Colourful connections

The HU University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands has gained a porous and interconnected new building from schmidt/hammer/lassen, as part of a project to ‘densify’ the school’s assets. Jack Wooler spoke to architect Pim Ijsendoorn about how the design plays with colour and connectivity and does more with less

The new Heidelberglaan 15 building is the last of five to be finished at the HU University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht, the Netherlands, constructed to consolidate the faculty’s properties into one campus. Designed by architectural firm schmidt/hammer/lassen (SHL), the building takes shape as a 22,310 m² metal-clad volume with staggered heights and a patched aluminium facade, and now houses eight institutes covering the university’s numerous educational disciplines.

Before the project started, the university’s functions were spread across the city, comprising around 30 separate properties. These buildings varied from small to large, ranging from century-old listed buildings to 60s, 70s and 80s properties.

It was decided that a streamlining process was necessary to densify and modernise these faculties, and scale down the overall space used. To realise this, the university wanted all its educational facilities to be located centrally in just five buildings, and as such the new buildings would need to be deep-planned.

Along with the densification of the buildings themselves, the university also wanted to reduce the classroom schedule by a few hours to an 8am – 5pm day, and so the classrooms needed to go from a 40 per cent occupancy rate to over 65 per cent. This means that as well as having a reduced amount of available space inside the buildings, the square metres remaining is much more heavily used.

In this SHL-designed project in particular, more than 5,800 students, faculty and visitors need to move through the building’s 3,000 m² footprint each day to gain access to the more than 60 classrooms, 20 project group rooms, two lecture halls (seating 200 and 260 people respectively), and two smaller lecture halls (each seating 90 people), as well as its television studio and meeting hall. In the light of this, it was essential that the building’s connectivity be a major focus.

From the outside
The final instalment of the university’s consolidation rises eight floors above a newly developed courtyard, displaying a prominent bronze and golden facade of neutrally-coloured anodised aluminium around substantial areas of glazing. One colour ‘dissolves’ into the next to create what the architects have described as a “gentle patchwork effect.”

SHL wanted to differentiate the various institutes inside the building by using several colours across the building’s exterior, while keeping them connected within the same colour spectrum that is expressed through the cladding.

Originally, the team looked at using eight colours on the facade, one for each institute. After some deliberation however, it was decided that it would be too hard to distinguish between that many shades, and just five were used.

The larger spaces inside the university, such as the television studio and the meeting centre, are clearly identifiable in this external cladding, adding an extra element of porosity to the project, besides the extensive glazing. To achieve this effect, the facade’s patched sequence of windows and panels is broken up intermittently with larger spaces of continuous cladding in a single colour.

Additionally, the two main lecture halls jut out from the exterior into the courtyard, clearly identifiable from the building’s exterior because of the step floor cantilevered from the wall. The building’s footprint being a priority, no space has been wasted beneath, and so bicycle and moped parking have been placed under the stairs. On the inside of the lecture halls, the architects have designed a large retractable wall that can connect the spaces to the main entrance hall.

“The university wanted to demonstrate what they are doing, both internally and externally, and one of the main elements of the brief was that their core activities be visible,” said Pim Ijsendoorn, who is associate/project manager at SHL. “They wanted to showcase that they are an educational establishment,” he says, “so it is not hidden.”

Another example of the open nature of the site is that there is no access control in the building, so visitors from outside are able to enter the university. “You can go in, buy a coffee, go up to the fourth floor and sit at one of the workstations around the atrium, and there’s nothing stopping you from doing that. They want it to be open to the world, to embrace the community, and enhance it.”

Heading in
The main entrance into the facility is on the north side of the building, a short distance from a tram line which has recently added a dedicated stop for the campus.

Visitors can enter the building through a set of large revolving doors and head towards the information desk at the front of the facility, with glazed curtain walling either side providing further porosity to the outside world.

“We have only used closed facades were we needed to,” says Pim. “That means that when you are inside there is limited obstruction to what’s happening outside, and also when you are outside, you can see what’s happening inside.”

Passing the information desk, visitors then enter a large atrium, towards the centre of which is the ground floor’s escalator, one of several built on every other floor of the building.

Around the atrium, and throughout the project, the interior design in the main features a combination of off-whites, greys and timber, except for the notable exception of the bright gold/yellow casing to the escalators.

“We didn’t want to make a lot of visual noise,” explains Pim. “If you’ve got 5,800 people within a building, then there is already a whole lot of things happening at once.”

He tells ADF that the bright yellow colour choice was however intended to “express the flow of people into the building,” and as such needed to be “sharp and crisp,” being the only element of the project’s interior design that intentionally draws attention to itself.

Beyond the escalators are food and drinks outlets, including a student-run cafe. There are a number of soft seats and study places in this area, intended to encourage serendipitous encounters between fellow students, as well as their teachers. There are also toilets and showers on the ground floor, alongside technical facilities and the two main lecture halls.

Going up
Turning back to the atrium, and up towards the higher floors, the softly lighted vertical space of the atrium is interspersed with a web of stairways, escalators and indoor bridges crossing overhead.

These routes, criss-crossing up and down, are made up of a contrast between the yellow escalators and the bright white staircases, and from below they are not unlike the ‘floating stairs’ of JK Rowling’s Hogwarts. Instead of magical stone however, these staircases and bridges have transparent finishes on their balustrades and soffits, made of perforated aluminium sheets, with integrated lights and acoustic absorption.

According to the architect, it was a significant challenge to facilitate a high level of traffic into such a dense building, and the escalators were a key logistical element of the egress solution. They avoid bottlenecks by carrying people up two floors at a time, from ground to second, second to fourth, and fourth to sixth.

“The escalators, especially in the morning rush hour, allow a lot of students to get into the building at once,” details Ijsendoorn. “The building is made for 5,800 people being present simultaneously. From these 5,800, lets say 5,000 will enter the building between the 7:45 to 8:45 rush hour; that’s a whole lot of students.”

It was also necessary to supplement the escalators with the wide set floating staircases, which allow for travel between each floor – especially important for those floors that the escalators do not connect with.

There are four main cores in the building, and each of these cores has two independent staircases. “This is driven by the amount of people that need to be able to evacuate the building,” says Pim. “Within one minute you need to be within a safe place, and then within 15 minutes you need to be outside the building.”

Separate cores
Each of the building’s eight institutes has its own ‘heart’. Going up the stairs, the institutes have been spread fairly evenly across the floors, with the more related subjects located close to one another to encourage collaboration.

Every institute has its own ‘plaza’ with two separate spaces, one which is predominantly for students, with a ‘coffee corner,’ copier, printer, information boards and screens, and a space directly adjacent for the staff which is slightly more secluded. These staff areas are not completely blocked to students, but there is an implied threshold, to give teachers some separation.

Generally the distribution is around one plaza per floor, with each floor hosting the necessary facilities for each available topic to study. Though many of the classrooms are ‘generic,’ and as such can be used by any institute, the university’s idea is to schedule lectures so that each subject will be confined to a floor for most of their time spent there in the day.

The spatial arrangement for each floor follows the pattern of the traditional educational spaces being located along the external facade, containing all the regular classrooms, lecture halls and studios, with corridors adjacent that run around the main atrium, hosting a number of study places in the remaining footprint.

These study areas include timber-clad ‘concentration workspaces’ that allow for one or two people to work in a private environment, without any acoustic or visual disturbance.

The interior of the cores have been designed to separate these various educational functions visually, and allow for clear movement throughout the building, as Pim explains: “When we developed the material and the colour scheme, we didn’t want to have a rigid, repetitive stacking of functions.

“An individual function should be identifiable,” he adds. “The concentration workspaces for example are clad in timber finishes, both on the outside and inside. Then facing the main atrium, there are two different types of balustrade, and the use of the space behind each will differ.”

He continues: “Where there is a fully closed balustrade, there will be a working desk behind it, and where there is a semi-transparent balustrade, there will be soft seats behind it.”

Another example of what Ijsendoorn calls “identification through detailing” is the flooring. The architects specified an uncovered, thin cement-based screed, and as such the building’s flooring is almost entirely grey. In specific areas however, there are colour coatings around the edges that indicate that a particular area belongs to a certain zone.

While also performing a visual function, this flooring was reportedly chosen due to budgeting issues. “When we won the competition, we knew that there was some tension between the ambition of the client and the available budget,” explains the architect.

“We had to focus specifically on where we were going to put money on high end quality, and see what elements could be what we sometimes call ‘industrial chic,’ where we didn’t need to spend excessive money,” he says, the flooring being one such element.

Moving past these educational areas and onto the final remaining space on the top floor, roof gardens have been created, accessible to both the students and the staff. On the east side, the building is eight floors high, and then it steps down in order to connect with the neighbouring buildings. It is here that the roof gardens have been placed, providing a significant amount of recreational space for the university’s users.

Enthusiastic reception
Through this process of consultation and meticulous design, schmidt/hammer/lassen has effectively tackled a complex spatial design challenge, and created a porous educational facility that directly informs users of its nature through its materiality.

Pim believes this is largely due to the fact that the team worked closely with the university’s building supervisor – the university owning all land within the campus perimeter. “ has a semi-private supervisor who needs to pre-approve all building proposals. We worked extensively with him,” says the project architect, “and he is very happy with the end result, and thinks it fits really well into the overall campus.”

The completed building is now fully operational, and sees thousands of students and faculty alike enjoy the new spaces every day, and, according to Ijsendoorn, they have been very happy in doing so. “People have been very, very enthusiastic about the building,” says Ijsendoorn, “especially its users.”

He concludes: “They say that having a fit for purpose building, even with its large scale and dense plan, really makes them happy.”

Project Factfile
General contractor: Strukton Worksphere and Besix
Precast floorslabs: VBI
Revolving doors: Assa Abloy
Escalators/lifts: Otis
Curtain walls: Alkondor
Windows: Alkondor
Cladding panels: VPT Versteeg
System walls: Intermontage
Insulated wall panels: MBS (Machiels Building Solutions)
Mobile separation walls: Nusing GmbH
Solar blinds: Verosol
Skylight: Braat
Balustrades: MCB (Moors Constructie en Machinebouw)
Sprinkler/fire fighting: Chubb
Steel structure: Bentstaal
Fire rated walls and doors: MHB