Grand Designs: Building in the Human Factor

University Campus Suffolk has opened the doors to its bold new building on the regenerated waterfront in Ipswich. Tom Idle talks its project director, Peter Williams, who says that a building can never truly be called sustainable until people are using it

There's an awful lot of rubbish spoken about the sustainability of new buildings, says architect Peter Williams. "Every building is sustainable now," he stresses. "But embedding sustainability? Now, that's the difficult thing."

His main argument is that buildings cannot be described as truly sustainable until they are occupied; until you realise how energy is being used within them. "Embedded sustainability is about window proportions, heating and lighting - the boring stuff about sustainability that doesn't necessarily give it a badge. But, of course, architects don't want to talk about the boring stuff."

But Williams, unlike other architects, is keen to discuss the "boring" elements of sustainable development. The doors have now opened at the Waterfront Building of the University Campus Suffolk (UCS) - the latest project designed by RMJM, the architectural practice for which Williams is a project director. The new building located at the rather plush, regenerated waterside in the centre of Ipswich forms the initial phase of the first university in the county, a joint initiative between the universities of East Anglia and Essex, and Suffolk College. It is bold, contemporary, innovative and, despite its architects' hesitation to call it so, sustainable.

"You can't talk about sustainability until the building is being used," he says. "That is a key issue for us. It will take 18 months to tell because the building will evolve, the thermal mass takes time to settle down and it would be good to sit down in a year to talk about energy use."

The brief for the development was to create a campus that consists of timeless buildings, that is economic to construct, flexible enough to cope with changes in use, and sustainable in terms of energy efficiency and cost in use. UCS also wanted something iconic that would help raise the profile of the new university. "We wanted something iconic, whatever that means!" says UCS director of estates and facilities, Neil Jackson. "Usually that means expensive, but this development couldn't afford to be."

Work began in March 2006, when a design team led by RMJM, and consisting of Faber Maunsell, Buro Happold, Sharps Redmore and LAND, was appointed to draw up plans. On-site construction began in April 2007 and 18 months later the building opened, on time and within the £20M budget.

The 10,500m2 building has six floors, two lecture theatres (to seat 140 people), and 34 teaching rooms. Downstairs hosts a reception area and exhibition space. Early designs had the building as a circular development, but it soon became clear that the needs of building as a teaching space and student hub meant its more rectangular shape with curved facade was more appropriate.

Crucially, the social areas - student union-run canteen, computer room, etc - and teaching areas - lecture theatres and classrooms - are located at separate ends of the building. This is so that the building can operate on a 24-hour basis, without the need to heat and light the spaces that aren't being used.

The Waterfront Building's BREEAM excellent rating - the highest available rating in the environmental assessment method - was achieved by taking sustainability seriously and going beyond minimum building regulations requirements. For example, the south-facing facade has minimal windows, this reducing solar gain and all lighting in the building is controlled by occupancy sensors. And the U-values - the heat transfer through any element of a building - are below those recommended in building regulations.

The development also uses various zoning controls and energy-saving devices, as well as ventilation heat recovery, chilled beams throughout, and adiabatic free cooling of fresh air - so no air conditioning is needed at all.

The windows are triple-glazed and interstitial blinds in their outer cavity help control glare and reduce heat gain.

A sedum roof completes the sustainability offering - enhancing biodiversity and attenuating surface water.

And it wasn't just in the building design and materials that these green principles were followed. The Waterfront Building forms part of a coherent sustainability policy across UCS - including a green travel plan and a waste-recycling regime developed with local waste contractors. A full-time sustainability officer now coordinates operational and educational activities designed to promote sustainability issues. The building boasts a Fairtrade catering facility, recycled or recyclable materials were used in raised floors and furniture, recycled paper is used everywhere, and a real-time building energy performance read-out is situated in the foyer to raise public awareness.

Outside, the building overlooks a newly created urban square - designed to cut crime and offer a link between the waterfront and the rest of the town.

With a population of more than 130,000, Ipswich is the fastest growing urban area in the East of England, which is the fastest growing region in the country. For the past ten years, Ispwich has been the site of intense construction activity and its waterfront is currently the hub of the largest single regeneration scheme in the region. The once industrial dock area is now the focus of huge investment; more than a billion pounds has already been spent on or earmarked for the development.

And the second phase of development for UCS has now been unveiled. Again, RMJM will work with Turner and Townsend, on a new £31M building 300 metres from this one. University Quay will comprise three elements to be built over the next three to five years. There will be two student residence blocks - the first of which will consist of 600 student apartments, retail units and a car park - and an academic building. Construction began in January.

The new teaching block will be complete in 2010. "The shining success of our landmark Waterfront Building instills a great confidence in me for the next phase and beyond," says Jackson.

The general consensus among the architects, developers and builders was that the Waterfront Building was a tough cookie to crack in which teamwork was crucial. It helped that the client had a vision for what it wanted to achieve and it provides a striking addition to the changing face of the waterfront.

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