Crystal clear innovation in Birmingham

Dan discusses how innovative building techniques created a structure that is practical, beautiful and an asset to the University of Birmingham.

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Following the completion of the University of Birmingham’s Teaching and Learning (T&L) Building in 2020, it rapidly became a symbol of innovation and collaboration across the city.

Dan Oliver, Digital Engineer, discusses how, throughout the £22.7 million project, the incorporation of a range of innovative building techniques created an extraordinary structure that is practical, aesthetically pleasing and an asset to the city.

“Overlooking the recently developed landscape of the Green Heart campus, the educational hub provides state-of-the-art teaching, learning and study environments for students at the heart of the University’s Edgbaston site. At its centre, the building features an iconic crystal structure that houses a 500-seat traditional lecture theatre and a 250-seat collaborative lecture theatre, set underneath a Glulam ceiling. This structure is surrounded by ten seminar rooms and open learning spaces for up to 1,000 students – providing areas for individual study and collaborative work - and a new café.

“The T&L Building truly tested the inventiveness and creativity of our whole team who worked hard to find new solutions that allowed the construction of this multidimensional structure to succeed. Despite some of the challenges we faced due to the complexities of the building’s design, we were able to utilise modern construction methods to make sure that the delivery of the project was in accordance with the architect and customer’s vision of contemporary and collaborative learning.”

A myriad of design elements

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“This project’s unique combination of one structure inside another, meant that the design and construction of the build had to be carefully navigated. The inner crystal structure - which houses two lecture theatres and rises through the centre of the building - is surrounded by a cluster of smaller, concrete learning spaces, designed to encourage students to use university facilities beyond their timetabled hours when on campus.

“These seminar rooms and self-directed learning spaces are connected to the crystal by a network of bridges and can be accessed by roman steps, which give the structure transparency and allow free-flowing movement throughout the building.

Innovation through digital technology

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“The intricate details and design elements of the crystal and surrounding structures created challenges that were met by the team, who used innovative technology to provide solutions.

“The crystal interior is a flexible steel structure, clad in 730 unique pieces of Stoventec glazed panels that have a 5mm tolerance for installation. These panels were measured off the federated model for manufacture. While we were building the steel structure, a cloud point survey was undertaken at each level to overlay back in the model to ensure accuracy of fabrication and final positions.

“The use of digital technology provided more than just a visualisation tool at the front end of the design process - it was integral to planning the project and ensuring everything was completed to a high standard. Without the federated model, we would have not been able to procure all items in appropriate lead-times to successfully deliver the project.

“As a result, the steel frame was then adjusted to ensure that it matched the model perfectly to manage 5mm tolerance in the glazing. This process was undertaken at every step of frame’s construction, before the glazing arrived in batches with a unique reference, fitting onto the structure like a jigsaw puzzle.

“Along with the use of innovative technology, the internal scaffolding solution also mirrored the outward and inward slopes of the inner crystal to enable safe access during the installation of glazing. This meant the internal scaffolding was on site for a longer period and internal works had to be correctly sequenced to continue with the programme.”

Social and environmental value

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“Throughout the project, it was vital that our high sustainability standards were not sacrificed to accommodate the T&L Building’s innovative design – instead, we set about delivering them hand in hand.

“Throughout the build we prioritised the use of responsibly sourced materials and optimised elemental life cycle costing to advise on material specification. For example, the atrium balustrade fitted with a robust timber cladding material to reduce maintenance and replacement costs, and a glass balustrade specified for the main staircase to minimise redecoration costs. The design also included the provision of a 300m2 PV array helping to reduce the building’s energy demand that will lead to a saving of 21 tonnes CO2 per annum.

“Not only was the project environmentally sustainable, but it also added social value to local students and communities. Student engagement was key throughout the completion of the scheme, and two engineering students played an integral role throughout its lifecycle by providing input through site visits, product manufacturing assessments and advising on final selections.

“Our team was joined by 233 other students who visited the site and 971 students who attended workshops about the project. The scheme also supported 22 university research projects, offering experiential learning to supplement academic research on a range of courses. Throughout this project 45 weeks of on-site apprenticeship training and 107 weeks of work experience were completed and an additional 26 NVQ students were supported, and a new job was created for one local candidate.

“This social value was not limited to local students and members of the community - but was also extended to our supply chain. Following the closure of the steel frame company just days before work was due to commence on the project, we worked tirelessly to purchase the steel and hire the fixers that were due to be erecting the frame, providing them with work when they would have previously been left unemployed, all without hindering the project delivery time or budget.”