Articles
2/02/07

Photo: Chris Gascoigne

Photo: Chris Gascoigne


Roger Hawkins on what’s new at Newcastle College.

It is to be expected that the Learning & Skills Council mantra includes raising levels of participation, improving success rates and driving up the quality of education, but increasingly attention has focused on redevelopment of the further education estate to assist in achieving these goals. The Government has committed £2 billion of capital investment over the next three years. Projects which are able to demonstrate a measurable response to sustainability attract an additional ten per cent funding.

Replacing outdated college buildings which are no longer fit for purpose with shiny new centres of education has the capacity to enrich the learning experience and to raise the aspirations of teachers and learners. The RIBA LSC Client Forum highlights the critical importance of design excellence in this process and last year introduced an awards programme to promote successful examples.

One of the shortlisted buildings was the Performance Academy at Newcastle College. I visited the facility as one of the judges, so there was no fee to pay; the usual charge for a tour of the campus is £500. Little wonder that the college won Company of the Year in the North East Business Awards 2005, if it is able to generate such exorbitant rates just for opening its doors.

With 40,000 students and a turnover approaching £60 million, Newcastle College is one of the largest further education institutions in the country. Like so many colleges it had inherited a chaotic mix of ageing buildings from the local authority. Back in 2000, the institution was in financial difficulties, but since then the implementation of an accommodation strategy across its 17 hectare Rye Hill Campus illustrates a transformation in its fortunes.

RMJM is responsible for two refurbishments on the campus, and two major new buildings. The £20 million Performance Academy was the first, opened by Sting in November 2004. The state-of-the-art facility brought the college’s music, performing arts and media students together for the first time. There is a complexity in the technical provision and an emphasis on achieving industry standards which contributes to the success of this project. Accolades were showered on the building, including an RIBA Award which recognised that the scheme was fresh and had a strong identity with its ‘light’ and ‘black-box’ space, without resorting to attention-seeking forms.
RMJM’s project director, Adrian Boot, observes that the 9,100 square metre building achieves 92 per cent space usage. Perhaps even more impressive is that the whole process from start of design to completion took only 24 months. The architect concludes that a very positive relationship with design and build contractor Sir Robert McAlpine was a critical factor in achieving this tight timescale.

Strong support from the college’s director of estates, Jeff McCall, resulted in the same team being appointed for future phases. Next was Space, a refurbished social venue converted from a 1960s theatre. Then, more impressively, the Lifestyle Academy, specialising in beauty and hospitality.

These three projects form a ‘triptych’ at the southern end of the campus, suggests RMJM’s Chris Jones, project architect for the most recent building. Certainly the vibrant modern architecture contrasts vividly with the mediocrity of the surrounding semi-industrial area. To the north of the campus, Rye Hill House is a listed Victorian villa currently being sensitively refurbished (again by RMJM) for administrative use. Students, it seems, like funky steel and exposed concrete, while management still prefers historical references.

Asked what lessons have been learnt from the initial phases, Jones identifies that having more time had been beneficial in the Lifestyle Academy. It had allowed closer consultation with users to develop the brief and further exploration of materials which evolved into a concrete frame with bubble-deck floors. This achieves a factory finish soffit throughout with the environmental benefit of thermal mass and a feeling of solidity somehow missing from the Performance Academy.

The whole building acts as a classroom, arguably improving on the earlier 92 per cent claim. Students are even employed on reception and staff the bistro. As the Faculty of Service Industries, the ethos of the building is to create real working environments that develop vocational skills. There has been a close attention to detail throughout, extending to RMJM’s selection of furniture and fittings.

The entrance, in contrast to that of the Performance Academy, is light and open, giving a warm welcome. Perhaps the most successful element is a sequence of spaces on the top floor leading to the studio and gym projecting over the car park. Full-height glazing here provides impressive views over the city, but also acts as an interesting landmark visible from the other side of the Tyne. Existing footfall onto the site is minimal and the need for a prominent destination building clearly visible from outside the campus is clear.

Both major buildings read well together, working with a minimal palette and a bold attitude. If there is a problem with the campus overall it is the dominance of the car. Despite well-used cycle racks and small areas of green space, the overwhelming feel is of a surface car park. Newcastle College’s intention is that these new buildings will act as a catalyst to the regeneration of the surrounding area, aiding and influencing its future development. It is hoped that this change will allow a new campus entrance and regeneration of its public spaces.

So what of the RIBA Learning & Skills Council Award? We judges were impressed by the Performance Academy and the facilities it offered, but shared some concerns about lack of internal daylight and few expressions of joy. The feeling of claustrophobia was exacerbated by a decision not to place windows in the corridor at eye level. We looked across the sea of tarmac to the Lifestyle Academy and suggested it was a better building. Bookie’s favourite for next year’s award, then.


Roger Hawkins is a director of Hawkins Brown, a CABE enabler for arts and education and chair of the Higher Education Design Quality Forum.

Project team:

Architect: RMJM; design team: Adrian Boot (project director), Phil Gray, Chris Jones (LA project architect), Roberto Rodriguez, Chris Walsh, Adrian Carter, Tamara Donellan (PA project architect), Brian Hipkin, Gordon Hood, Simon Richards, Graeme Sivell, Elaine Somerville, Paul Stallan, Matthew Johnson, Phillip White (Space project architect); civil and structural engineer: RMJM; qs: Todd Milburn Partnership (LA), Turner & Townsend (PA, Space); services engineer: RMJM; planning supervisor: RMJM; project manager: RMJM (LA, PA), Turner & Townsend (Space); landscape architect: RMJM; sport and exercise consultants; Technogym; main contractor: Sir Robert McAlpine; client: Newcastle College.

Selected subcontractors and suppliers:

Lifestyle Academy: upper floor structure: Cobiax bubbledeck slabs; roof decking: Kalzip; mansafe system: Eurosafe Latchway; external walls: Metsec SFS channel system; rainscreen: Marley Eternit New Pyrok cement fibre board, Natura and Pelicolor rainscreen cladding; third floor cladding: Ruukii panels and corrugated cladding sheets; soffits: Eurofox Engineering, plasterboard: British Gypsum Gyproc; carpet tiles: Tessera New Sheerpoint; linoleum: Armstrong DLW Colorette; PVC skirtings: Gradus; floor tiles: Ceramiche, Granitogres; wall tiles: H & R Johnson Tiles, Granitogroes, Bisazza Glass, Verdi Alpi; adhesives: kitchen wall finish: Altro Whiterock; acoustic ceiling: SAS; ceiling tiles: USG (UK); insulation: Kingspan; lifts: Kone; wet treatment area installer: Tru-Tec; spa: Swimmer Spas; automatic door system: Geze; handrails and balustrades: Foster, Laws & Company.

Performance Academy: curtain walling: JMW (Aluminum); metal cladding: Lakesmere; polycarbonate: Rooflight Systems. Space: curtain walling: JMW (Aluminium); polycarbonate cladding: Rooflight Systems; architectural metalwork: WD Close & Sons; bar: NJL Yorkline; glazing to ground floor: Reglit; curtain walling to ground floor: Schuco; fibre cement panels to pod: Eternit; insulated render: Sto; polycarbonate cladding: Prokulit; membrane roof: Sarnafil.

AT175/ February 07 p50.

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