brown says, works without blinds in terms of heating and cooling. “But we’ve still got the worry about glare, which is an issue with computers,” he points out. “So what we’ve done is structure the workspace so that the computers are further away from the windows. Whether the end-users use it in that way is a different matter, but that’s how it’s been designed.”

A few challenges may be still to come, but so far Morgan Sindall and its team are justifying the faith shown in them by the university as the project enters its final 12 months.

A heartfelt homecoming

For AHR’s William Li, lead architect on the Barbara Hepworth Building, the project is very much a matter of going back to his roots.

A former University of Huddersfield student – he graduated with a BA and diploma in architecture in 2009 – Mr Li holds a certain affection not just for the institution but the surrounding area.

“It’s very different to design for an area you know so well,” he says. “I have walked along the Huddersfield Narrow Canal so many times that I know it like the back of my hand, but I also know what students want and what kind of space they will need, having studied there myself. That gave me invaluable insight into the project and its possibilities.

“As students, we had even used some of the existing university buildings as mock projects and this area was part of that. It has felt very surreal revisiting this in a professional capacity,” he adds.

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