Glasgow's latest university needed new accommodation for its health faculty. It also needed a landmark building to establish its identity. So what did architect RMJM come up with?
Wander a few blocks north of Glasgow's pedestrianised city centre and you find yourself in a no-man's-land of dual carriageway roads, faceless 1960s slab blocks and crinkly-tin sheds. In the midst of this urban sprawl, one new building stands out – the £12.1m health faculty building at Glasgow Caledonian University. On its front, the building sports a large projecting drum, a filigree of delicate balconies and louvred sunscreens, and a shiny, silvery-grey skin of metal panels.

Inside, the building is conventional, with teaching spaces and offices off spine corridors on seven floors. The exterior is more spectacular, and with good reason. This modern landmark is intended to serve more than the health faculty's staff and students. As designed by architect RMJM, it is the centrepiece and hub of the new university's main campus.

The building's dominant bow front has been given pride of place at the head of a grand flight of steps, from where it faces an oblong, tree-lined square that leads to the new campus gates. The square is flanked by two other new buildings, the library extension and bookshop, completed two years ago, and the sports hall, currently under construction. Another tree-lined promenade runs on a cross axis along the front of the health faculty building.

The smart architecture and orderly campus are a far cry from the premises the university inherited when it was established in 1991. Formed out of the union of a polytechnic and a higher education college, its premises were scattered across the city on four campuses. Added to this physical problem was an image problem for the new institution, particularly in relation to the city's two established universities, Glasgow and Strathclyde, respectively the oldest and largest in Scotland.

With the help of an accommodation strategy, commissioned from architect RMJM, the university's estates director George Scott proposed that the university consolidate itself around the 1960s George Moore Building in Cowcaddens, close to the city centre. Once this proposal had been accepted, Scott asked RMJM to draw up a masterplan for the Cowcaddens campus. Then, in 1995, the same practice won a limited competition to design the health faculty.

Not surprisingly, RMJM's design fulfils the role set out for the health faculty in its own masterplan. As it was the largest of the proposed buildings, designed for a total of 3300 staff and students, it was designated the hub of the campus.

The building is U-shaped in plan and rises from four to seven storeys in height. The front wing is attached to the eight-storey George Moore Building, and at the rear, the U-shaped configuration encloses a landscaped courtyard. This courtyard is a rare and welcome garden oasis on the tight inner-city campus, even if it is a touch gloomy on winter days.

The aluminium cladding, with its projecting louvred sunshades and balconies, gives a sharp modern identity to the building that sets it apart from the sandstone masonry of Glasgow University at Kelvinside and the brickwork of Strathclyde behind the City Chambers. The same livery has been used to reclad the entire front wing of the George Moore Building, as well as for the library extension in front of the faculty. The health faculty's ground-floor plinth is faced in charcoal-grey polished concrete blockwork that is as vandal-resistant as it is attractive.

Internally, the entrance foyer gives views down to a double-storey-height common room and café on the lower ground floor. This space, where students can socialise and compare notes between classes, is bounded by a curving window wall that projects into the courtyard garden. At the rear, it features a row of cosy benches divided by plywood partitions sandwiching steel I-beam structural columns. The plywood-backed pairs of benches continue beyond the common room as a cloister-like series of carrels with french doors opening directly on to the courtyard garden. The decor of beech veneer to the plywood panels and deep indigo paint to the rear wall is suitably warm and vibrant, and is only let down by flooring of hard, utilitarian concrete slabs.

Seminar rooms, laboratories and staff offices open off spine corridors, resulting in a 15 m wide building that is naturally cross ventilated. Larger spaces include a 204-seat tiered auditorium on the ground floor and a 100-seat lecture hall with retractable partitioning on the second floor, both of which project out to form the building's bow front.

The main innovation in the faculty's teaching spaces is a mock, state-of-the-art hospital ward, complete with six beds, nurse's station and dummy patients, where students can practice healthcare procedures while being videoed. This mock ward, along with lecture halls on lower floors, projects beyond the flank wall of the building.

The structure, except for the common room extension, is made from insitu concrete. The floors use a novel form of precast concrete inverted T-beams that span insitu concrete primary beams, a variation on a system pioneered by RMJM at the Scottish Office building in Leith. Instead of laying a conventional screed, a 85 mm thick topping of structural concrete was power-floated on. The exposed concrete soffits of the T-beams acted as a heat sink, and holes could be cast in the downstand webs to accommodate the services.

A railway tunnel running 20 m from the one side of new building posed vibration problems. Accordingly, lecture halls and sensitive laboratories have been constructed as boxes within a box and supported on rubber acoustic pads.

For external walls, rainscreen cladding and curtain walling were used. The curtain walling was supplied by Scandinavian firm Velfac, a favourite among architects for its high-performance metal-clad windows with attractive softwood sections exposed internally, as well as matching softwood internal spandrel panels.

Professor Gordon Dickson, who as dean of the health faculty chaired the building's user group, is satisfied that the building "has fulfilled our needs". He adds: "The new building enables staff and students from various disciplines to work and socialise together. It gives us a real organisational and cultural stimulus." The silvery modern building and campus makeover at Cowcaddens also serve the university well. With these smart additions, Glasgow Caledonian can stand proudly alongside Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities – and make a handsome contribution to the City of Architecture and Design 1999.

Cost commentary

The works were competitively tendered in August 1996 in a buyer’s market. The resultant contract sum of £12 143 706, or £921/m2 of gross internal floor area, was slightly above the £880/m2 level usually expected for a specialised teaching block within a university. This was, however, within the project’s cost plan. Two factors tended to push up costs. First, the health faculty was in a prominent location within the university campus and the city itself, which meant that a flagship building, with appropriate elevational treatment, was required. Second, special features were required in the building itself. These included a mock hospital ward and a community care flat for simulated healthcare exercises. Evelyn Dickson of QS Doig & Smith

Product specification

Aluminium-faced timber-framed curtain walling Velfac Polyester-coated aluminium rainscreen cladding CGL Polished concrete blockwork in plinth Forticrete Medici Window screen blinds Curtain & Blind Specialists Acoustic anti-vibration pads Tico

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