James Parker reports on the design development of a major new teaching and research facility for Manchester which puts cutting-edge engineering on show in new ways, and connects the city’s industrial past with its future
The Manchester Engineering Campus (MECD), currently under construction close to the centre of the city, is claimed to be not only the “single largest home for engineering in any UK university,” but one of the largest ever construction projects undertaken by a higher education body in this country. This £400m development brings The University of Manchester’s four engineering and material science departments together in what is a groundbreaking project on a vast scale, and one which taps into Manchester’s heritage of innovation while pointing firmly towards the future.
Due to open fully in 2021, MECD serves as a new “gateway” for the university. Also housing the International Centre for Advanced Materials and the Dalton Nuclear Institute, it pushes practical demonstration of innovation to the fore, closely tied into industry, and often in tandem with sponsors. The four pre-existing departments, which will come together in the colossal 59,000 m2 ‘MEC Hall’ building, with an intent to foster collaboration, are the departments of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science; Electrical and Electronic Engineering; Materials; and Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering.
The development will house 7,000 students and 1,700 employees. They will be engaging in high-tech and often cutting-edge experimental research on everything from textiles to lasers to electric car design to robotics, in a wide range of spaces including flexible classrooms, lecture theatres and research laboratories, as well as specialist areas such as flight simulators, robotics, welding, and ‘heavy duty destructive testing.’ The building, designed by Dutch practice Mecanoo, is itself innovative in putting the research physically on show, and promotes engagement between departments internally and with the locality.
In the words of Mecanoo architect Otto Diesfeldt, a key design aim was “trying to open education up, make it visible, less rigid.” In so doing, the designers believe the building will be a major showcase for the creativity of UK engineering.
Breaking down the inevitable scale of such a scheme was the key challenge for the architects (the detail design has been handed to BDP and contractor Balfour Beatty to deliver under the Design & Build contract). Mecanoo’s design makes MEC Hall more human-scaled, approachable, and therefore navigable for students and staff.
Heritage & site
The project ties visually and functionally into Manchester’s industrial past as a “city of pioneers” as Mecanoo puts it. It is a past that was heavily focused on textiles. The university’s origins also share this rich industrial history and heritage.
Diesfeldt says that at an early stage the designers identified this “very visual” heritage as an inspiration – weaving machines are still in use on campus for research projects. Textile innovation is a key feature of the current engineering syllabuses, and will feature in research in the new building, incorporating modern materials like graphene.
MEC Hall as the development’s main building, manifests itself as the new reference point for the entire campus “like a cathedral in the historic centres of European cities,” says the architect. The long, rectangular form sits in a dense site in the south of the city centre, sandwiched between the Manchester Aquatics Centre on Oxford Road, and the major thoroughfare Upper Brook Street, on which sits the university’s James Chadwick Building (the Department of Chemical Engineering), and the new Upper Brook Street Building – forming a key part of the development and housing heavy duty materials research and teaching spaces.
To its north is a retained and extended listed building, and on the west flank is a further new addition, purpose-designed with tall spaces for ‘high voltage laboratories’ – providing the necessary clearance for generating lightning for experiments. Following Mecanoo’s appointment, the decision was taken to build on this site and demolish the existing material science facility. This was replaced by the Upper Brook Street Building, with some outdated student residences making way for MEC Hall.
Briefing & scenarios
As is the nature of such complex, multi-faceted schemes, the brief evolved during its development, although being a Design & Build, the design had to be frozen at a given point. While Mecanoo handed over the design to BDP in 2016, its team have maintained “a very strong contact with the project,” and contributed to some of the changes that have been made since then.
The key aim for MEC Hall was to enable four departments to retain their strong individual identities, but also blend and overlap to facilitate collaboration. The designers had to resolve a host of institutional desires, so the approach taken “wasn’t forcing the departments to merge, it was enabling it,” There were roughly 50 different research facilities to consult, and “people with a clear vision of what the university should be,” says Diesfeldt, including technical staff tasked with mounting experiments and the logistics of craning in heavy items.
The architects spoke to over 200 individuals during the briefing process; Otto says the most interesting aspect was “meeting a lot of people who don’t see each other on a day to day basis, and through identifying what their future could entail, you notice that they start talking to each other.” He says they also “started understanding how they could benefit from smaller spaces with less equipment, if it’s the right equipment.”
The architects tested multiple ‘high-level’ scenarios with the client postulating where the departments could fit within potential new volumes. “It became very evident that they felt very good about trying to get the bulk of researchers and the undergraduates placed as close as possible together,” says Diesfeldt. The designers took the client to see other facilities, such as Delft University’s architecture faculty, which has a centrally located model-making workshop. This proved something of an inspiration for MEC Hall.
According to Diesfeldt, Mecanoo was selected because the client was looking for an architect “capable of translating the project into a human and inspirational space”. He says MEC Hall has achieved this: “In spite of its size, it doesn’t impose, it feels comfortable.”
The chief means of breaking down the massing of MEC Hall is four glazed atria which form the focus for each of the departments, connected by a ‘main street’ that runs the full length and height of the building. Situated within the atria are wide steel staircases; the very open overall circulation producing a “walkable and understandable” result. Diesfeldt hopes that students will “quickly start to understand how the building works, and not need the wayfinding signage.”
Further breaking down what Otto says is ostensibly a “big brick of a building,” are accessible roof terraces cut into upper stories, leading from the atria stairs and creating some variation in the steel mesh facade. These offset what could have been a very brutal roofline, and contribute to the ‘readability’ of the building, and to the “variety of spaces which you can relate to and make your own.” Similar terraces are also found on the Upper Brook Street Building.
The architects wanted however to strike a contrast between MEC Hall and the brick-clad buildings surrounding it. “We were looking for a building that explained its engineering logic,” says Otto. The deliberately factory-like dark steel mesh exterior both celebrates its generous 10.8 m grid, but also creates drama, while alleviating its overall scale with a combination of permeability and strength.
Along with fitting the design intent of a simple structure and a palette of “honest” materials (chiefly steel and brick), the exterior of MEC Hall also subtly weaves in a link to Manchester’s textile heritage. The mechanics of weaving were a “literal inspiration,” says Otto Diesfeldt. He continues: “A strict rhythm in one direction is literally interwoven with different textures in other directions.”
Running under MEC Hall is a brick Victorian sewer, which posed a key challenge in terms of building over it. However, the architects made a virtue out of structural engineer Arup’s requirement to move the building’s key loads a certain distance from this obstacle, designing a triple-height covered events space. Featuring a wide stair filling one end that can also function as seating, it will be used for large functions such as graduations.
The campus is targeted to achieve BREEAM Excellent, and features an ‘active travel hub’ for cyclists and pedestrians. Exterior landscaping promotes biodiversity and the building will have “advanced energy saving, waste management and water conservation techniques.”
A flexible learning showcase
The grid, which minimises columns in the exposed concrete interiors, aiding lecture theatre design, also “encourages the building to be used flexibly,” says the project architect. Extra columns were only required in “one or two” of the heaviest-loaded workshops. While classroom and research areas can be easily changed over time as needs change, together with their bespoke modular furniture, the circulation logic of street and atria remains fixed so the rest can flex around it, including into spaces deliberately left void. The designers were conscious of the need to “give different groups a place they can make their own, but still plan for it to evolve.”
Diesfeldt describes the building as a “scaffolding for change,” as well as a “catalyst” driving further necessary changes. A dynamic institution such as this has a high turnover of activities, as research projects run their course and new projects require a different set-up.
Some research spaces are so highly tailored, such as the electron microscope suite, that they’re not suitable for a generic, flexible design. However, in general, says Otto, “It shouldn’t be a building where if you move a table the composition is off, it’s a robust structure that empowers people to change whatever they can.”
The building is designed to help academics and students think outside the box and change how they work – to “move away from an old-school class set up, and focusing more on learning by doing.” For example, movable partitions have been included between some teaching labs and lecture theatres, so that classes can become “very dynamic,” and move from one to the other.
The building places all of the workshops on the ground floor behind glass to give them maximum visibility. The ultimate expression of the aim to put the research on show is a large, open ‘Makerspace’ where a host of research projects will be based, sitting adjacent to the main entrance.
While not featuring the often heavy duty equipment on show in some of the other workshops, the space will include equipment like 3D printers in spaces that can be made accessible 24 hours so students can work on projects whenever they want to. It will also demonstrate the collaboration possible across the departments that was desired by the client, says Otto, giving the example of a research project to develop ‘Formula Student’ racing cars: “Students will have the opportunity to work across disciplines.” A car being worked on will be on show within a specific ‘project space’ within the Makerspace, a far cry from the hidden-away areas they previously would have used. Many of the workshops in existing facilities were below ground due to the heavy loadings, but here the designers “made a lot of effort to make those spaces the most visible.”
Useful adjacencies have been explored in the design – for example robotics is located between the departments of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering and Electrical and Electronic Engineering, enabling both to work together in one ‘crossover’ area, where barriers can be “dissolved.” Each of the departments’ glazed atria are visually connected with adjacent areas: “From one you’ll be looking into a chemical laboratory, and from another you’ll be looking into a flight simulator, from another a dry teaching lab dedicated to tinkering with small electronics, says Otto. “Although similar in expression, each atrium will be given an identity because of everything that’s going on around it,” he adds.
The 8 metre-wide staircases that climb through the atria have a large landing providing an observation platform to see what’s happening in the ground floor workshops below. They also provide for student and academic interaction and informal work space; nearby each are computer clusters where students may be developing code for the equipment they can see being tested below.
The other buildings in the scheme help connect MEC Hall to the city fabric, but also provide “interesting permeability of the city block” for pedestrians, says Otto. A “logical” route is created between Piccadilly Station to the north, and the university’s south campus, for instance.
A key example of how the scheme interacts with its context is the cafe at the south west corner of MEC Hall, which links to a new public square via a colonnade. Movable partitions can open it up into a lecture space even enabling academics to “literally bring a lecture out onto the street,” says Otto, possibly even displaying large equipment such as an aero engine which a standard lecture theatre could not. This tantalising prospect shows how this barrier-breaking project will be a literal platform for showing UK innovation and education to the world.
- Client: The University of Manchester
- Architects: Mecanoo (lead architect), Penoyre & Prasad (refurbishment and extension of Odd Fellows Hall), BDP (detailed design)
- Project managers: Buro Four
- Briefing consultant: iDEA
- Structural and M&E consultant: Arup
- Cost consultants: Arcadis
- Design and management co-ordination: AECOM
- Floor area: 81,000 m2
- Laser labs area: 1162 m2
- Chemical labs area: 2,412 m2
- Biological labs area: 630 m2
- Characterisation labs/ EM-Suite area: 1,141 m2