Photo credit: Wates Group
Type and form of contract: Design & Build
Start and finish dates: June 2017 – March 2019
Professional services provided: Mechanical and Electrical Engineering (M&E), Civil and Structural Engineering (C&S), Acoustics, and Town Planning
The National Horizons Centre (NHC) is a catalyst for growth in the UK bioscience sector, specialising in providing young people with sorely needed technical and leadership skills to apply innovative digital technologies in advanced manufacturing. Despite its modest size of 4,000m2, the £11m facility at Teesside University’s new Darlington Campus carries great regional and national importance, providing bioscience education, training and research to improve performance and productivity and foster breakthrough ideas.
To help make this an iconic facility that would create a pipeline of graduate talent relevant to bio-industries needs in the Tees Valley and the wider north, our team at WYG set out to deliver a small building with high impact. The result is a BREEAM Excellent-certified centre whose exceptional design minimises environmental impact, and which will play a pivotal role in tackling the rapid growth challenges faced by the sector.
Understanding the client’s needs and driving innovative design
Laboratories have complex demands and change quickly in response to developments in the science industries. That the centre now provides a range of technical spaces, including Containment Level 2 laboratories, instrument rooms, teaching facilities and offices, is evident of this.
From the get-go, we engaged in heavy dialogue with the University to understand the team’s aspirations for how the centre would cater to users, scientists and other university stakeholders. This would help us respond to the requirements appropriately through the RIBA Stages of development. Fully appreciating the requirements of end users is paramount to getting the design right, especially when many of the facilities themselves need to function as teaching aids to students.
The learning and research environments needed to be both flexible and attractive in the sense that they could provide a visual connection between laboratories and adjacent facilities – something of utmost importance to the Dean. The central atrium, the heart of the building, is acoustically designed to host informal student workshops, formal presentations for larger audiences, or some quiet time for a coffee. The form of the building and associated structural design enabled and accommodated these aesthetic aspirations.
The completed building also includes several other features that add extra value:
For the facility to become technically excellent, we challenged the proposals of our client and the other designers to drive added value and innovation to the overall project. To ensure compliance with the University’s brief and its values, we attended extremely detailed client briefing sessions, and at the end of each RIBA stage, the scheme was presented back to the University for signoff. The positive feedback we received from the University are a testament to our success in sticking to the client brief.
Chris Robinson, Assistant Director Major Projects at Teesside University, said: “I’d like to say a big thank you for your contribution and efforts in the successful delivery of the project, on time and budget. I think we all agree it is a stunning landmark building both inside and out, which you can all feel proud to have created and been involved with.”
Adapting to site constraints
There were other constraints, too. Because the NHC site originally sat right next to the East Coast Main Line, and at the northern end of Darlington’s Central Park Regeneration scheme, the site was landlocked by highways and local facilities. There were numerous complexities to be addressed at the concept design stage, namely how to overcome the isolation of the NHC from the University’s sister property on the campus (the Centre for Professional and Executive Development) and how to avoid an overpowering acoustic and vibrational impact on the adjacent nursery and sports centre.
The approach we settled on embraced the fact that the NHC would have neighbours on all sides, using a design that had multiple frontages to influence the aesthetic of the external envelope. The chamfered square form and positioning of the building at an angle to the highway provides glimpses of the frontages and showcases the NHC as a landmark building befitting its prime location.
Equally important was moving the building as far as practically possible away from the railway track, and that any vibration-sensitive equipment be positioned in a way that would eliminate potentially detrimental acoustic impact. Acoustic absorption panels were also installed to improve reverberation time and aesthetics.
The site itself was then remediated to improve ground conditions while reviewing levels to maintain contaminated material on site, capped under hard landscaped areas, to deliver a cost-effective sub-structure solution.
The new build consisted of a braced steel frame with diaphragm composite metal floors, cantilever beams, and trusses to respond to architectural form and provide the statement building. At roof level, we developed the structural form to accommodate roof-level plant areas set into and masked by the roof to avoid any issues with sight lines from pedestrians and users in the adjacent buildings.
Extensive and complex highways, civil works and service diversions
Although most of the works were done on a plot adjacent to the existing building, the new campus build did need significant remodelling of the external spaces, including more car parking. The levels of the car park were coordinated to align and tie in with the existing highway and also the levels to the perimeter of the car park where they interfaced back to retained footpaths. Since the junction from the main access road had to be widened, we remodelled the existing vehicle entrance into the site. These works required the diversion and lowering of utilities within the public footpath.
Within the site, we also had to divert and amend the existing below-ground drainage network facilitate the construction of the new build elements.
The building’s heating was naturally very high due to the large volumes of heating air associated with ventilating a laboratory building, which required the gas supply to be reinforced locally and routed to avoid impact on the adjacent nursery. Our M&E experts liaised with the utility provider to secure the required gas load and agree the least disruptive route.
Accommodating live and public areas
Because of the hectic industry demand facing the centre, the adjacent buildings had to remain operational throughout the development of the new facility, including the access and operational areas of the service yard to the rear of the adjacent building. The construction works were segregated, and access and deliveries to the site were coordinated with the University to minimise disruption to the existing users.
Approach to minimising environmental impact and delivering a zero-carbon design
Sustainability reigned supremely as an end goal, so the whole development team’s ambition included achieving a BREEAM Excellent-certified facility from the onset – a fantastic outcome for a laboratory building.
A key aspect of this achievement was our M&E team’s willingness to run different scenarios in their computer models to optimise energy consumption. The University praised our team’s persistence in constructively challenging the scientists and other end users, for example, regarding the use of microbiological safety cabinets and fume cupboards.
Our engineers also introduced key features of the design that have influenced the University’s strategies for the future, including external LED light fittings that have been adopted site-wide for their energy saving, range of controls and aesthetic appeal. These include lighting controls and variable volume ventilation systems, among other features.
Lee Brooks, Director, Infrastructure & Built Environment, WYG, said: "We’re proud to have contributed an innovative design that maximises the value of the National Horizons Centre, all whilst delivering the project within the original budget. It’s a centre that ultimately offers enormous value in supporting employment, innovation, and business growth in the Tees Valley and wider north."
Our engineering approach has been recognised by numerous awards from the construction industry, including the Innovation Award from the Institution of Structural Engineers NW Branch for the City Tower project in the City Centre of Manchester. We’ve also been awarded the Concrete Society Sustainability Award, the British Construction Industry Prime Minister’s Award, and the Institution of Structural Engineers NW Large Project Award for the Manchester Metropolitan University Business School.
We look forward to applying this approach to other ambitious projects as we continually refine it.