Client Brief - Just over six years ago the University of Exeter anticipated the changing University feescape in which costs would shift from the taxpayers to its consumers and that student expectations would shift accordingly. At the same time it projected an increase in student numbers from 11,000 to 16,000 by 2026. The brief was to reconfigure the University and introduce a central focus for the campus. Central to this was a £450 million capital investment programme which aimed to propel Exeter University into the top ten UK universities as a result of campus enhancements and new high-quality learning, teaching and research based facilities.
Design Solution - The building is a result of an intense 2 stage design competition. The winning team was led by Wilkinson Eyre, with Buro Happold (engineers) and Hargreaves Associates (landscape architects). Wilkinson Eyre’s starting point was the natural features of Exeter's famously hilly Streatham campus. The orientation and arrangement of the building and its adjacent landscaped piazzas respond to the contours of the hillside setting, which are traced by a “green corridor”; the main pedestrian route through the scheme. The steep topography of the hillside has been rationalised into two circulation levels that connect the Library and the Great Hall, unifying two vital centres once separated by a steep slope.
A landscaped entrance piazza defines a new front door to the campus. Designed by the landscape architect Hargreaves, the piazza provides students with high quality open space for relaxation at the natural centre of the campus. Specially commissioned public art, by the glass artist Alexander Beleshenko, joins art from the University’s own collection on prominent display.
At the north western end of the entrance piazza stands a new entrance building that provides a reception area for the University and Great Hall. The smooth curve of the entrance building rises one storey, tracing the northern elevation of the Great Hall above a covered walkway before merging with the centerpiece of the Forum project: an undulating timber gridshell roof designed in conjunction with engineering experts, Buro Happold.
Beneath the roof and behind the glass facades that enclose the space between the existing buildings, the Forum is an airy, galleried hall which shelters and unifies a series of new student-focused spaces. The upper level gives access to the Great Hall, Student Guild and a new suite of learning labs and seminar spaces designed for Harvard-style exploration sessions.
The Forum’s vertical arrangement unifies the two circulation levels of the plan, creating new accessible routes that make the campus more legible and easier to get around. At ground level, the “green corridor” runs through the building, creating a covered high street with a bank, shops, cafes, breakout spaces and access to the library, student services centre and auditorium.
The Forum’s roof encloses 3,500m² of airy, column-free floor area making it one of the largest timber roofs of its kind. Its flowing form contrasts with the orthogonal brick architecture of the existing campus, responding to the hillside setting and preserving key views across the city to Dartmoor. Beneath the roof’s copper cladding, which will gracefully develop a verdigris patina over the next 15 years, lies an innovative hybrid timber structure. A matrix of timber members joined at steel nodes emulates the traditionally all-steel construction of a gridshell roof, weaving between the existing buildings of the campus.
The structural elements of the roof are spruce timber, while kiln-dried oak is used on interior finishes. The sinuous curves of the roof edge are finished in green oak, which adapts readily to the shape. Wilkinson Eyre developed software in-house to enable the standardisation of parts for the technically ambitious roof; minimising variants, and therefore cost, despite the complex geometry. The triangular cells of the grid are either clad in copper, with oak-slatted acoustic baffling on the interior surface, or filled with ETFE pillows, which flood the lofty interior spaces of the Forum with natural light.
The four-year construction project was managed to minimise disruption, with phases planned to avoid exam periods. The refurbishment of the university library, which took place as part of the Forum project was carried out floor-by-floor to allow full access to collections at all times.
The scheme was delivered on budget and in time for the official opening by HM the Queen in April 2012. The Forum has helped the University join the Russell Group and successfully raised its profile by propelling Exeter into the top ten UK universities, winning the prestigious 2013 Sunday Times University of the Year Award. The Forum has also recently been awarded an RIBA National Award 2013.
Wilkinson Eyre Architects was appointed in 2008 to design this new centerpiece for the University of Exeter's famously hilly Streatham Campus. Working with the natural features of the site, the scheme creates a 'green corridor' to connect the Forum with the wider landscape. Central to the scheme is an undulating timber gridshell roof, which shelters and unifies as series of new student-focused spaces within. The fluid form contrasts with the orthogonal brick volumes of the existing buildings on this steeply sloping site, and respects key views across the city to Dartmoor. The Forum features an extended and refurbished library, new learning spaces, student services, catering and retail outlets, a landscaped plaza and new university reception, as part of a £450 million capital investment programme which has propelled Exeter into the top 10 UK universities.
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