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Crystalline Academic Structure Unites Engineering Disciplines

By Catherine A. Cardno, Ph.D.

The angular structure on the campus of the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, consolidates all engineering departments within one purpose-built structure.

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The University of Sheffield has officially completed a landmark building that brings together its entire Faculty of Engineering, which serves a student body of 5,000. Courtesy of the University of Sheffield and Twelve Architects

January 12, 2016—Balancing the operational needs of the future with the existing capabilities of historic buildings can be fraught. Such was the challenge for the University of Sheffield, in the United Kingdom, when it sought to create a new landmark structure for its Faculty of Engineering. In order to create a building with the necessary size and scope to accommodate the students and staff from all of the engineering departments that fall under the umbrella of the Faculty of Engineering, the university needed to have a somewhat derelict wing of a historically listed former hospital demolished. In doing so, the university created room for the recently opened £81-million (U.S. $118-million) Diamond Building, so called because of its striking three-dimensional facade.

"The …Diamond is the University of Sheffield's largest-ever investment in learning and teaching, designed to provide a high-quality, integrated engineering teaching space," said Mike Hounslow, Ph.D., CEng, F.FREng, a professor of chemical engineering and the pro-vice-chancellor of the university's faculty of engineering, who wrote in response to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. While Sheffield is proud of its heritage, he said, "Several of our buildings are over 100 years old and haven't been able to match the developments in practical engineering education or accommodate our dramatic level of growth over the past few years." 

The removed building was an early-20 th -century Edwardian wing that had been included in the Grade II listing of the city's Victorian-era Jessop Hospital for Women. (The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, formerly known as English Heritage, is responsible for listing structures and overseeing the preservation of the country's historic environment.) The original hospital had previously been refurbished by the university as a home for its School of Music and is one of 29 listed buildings that the university maintains as heritage assets for the country, according to Keith Lilley,MBIFM, the director of estates and facilities management at the University of Sheffield.

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The building features a striking three-dimensional, diamond-patterned exterior formed from a unitized glass facade overlain with a deep aluminum lattice frame. Courtesy of the University of Sheffield and Twelve Architects

The wing had been vacant for approximately a decade and was of a lesser architectural quality than the main hospital building, according to Lilley. "A lot of people weren't very happy about the demolition of the Edwardian extension [and] we respect their views," he notes. "But on balance we felt that it was the right thing to do, and we hope over time that they will agree with us that [the Diamond building] is a fantastic addition for the city, for the local economy, and obviously for students." 

The Diamond building is a reverse L-shaped, six-story structure with a large, rectangular central atrium. The 19,500 m² structure—which wraps around the refurbished historic Jessop Women's Hospital—houses tiered lecture theaters, seminar rooms, project spaces, workshops, study spaces, and 19 specialized laboratories. "This includes a chemical engineering pilot plant, a clean room, an aerospace simulation lab, a robotics arena, and a virtual reality suite," Hounslow said. 

Staff and students were involved in the planning and development stages to ensure that everything from the laboratories to the work spaces were tailored to the specific needs of its users, according to Hounslow.

"The University of Sheffield was reorganized into Faculties in 2008 and as part of this, we developed an ambitious growth plan for the Faculty of Engineering to increase research, staff, and student numbers," Hounslow added. "Our strategy was to double in size over 15 years, and we achieved that in just seven years.

"The Diamond has provided us with the facilities to accommodate our growing student cohort and the additional space will enable us to deliver top-quality education for over 5,000 engineering students," Hounslow said.

Because the university's engineering departments were previously spread across a large number of buildings, their classrooms and laboratories are not conducive to interdisciplinary engineering learning and teaching, according to Hounslow. The modern teaching and learning spaces created in the Diamond building, on the other hand, are all under one roof and designed specifically to be multidisciplinary. For example, "the electronics and control lab is used by students from seven different engineering departments," Hounslow noted. "Students are not limited by traditional discipline boundaries, learning both advanced industrial practical skills focused on employability as well as core scientific principles," Hounslow said.

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The campus’s mix of architectural styles and the site’s location between two protected historical buildings—a church and a former hospital—inspired the design team to create a visually bold landmark. Courtesy of the University of Sheffield and Twelve Architects

Because it combines all engineering departments, there is the potential for up to 2,500 students to move within, and in and out of, the building at once. This movement required special attention to classroom placement and circulation corridors, according to Lilley. "What was really key was having all of the large teaching spaces in the basement, on the ground floor, and on the first floor," he notes. It also relies on the use of stairs rather than elevators, he adds.

For efficiency, the teaching spaces have been designed to hold students in increments of 80. "The largest lecture theater is [for] 400, the labs are 80, and then the other teaching rooms are either 80, 160, 240, or 320," Lilley explains. "So when a lecture finishes, if students then need to break off to a smaller lecture room or go on to a laboratory, it means that everybody fits," he says. Now that the building has had its first term of use, Lilley is confident in saying that that design has been successful. "It's working really well—the design concept is coming through, and we're really pleased with that," he notes. 

Smaller study spaces are available on the upper floors of the building, which Lilley refers to as a virtual library. This space houses 20,000 core textbooks in print, access to virtual textbooks online, free wi-fi coverage, study carrels, and a number of fixed, hardwired computers. 

"The Royal Academy of Engineering has said that the U.K. will need more than a million new engineers and technicians by 2020," Hounslow said. (Read the academy's publication, The Universe of Engineering: A call to action, here.) "With the Diamond, we now have the capacity to educate even more of the world-class engineers needed to address the skills shortage in the sector."

The London-based firm Twelve Architects and Masterplanners designed the building, and the global engineering firm Arup conducted the structural engineering; Hounslow noted that many of the engineers were Sheffield graduates. Structurally, the building is a posttensioned, cast-in-place reinforced-concrete building with thin floor plates, according to Lilley. Because the atrium extends down the center of the building's longer leg, the floor plates have a maximum depth of 18 m so that natural light can permeate the building as much as possible. Operable windows bounding the atrium also enable much of the building to be naturally ventilated.

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A rectangular central atrium enables natural light and fresh air to reach deep into the building and provides open sight lines for students’ work spaces. Courtesy of the University of Sheffield and Twelve Architects

The building is clad in a unitized glass facade overlain with a deep aluminum lattice frame to create the diamond pattern. A gap located between the glass facade and the aluminum lattice allows air to circulate and water to flow down the face of the building. The facade's design was inspired by a number of elements, including another Grade II listed structure, the historic St. George's Church, which stands nearby. The depth of the Diamond's bronze extruded façade—which is replicated inside the building in black—speaks to the deep stone mullions of the church opposite.

Sipral, a cladding company based in Prague, the Czech Republic, manufactured the facade. "Every single piece of the frame is fitted perfectly, and we had no design problems whatsoever—Sipral have done an absolutely fantastic job," Lilley says.

The 6000 m² facade is composed of 803 unique modules, the largest measuring 5.5 m tall and the shortest 2.2 m, according to a statement on Sipral's website. The glass panes that form the curtainwall are various sizes, shapes, and compositions, as are the aluminum lattice sections that are formed from 2 mm thick aluminum sheets with lengths ranging between 1 and 5 m. The exterior lattice facade is formed from 1,814 sections of aluminum, and the interior facade from 2,707 pieces.

Underground, the building is founded on 214 piles that extend up to 14 m deep, supporting the building and its exterior walls, according to the university. The area is known for coal mining, and a number of small Victorian-era mines are still extant. These are "very small mines which periodically you come across in this part of England, particularly in Sheffield," Lilley says. "They were just little 'bell' pits, so if you think of the shape of a bell, literally they would put a shaft into the ground and create a relatively small pit from which Victorian men and boys would excavate coal." 

These numerous abandoned mine pits have caused problems for construction in the past, Lilley says. "Because the pits are very small and very local, when you're doing your site investigations, very often you can miss any unforeseen problems in the ground." For example, one might place a 15 m pile and later find that it has shifted because of the mining hole. "Then you've got to start again, which is a disaster," he says. "We didn't have any of those problems on this site, but it's a real problem in this area."

While the underground work went smoothly for the project, an 8 ft deep coal seam was discovered during excavation. The university had the coal excavated and sold, Lilley notes.

Several time-lapse videosof the Diamond's construction are available on the University of Sheffield's website. Hounslow said that the new university icon has been well received. "It has also improved the student experience," he said, "with high-quality equipment linked to real world applications …and excellent technical staff to support laboratory facilities and transfer technical skills and knowledge to our students."



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