MOVING FORWARD

Taking its design inspiration from the shape of the surrounding Belfast hills, Feilden Clegg Bradley’s new 75,000m2 addition to Ulster University is set to transform higher education in the city

The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April of 2023 poses some challenging questions for Northern Ireland. While the region has attracted investment and economic growth, it continues to entrench divisions that have led to political stagnation. With a collapsed local government, does the political will exist to build a stronger and unified nation?

In this context, Ulster University’s cathedral thinking is a remarkable exception. The University has just fully opened its new 75,000 m2 addition to the Belfast city centre campus in the city’s cultural district. This location is at the interface of Belfast’s neglected and still-divided communities and in walking distance of the economic drivers in the city core and harbour. “This project puts the University in the heart of the intractable issues haunting Northern Ireland’s growth, prosperity and identity,” said Duncan Morrow, Lecturer and Community Outreach Director at the University. ‘Education remains a critical path to a better future. This campus, as it twists and turns in the city, is designed to make higher education accessible to all.’

The campus, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, moves the University’s 1970’s suburban campus in Jordanstown to the city core. The 12-year project houses 18,000 students, 2,000 faculty and staff, four faculties and departments. Three new interconnected buildings and a bridge, delivered across multiple phases, connect the University to its existing building that houses the Schools of Art and Architecture. This is large for any city but in Belfast, it proposes a whole new relationship between the city’s educational institutions and the city itself.

This section of the city is eclectic. Historic radial routes intersect with tight lanes and oppressive eight lane road networks. Grand early 20th century buildings, sheds and terraces occupy the urban blocks. The assertively civic buildings of the University both nestle into historic fabric and challenge the presence of out scaled road networks. A three storey ‘urban porch’ signals the main entrance on York Street and an openness to the city. Beyond this glazed threshold, a concourse runs the length of the main building connecting visitors and students to cafes, lecture theatres, exhibition spaces and entrances onto other streets and lanes. A grand stair, using the same stone as the main concourse, ascends past the library, student union and classrooms clad in glass, concrete, and painted wall panels. The stair turns back on itself and terminates at the base of an extraordinary surprise, as a timber and glass clad atrium hangs above you. This is one of four atria, almost urban squares in plan, that aid in navigation, natural light and organisation.

With 14 occupied floors, the campus is vertical. Universities in New York city and large urban campuses across the UK and the continent provided the precedent to cement the project team together and synthesize the vision. Faculty and administrative offices are organised one above the other around receptions, meeting rooms, conventional and shared offices and the ever-present kitchenette. The large south facing façade looks out across the city and nearby hills. Vertically stacked here is a huge investment in student hubs designed to bring the entire academic community together and create a 24 hour campus. A range of social, project and concentrated study spaces are designed to appeal to different needs and personalities. Equally, in a post Covid academic world, these spaces place a valuable emphasis on being in the room, on being face to face.

Belfast is an industrial city at heart and the red brick cladding provides continuity with this identity. The flush glazing and glazed ‘lanterns’ on prominent corners suggest a sculpturally inspired building. This strong architectural expression is also a sympathetic response to the existing cityscape. At the junction of the four buildings, a bridge soars overhead and reveals the reconnection of two lanes, disconnected in the 20th century when pedestrian permeability and connection to human scaled spaces was not a priority.

Pro-Vice Chancellor Professor Alastair Adair, a passionate champion of the project, reminds us that Ulster University is many things. “The project is firstly about education, research and collaboration; collaboration between academics, students, community, industry and government. Our research and educational agendas will continue to foster growth in Northern Ireland. The new building multiplies our impact as it takes its place in both the city and in the region.”

These priorities are like those of many universities across the UK and this may point to a Northern Ireland, that in spite of unresolved social divisions, is finding a space that points definitively forward.

Words by Feilden Clegg Bradley

DESIGN STAGE
Lead Architect: Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Local Architect Partner: McAdam Design
Civil & Structural Engineer: Mott MacDonald
M&E Engineer: Mott MacDonald
Landscape Architect: Grant Associates
Planning Consultant: Juno Planning
Project Manager: Currie & Brown/WH Stephens
Cost Manager: E C Harris
CDM Coordinator: Faithful and Gould
Acoustic Engineer: Sandy Brown Associates
Fire Engineer: Jensen Hughes (formerly JGA Fire)
BREEAM Assessor: Arup
Inclusive Access Consultants: David Bonnett Associates
Photography: Donal McCann

CONSTRUCTION STAGE
Compliance Monitoring Team Lead Architect: Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Local Architect Partner: McAdam Design
Civil & Structural Engineer: Tetratech (formerly WYG), Mott MacDonald (Part)
M&E Engineer: Tetratech (formerly WYG), Mott MacDonald (Part)
Façade Consultant: Montresor Partnership
Landscape Architect: Grant Associates
Planning Consultant: Juno Planning
Transport Consultant: Atkins
Project Manager: Currie & Brown/WH Stephens
Cost Manager: WH Stephens
Principal Designer: Watts Group Ltd / Faithful and Gould
Acoustic Engineer: Sandy Brown Associates
Fire Engineer: Jensen Hughes (formerly JGA Fire)
Vibration Consultant: Xi Engineering
Inclusive Access Consultants: David Bonnett Associates
BREEAM Assessor: Arup

DESIGN AND BUILD CONTRACTOR TEAM
Main Contractor: Sacyr Somague / Lagan Somague JV
Architect: Scott Tallon Walker/ White Ink Architects
C&S Engineer: RPS
M&E Engineer: Promec / RPS M&E (Part)
Façade Consultant: Murphy Facades
Landscape Architect: The Paul Hogarth Company
Acoustic Engineer: Sandy Brown Associates
Fire Engineer: Jensen Hughes (formerly JGA Fire)
Vibration Consultant: Design ID

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Michael McDonnell – Managing Editor of Irish Construction Industry Magazine & Plan Magazine

Email: michael@mcdmedia.ie   WWW.MCDMEDIA.IE    WWW.PLANONLINE.IE

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