Birley Fields

In order to keep up to speed with changes in the area of library space, it’s useful to visit as many other developments and study as many case studies as possible. Learning from the successes, challenges and lessons that other teams and institutions have experienced is incredibly useful. I believe it is also crucial to look at development in other types of spaces and sectors (offices, homes, parks, cafes, warehouses) and try to learn from different approaches they have taken in terms of providing facilities, services and supporting users.

I recently visited the Birley Fields campus of Manchester Metropolitan University with the specific aim of learning what I could from the Brooks Building development. Named in honour of the University’s Vice-Chancellor John Brookes (who is also a RIBA Honorary Fellow) the building is not only a part of my former University but also on a piece of land that I know very well having lived in the area for a number of years.

The Birley Fields Campus was established on the Birley Fields area, home to the former Birley High School. When the enabling works on the site began in 2012, following significant campaigns by residents to preserve the field and protect the ‘Birley Tree’ (which I remember clearly), the University undertook a community excavation in order to try and find the remains of a medieval farm.Pic 2Within two years, the view from Hulme, Princess Parkway and the main Manchester Metropolitan University campus was changed dramatically as the Brooks Building was completed. Shepherd Robson architects led the project and have delivered an impressive faculty building development in an already vibrant community. The area of Hulme is diverse and is home to students, professionals, families, businesses, social enterprises, cafes and arts venues. The development of the campus appears perfectly at home, not least from the fact that the residential blocks are in keeping with the surrounding residencies.

Waiting in the huge atrium area for my colleague Grayson Conroy (Facilities Manager) I could sense that the building has bedded in well. The hustle and bustle of the entrance was a mix of prospective students arriving for interviews, current learners, staff and other visitors. Everyone was moving freely and all appeared comfortable. The entrance of any building is critical due to its impact on people’s first impressions. The large revolving doors were used easily although an additional pop-up banner was located next to the reception to accentuate the idea of a ‘welcome’ – maybe this was because the ‘Reception’ lettering on the lower part of the counter isn’t obvious enough or maybe because ‘Welcome’ has a bigger impact than ‘Reception’ to people arriving in the building?

One of the first areas we visited was the multi-use sports hall. As soon as I entered the hall I remembered that I had worked in part on this project through my former role as Deputy Facilities Manager for SPORT Manchester. This work was part of the Manchester Council’s master planning of sports venues in the city, specifically relating to the provision of sports facilities at the Birley Fields campus following the closure of the Manchester Metropolitan University Didsbury Campus and associated sports facilities. Grayson explained that the sports hall is used for both sport activities and also lectures through the use of retractable seating.

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The entire building houses up to 5000 students, 600 staff, study spaces, café, restaurant and supports both the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Health, Psychology and Social Care. It is an incredibly sustainable building with the use of rain and waste water harvesting and fuelled by a purpose built energy centre.

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As mentioned, the building is bedded in, both in terms of its fabric and user behaviour. There have been instances of glass panels shattering (presumably due to building movement, both of which are expected in the early period of new builds). The mesh covered heaters aren’t very effective and the facilities team have to use hot air heaters to provide extra warmth in the reception area. There are additional signs above the sinks to warn users of very hot water (presumably a challenge provided as a result of the building management system) and notices to ask users not to put chewing gum in the urinals (a small issues which can lead to quite serious issues in the long term). However from my tour of the building, these are very small challenges in what is both a huge and effective building.

Due to the type of teaching that takes place in the building, many of the glass door panels have very good privacy mechanisms within them.

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A lot of the rooms, study spaces and social areas have had additional sound absorbing acoustic panels installed whilst some rooms have moveable whiteboards which also act as sound absorbing elements.

There is a lot of light, toilets and circulation space which are absolute necessities in a building that serves so many people.

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The student resource centre is one of the main, communal study spaces providing a selection of group settings, individual workstations and communal areas. The expanse of the space offered by both the ceiling height and depth of the glazing is incredible.

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One of the real delights for me was being able to see the inner workings of the glass lift mechanisms. Similar to the approach taken by Richard Rogers in designing the infamous Lloyds Building in London, the normally hidden  ‘services’ of the building are on show for all to see. The vertical and horizontal patterns created by the lift shafts, pulleys and steel sections create a showpiece in the heart of the building.

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However one of the greatest successes of the building is the ‘Spanish Steps’. Designed to provide both a way of moving up the floors, the space also accommodates meetings, fantastic views to the courtyard outside, areas to chat and socialise and a way to absorb the large numbers of people who will descend into the atrium at given times (lunchtime, end of lectures etc). It rains in Manchester, quite a lot. The steps provide a Mediterranean style social space with the comfort of a water tight roof and wind proof walls.

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The Brooks Building is a very practical building. The stairs work very well as stairs. The corridors can accommodate the high numbers of users. The staff areas are plentiful and the teaching rooms are numerous. There aren’t many ‘quirky’ or fashionable design elements, and in this type of building, that is a good thing as you need every square inch of the space to be useful. It could be argued that the design of many of the modern buildings in the surrounding community of Hulme are also very practical. The houses and flats serve their purpose. Hulme Park is uncomplicated and allows people to walks their dogs, have a jog or play basketball easily. ASDA is far from an architectural masterpiece yet it does its job for the community, and it does it well (most Mancunians I know have paid a visit to ‘Hulme ASDA’!)

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The Brooks Building has breathed a new lease of life into Hulme and provided an injection of students and staff into the community. The landscaping of the surrounding area is great, with wetlands and wildflower supporting the local ecosystem (complementing the fantastic work already being done by Hulme Garden Centre). Hulme is certainly the right place for the Brooks Building and the Brooks Building is the right development for Hulme.

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