Articles
2/06/09

Photo: Peter Cook

Photo: Peter Cook


Richard Jobson admires a distinguished addition to the campus, that accommodates state-of-the-art research into nanotechnology.

Charles and Ray and Eames’ 1977 documentary Power of Ten opens with a one metre square frame of a man sitting on a blanket. The camera zooms out to a ten metre (ie 101) frame, revealing a companion, and it continues to zoom incrementally at a rate of one power of ten per second. We become aware that the blanket is set in a park in Chicago, and so on until we reach 1024, the edge of the known universe at that time. The camera then zooms back in towards the man on the blanket, to a 10 centimetre frame of his hand (10-1), ever smaller, passing one nanometre at 10-9, finally ending at the atomic scale of 10-16. Not only does the Eames’ film demonstrate how relative scales fascinate architects, but it also engages the audience with the mysterious world of the very small. In the 30 years since the film was made our attention has shifted from worlds beyond the solar system to the micro-world closer to home. But unlike Charles and Ray Eames, we are now well aware of the huge impact that our understanding and manipulation of the nano-scale will bring.

In this context it is pleasing to find that Jestico & Whiles chose to harness brainpower as well as gigabytes in designing the new nanotechnology building at the University of Southampton, a major research facility that houses the School of Electronics & Computer Science (ECS) and the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC). The design team has delivered a series of well-planned state-of-the-art laboratories and offices and at this level the building is most self-assured. A remarkably simple parti, cleverly derived from a very complex brief, has produced a well thought out plan and section. The solution, according to project associate Julian Dickens and director Tony Ling, arose from numerous intense workshops with laboratory specialist CH2M Hill and the end users, all with the aim of ensuring that the building would enhance the research process in every way.

But the Mountbatten Building is much more than an exercise in good planning. It is clear that the architects have brought something of the Eames’ fascination with the subject and wherever possible have introduced opportunities to experience the building in operation. Internal windows to both the laboratories and circulation areas allow visitors and staff alike to feel part of this technological frontier – no mean feat in a building stuffed full of the air-handling plant necessary to maintain extraordinary levels of air cleanliness. Likewise the circulation is cleverly arranged to encourage chance encounters between research groups in the belief that this can lead to serendipitous cross-platform thought processes. This is particularly successful in the entrance atrium which is dominated by a top-lit hanging staircase. The design of the staircase, which offers increasingly fine views across the campus and beyond to the Solent as you ascend, was clearly a source of enjoyment for both architects and engineers.

The ambition to expose the secretive world of research also influenced the decision to glaze much of the facade. For the most part this works well, but the rigorous approach evident in resolving the plan is not as apparent here – it’s almost as if the architects felt that, because the plan was so simple (in a good way), the building needed jazzing up, and the underlying clarity has been somewhat buried beneath a collage of materials and colours. And while the graphic motif, derived from Southampton-based research into chiral fractal nanostructures, provides an important touchstone for the building, it seems rather lost, particularly at the entrance amidst the noise generated by the other elements.

But this confusion is certainly not evident in the design of the large plant room and tower at the southern end of the building. Here the architects have been both practical and daring, employing an over-cladding of perforated Kalzip that seems entirely appropriate while immediately expressing what the building is really about – delivering exceptional laboratories to enable cutting-edge research.

At a broader scale (102 maybe) the building, at the north-west corner of the campus, is orientated to the original Basil Spence masterplan. This was a sound decision, the merits of which are evident in approaching from the south. The tapering entrance courtyard, resulting from the differential urban and Spence grids, is contained on the south and west by the Mountbatten Building and on the east by an existing building. Although drawing in this building is a pragmatic way of containing the space, it wasn’t designed with this in mind and remains unconvincing. The new landscaping attempts, with some success, to soften the impact of the elevation with a line of trees but, with the scattered external seating, the entrance court seems rather cluttered.

The speed with which this project has been completed, in the wake of a devastating fire that destroyed its predecessor in 2005, is a remarkable achievement and a clear indication of its significance to the university’s research programme. An easy option would have been a quick-fix shed, so it is very gratifying that the estates team, school heads and architects grasped this rare opportunity to recast the school in a new light, at the same making a distinguished addition to the university’s portfolio.

Richard Jobson is a director at Design Engine Architects, whose projects include the University Centre at Winchester University and the forthcoming redevelopment of Oxford Brookes University.

Jestico & Whiles writes:
The University of Southampton is renowned for its excellence in engineering sciences and as a research centre for nanotechnology. The Mountbatten Building replaces a facility on the same site that was destroyed by fire in October 2005. The highly technical brief included exacting environmental requirements while the university wanted the new facility to symbolise its forward-looking spirit and the excellence of its research, with a view to attracting the best international talent as well as industry funding.

From an urban viewpoint there were onerous constraints. The site is at the north-west corner of the Highfield Campus, adjacent to Southampton Common, a site of special scientific interest, at the same time forming the transition between two worlds – academia to the south and quiet residential quarters to the north.

The solution lies in careful manipulation of massing, connections to the adjacent buildings and through circulation, and the use of transparency and reflectivity of materials to modulate views and perceived volumes, and the inclusion of sustainable landscaping features on a tightly packed site. Planning consent was achieved without any registered objections.

The £50m complex houses two departments, each with its own clean rooms, laboratories and academic offices. The diverse functional and spatial requirements of the different uses are reflected in different forms: the technical areas – clean rooms and labs – form a fully-glazed plinth, while offices are located in the two metal-clad, two-storey wings above, enclosing a roof garden over the plinth which is overlooked by all occupants. A separate adjoining structure, the Central Utilities Block, houses the considerable mechanical and electrical equipment required to support the research activities. A glazed entrance atrium opens onto a new entrance square providing south-facing outdoor space.

The structure is of reinforced concrete throughout but with special isolations to ensure that the clean rooms are free from vibrations. The cladding is largely curtain walling, aluminium cladding and a perforated ‘veil’ which envelops the Central Utilities Block, unifying the disparate shapes, volumes and openings beneath. A purpose-designed chiral fractal pattern has been screen-printed onto the curtain walling around the clean rooms and labs, providing a degree of solar protection and selected obscuration.

Although the nature of the building’s uses precludes a totally low-tech, non-mechanical approach to the environmental design, all systems are as efficient as possible. The offices are entirely naturally ventilated through the use of stack ventilation and openable windows controlled by the building management system. Heating and cooling is achieved through the use of underfloor piping which alternates between the modes in different seasons, making use of the thermal mass of the concrete slabs and using the university’s district heating system as source.

The landscaping strategy was also formulated on sustainable principles: connected swales are formed in the ground next to the common to collect rainwater and control drainage into the soil, a brown roof is installed in the roof garden and planted walls are provided to the gas storage block.

The cost plan was severely challenged by the complexity of the requirements and the compressed programme, which did not always allow for thorough resolution of every element of the design prior to procurement and construction. Nevertheless, the building was completed substantially to budget and open to use by staff and students less than three years after the fire.

Project team
Architect: Jestico + Whiles; design team: John Whiles, Tony Ling, Julian Dickens, Jenifer deVere Hopkins, Michael Evans, Daniel Bryan-Harris, Heiko Meyer, Jost Ewert, Uli Centemeyer, David Takacs, Ben Hughes; lead architect, m&e engineer: CH2M Hill IDC; structural engineer, planning supervisor, environmental consultant: Gifford; landscape : Plincke Landscape; acoustics: Acoustic Design Consultants; qs: Turner & Townsend; project manager: Trench Farrow; land surveyor: Warner Land Surveys; lighting: Pinniger & Partners; fire engineering: Lawrence Webster Forrest; planning consultant: The Luken Beck Partnership; artist: Jason Bruges Studio; access consultant: David Bonnett Associates; contractor: Bovis Lend Lease.

Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Piling: Stent; substructure: Keen Construction; concrete frame: Mitchellson Formwork & Civil Engineering; cladding:_Lakesmere; steelwork: Midland Steel Structures; metalwork: Glazzard; roofing: Roofline; office fit-out: Hatmet; clean room fit-out: IDC Cleanrooms; flooring: Millerfield Flooring; curtain walling, windows: Schuco; rainscreen cladding: Sotech, Kalzip; sandwich panels: Eurobond; glass: Saint Gobain; screen printing: Eckelt; insulated render: Sto; inverted roofs: Soprema; cleanroom fit-out: IDC Cleanrooms; insulation: Rockwool; internal partitions; plasterboard: Knauf; glass partitions: Optima; suspended ceilings: SAS (metal), Knauf (plasterboard); doors: Taskmaster (external steel), Dorma (external sliding and revolving), Leaderflush (internal timber), Pollard Hansen (internal glass); ironmongery: Allgood; flooring: Altro, Concept Tiles, Forbo-Nairn, Interface, Junckers; laboratory furniture: Kotterman; reception desk: Cobalt Glass, Mass, Formica; kitchenettes: Manhattan; sanitaryware, wcs, basins, shower trays: Armitage Shanks; bespoke basins and urinals: Corian; lighting: Bega (external), Fagerhult, Whitecroft (internal).

AT199/June 09 p58

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