Tom Lewith explores Wilkinson Eyre’s modular prefabricated student accommodation on the Dyson Campus
The Dyson Campus is located in the open countryside of Wiltshire but tucked away behind hedges and a tree-lined perimeter. The entire campus is highly secure with restricted access to all users. Even the 4,600 staff who work on the site are not completely aware of the details of the consumer technology company’s research projects before images of new products appear as two-storey decals on campus buildings hours before their launch.
Despite the careful control of information and security, the site feels open and accessible, flowing along a central axis. This seems all the more remarkable considering that the development of the campus did not follow a masterplan. Instead, it has evolved and grown rapidly to keep pace with Dyson’s innovations and ambitions. Homes have been given to the multiple functions of the growing business by architect Wilkinson Eyre over 20-odd years since engineer Tony Hunt first introduced Chris Wilkinson and James Dyson.
The latest addition, and the object of my visit, is a block of off-site prefabricated residential accommodation and associated communal facilities. On arrival I walked from the security gates through a parking area shared by an amphibious vehicle, a Harrier Jump Jet and hundreds of Dyson engineers’ commuter cars to meet Chris Wilkinson and the project team from Wilkinson Eyre and Dyson. Walking past the captivating wavy roofscape of the original headquarters building and the stunning reflective facades of the D9 research and development building, we passed a Wilkinson Eyre-designed cafe and energy centre as we approached the newly completed buildings.
Frustrated by a shortage of engineers, James Dyson has launched the Dyson Institute of Technology to provide an alternative education route to that available from a more conventional university offering. The students are integrated into teams of engineers working on the campus, and housed in the new accommodation I am here to see.
Modular living pods are arranged around a bund – spoil left over from the construction of the buildings we had just passed, and are at one end of the long axis running through the site. The bund curves in a gentle crescent shape away from the main campus. At the centre point of this arc is the Roundhouse building, built to complement the residential pods. As the name suggests, the Roundhouse is a circular building with 360-degree views and a first-floor balcony around the perimeter. The two-storey building is light-filled and provides various flexible social space and informal meeting functions with a bar, cafe and auditorium.
The material palette has an industrial feel: purposeful and carefully assembled. In places there are hints that Dyson product design may have influenced finishes – perforated metal sheeting providing dappled shading at first-floor level would not look out of place as the casing of the company’s Hot + Cool fan heater.
The Roundhouse is for use by students and staff alike, and beyond it is the impressive sports hall. Turning back towards the main campus, the student accommodation pods appear to gather around the Roundhouse at a polite distance, looking at us over an open, communal lawn.
The placement of the pods pulls them away from the day-to-day functions of the campus but ensures they are not isolated from the staff uses, promoting social interaction. The modules – each pod is an individual module – were factory-made by Carbon Dynamic, based in Scotland. The site and brief lend themselves to modular construction, but was the practice’s perpetual interest in the opportunities of new technologies part of the reason they wanted to explore it here? “Yes, definitely”, agrees Wilkinson.
Modular buildings can be fairly mundane stacks of boxes disguised behind some cladding to resemble a traditionally-built equivalent, but this approach does not explore or realise the architectural possibilities the technology presents. While modular buildings have their limitations, it is a method of construction that comes with opportunity too.
This belief about modular design was at the core of the design approach for Fab House, which my own practice designed with George Clarke for Urban Splash and Places for People. Factory-built buildings do not need to compete for equivalence with traditionally-built buildings. The factory environment allows a level of quality control not achievable with on-site construction. Modern methods of construction can offer buildings which are better than, not just as good as, traditionally-built buildings.
An unavoidable constraint (some might say opportunity) of modular buildings is the need to design with boxes. By arranging the pods around the focal point of the Roundhouse and externalising all the circulation, Wilkinson Eyre was able to play with that. It was a process Wilkinson describes as “liberating”. The geometries create a series of voids between clusters of pods. These wedge-shaped spaces are carefully set up to promote chance interactions, with sitting areas around the entrances. The curving bund, or ‘Social Path’ as it has been dubbed, provides a ramped, raised walkway at first-floor level, giving access to the pods providing communal functions: kitchens, shared living spaces and laundry. It also offers views back to the campus and longer vistas of the countryside.
The effect of leaving this raised circulation uncovered integrates the pods into the campus, itself a series of buildings with no internal circulation linking them, and allows each one to be seen as part of a wider whole. The pod clusters are arranged in a staggered massing that is designed to rise and fall from end to end. Each cluster is made up of a few pods offset and occasionally cantilevering out sideways, which avoids the impression of this being a single, homogenous building and experiments with the structural potential of the modules.
Engraved by the entrance to each pod is a short biography of a notable pioneer. There are obvious parallels to the importance of the development of the individual within a team environment that students can expect to experience. But standardisation is important with modular buildings, and all the pods are clad in the same anodised aluminium, which works well with the material language of the campus.
The base layout for each pod is also largely the same, whether it is a living space, or for communal use. The bathroom or storage room is to the rear, with a fixed partition position. A fully-glazed end elevation allows single-aspect daylight to flood the space. This glazing is set back to allow for shading by the over-sailing module envelope. Daylight for the bathroom is borrowed by a strip of frosted glass facing the window.
The cross-laminated timber structure also provides the internal finishes of walls and ceilings. Custom-made plywood furniture draws on this materiality. The broad daylight and smell of timber combine to provide a space that conveys quality and generosity. High levels of insulation, trickle vents and the precision of factory-built modules minimises heating requirements, so each pod is served by just one small Dyson fan.
Clearly there is shared ground between the values of the client and the architect. There is an enticing simplicity to these pods, which are confidently and carefully arranged, stripped back to explore and showcase modular construction. Durability and functionality are foremost among the designers’ concerns. Given Wilkinson Eyre’s interest in the edges between architecture and neighbouring fields, it seems natural the practice would take this opportunity to explore this particular boundary and the potential of factory-made buildings. The student residential complex, more than any other building on the campus, feels closest to a piece of industrial design: repeating factory-built modules giving the sense of architecture becoming product.
Buro Happold (Roundhouse, pods), Carbon Dynamic (pods)
Hydrock (Roundhouse, pods), Carbon Dynamic (pods)
Turner & Townsend
Anodised aluminium rainscreen cladding
Altro Flexiflow resin, Pergo Ranch oak timber planks, Havwoods Timber external deck