Hi-tech meets heritage – Nottingham Ingenuity Centre, University of Nottingham

The University of Nottingham’s brand new Ingenuity Centre is one of those rare buildings that looks cutting edge yet captures a sense of heritage.

At first glance the centre appears to be a hi-tech structure that would not look out of place in a sci-fi movie, with a complex array of metal fins forming a metallic bronze-coloured circular envelope that seems to float around a central core.

Keep looking though and some of the design cues are clearly industrial – the metallic external envelope echoing the form of some finely machined, mechanical component or even the patterned tread of a tyre.

It is located on The University of Nottingham Innovation Park (UNIP), formerly the site of Nottingham’s famous Raleigh bicycle factory that also manufactured ammunition and armaments during World War II and is now home to an array of innovative modern buildings.

The new centre will be home to start-up enterprises and entrepreneurs creating businesses based on cutting edge technology and research – including big data and digital, advanced manufacturing, aerospace, and energy – and liaising with university research departments and post-graduate students.

It was part-funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy under its pilot University Enterprise Zone scheme, with matched funding from The University of Nottingham and the Haydn Green Charitable Trust.

Bearing in mind both the function of the building and the site’s significant cultural history, a combination of ‘hi-tech and  heritage’ was part of the design philosophy from the outset for architects Bond Bryan.

Associate director Matt Hutton explains:

“The Innovation Park is one of just four University Enterprise Zones in the UK with the original masterplanning done by Hopkins Architects and Make Architects. When we started design in 2014, the park already contained lots of bold architecture set in attractive landscaping with a river running through it.

“We’re lucky to be designing a building for such a fantastic location, but that clearly meant we needed to create a building that equally made a visual statement. Something box-shaped and conventional looking was simply not going to cut the mustard,” he adds.

“As well as wanting to create an iconic structure, it was also important that it reflected the historical significance of the site. By coincidence, I have some personal insight regarding this aspect, as my grandmother worked in the old factory making aircraft bombs during the war.”

Collaboration at heart
A core element of the university’s brief for the £5.2m project was for the design to encourage and support innovative and collaborative working and learning.

In order to establish how that could work best, the practice embarked on an lengthy period of extensive consultation and discussion with end-users and the university.

Hutton says:

“This site is about bringing people together and our whole approach is about collaboration. We saw the Ingenuity Centre as a hub, a multi-faceted, multi-entrance circular building that would draw people in.

“It’s a standalone structure, with no obvious ‘natural’ entrance areas and a circular design worked because it needed to look striking from all angles, working like a pebble dropped in a pond, creating rings of interest around it.

“This relatively deep-plan, steel-framed building form maximises the limited available site area to limit the overall height needed and create efficient floor plates.”

He describes the core elements of the three-storey building as an “easily constructed” cylindrical, glazed core with a well-lit atrium space at its heart, completed by an exoskeleton of creatively positioned, anodised aluminium blade cladding.

“There’s no doubt that it’s the exterior cladding that really defines this building,” says Hutton.

It’s constructed from 350 mm wide x 50 mm deep, angled, aerofoil-shaped anodised aluminium fins, bolted between black concentric steel rings. This structure mounted on vertical, curved ‘hockey blade’ frames attached to the central cylinder. Each individual aerofoil blade is manufactured off-site but has to be cut to exact size by hand on site before installation.

The curtain wall of the central core is glass and a black aluminium cassette cladding, while the support structure behind the blade cladding is also black.

“We chose to use dark colours to make the central core appear to recede so the bronze blades stand out more – and at night you just read the light coming out of the windows and reflecting from the blades,” Hutton points out.

Extensive modelling was carried out by the architects using Building Information Modelling (BIM) to ensure the blade design was neither obstructive nor oppressive when viewed from the inside and did not impede sufficient light from entering the building at different times of year.

“The blades have been carefully positioned so the thin edge faces inside, minimising their profile from an occupant’s perspective,“ adds Hutton.

A double-height, ground floor main entrance is approached via existing pedestrian pathways on the park and, further round, there’s a breakout area with a wider, two-storey glazed frontage complete with outdoor seating area.

The internal collaborative spaces overlook attractive landscaping designed and delivered by the university’s own landscaping team, a lake and a pedestrian bridge over the water.

A reception and some small administrative office spaces compete the layout on the ground floor.

Internally, the emphasis is firmly on flexibility as Bond Bryan’s project architect, associate John Hope, explains.

“We used lightweight partitions for flexibility, with floor plates of cast in-situ concrete floor decks.”

The mechanical engineering has been designed so that, whether there’s a start-up or an international business in there, the partitions for the spaces inside can be easily reconfigured to make smaller, cellular space and larger open spaces.

Office accommodation is mixed specification, running over two floors. Some face the interior, benefiting from shared light from the roof and entrances and, separated from these by a shared corridor, the remainder have views outwards.

Hope adds:

“The atrium has a hexadecagon aluminium-framed roof light while its sides feature a series of glazed screens with modesty blinds to give office occupants greater privacy. There are a mix of cellular and open-plan spaces at the first and second floors of the building and at the ground floor level there are more open, shared areas for social and public engagement including the atrium, seminar spaces and collaborative hub space.

“Overall it feels like a very modern, ‘clean’ office space. As you walk in the interior immediately opens out to the external view through the breakout space. There are herons and lots of other fabulous wildlife to be seen out there.”

He continues:

“The businesses based here are from a variety of industries, but are all technology driven and cutting edge. We felt that while they obviously require their own spaces, it is important to provide breakout areas where people from different organisations could mingle and share ideas over a coffee and in a relaxed environment.”

Distinctive and exciting
While it has been necessary to use mechanical ventilation and heating throughout, the building’s carbon signature and energy usage has been reduced through use of low-E glass – with higher specification glazing in the atrium area – LED lighting and 25 m2 of photovoltaic panels on the roof.

The centre is also connected to receive heat and power from its large zero carbon-zero energy neighbour, the GlaxoSmithKline Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry, enabling the Ingenuity Centre to achieve BREEAM Excellent status.

Construction has been something of a challenge, with Bond Bryan sitting on the client side of the project; the main contractor Robert Woodhead employed Core Architects of Lincoln to implement the job on the ground.

“It’s a slightly different role to building out the project ourselves, as we’re used to, because you are remotely managing the design process,” says Matt Hutton. “But we developed a good relationship with both Robert Woodhead and Core.

“Construction has been something of a challenge. The site is a tight one and there was lot of soil to shift, so it’s been a bit of a jigsaw and things have had to move around fairly constantly. Fitting the blades has also been one of the more demanding aspects of construction in terms of time and complexity.”

Construction and fit-out has recently been completed and the building opened for business in October with the first five new start-up tenants and operations team from UNIP Management having moved in already.

Hutton concluded:

“We sought to economically create a distinctive and exciting structure that provides a high-quality statement building for the university. We’re looking forward to watching it develop and deliver as a high-profile hub for innovation, technology and entrepreneurship.”