Birmingham city planners are doing their best to shrug off the city's "concrete jungle" tag. But, for Aston University's new student residences, architect Feilden Clegg has offered an upmarket take on the tower block.
Birmingham will take a long time to live down its reputation as a city of dismal towers strangled by the concrete collar of its inner ring-road. To this end, the current generation of city planners are battling to tame the racetrack-like ring-road and its raised roundabouts that consign pedestrians to rat-hole underpasses. Their vision, courtesy of urban design consultant Tibbalds Monro, is of a benign string of tree-lined boulevards with zebra crossings.

When it comes to Birmingham's tower blocks, however, it seems to be more of a case of "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em". This is certainly the case for the new student residences at Aston University, which overlook the existing ring-road and future boulevard some half a mile west of the infamous Bull Ring. Designed by award-winning Feilden Clegg Architects of Bath, these new high-rise residences come with significant improvements.

Approaching the inner-city university campus from the Bull Ring, you find yourself heading towards a cluster of archetypal 1960s tower blocks. Immediately, you notice two newcomers that do not conform to the older towers' standard format of a dark-brown brick shaft rising up 20 repetitive storeys before being unceremoniously cut off by a flat parapet with an ungainly lift room poking up above.

The two new towers, one 16 storeys and the other nine storeys high, are sleek and stylish. They are clad in glossy red terracotta tiles that rise up to a recessed attic storey of black-painted render before being capped with a flourish in a butterfly-shaped zinc roof. One corner of the higher tower is clad in floor-to-ceiling glazing with delicate galvanised steel balconies, forming a prow facing the ring-road roundabout, soon to become wide crossroads.

As you draw closer, you see that the two towers are joined to two long, lower blocks snaking like tails. The crisp terracotta cladding is meticulously tailored, with windows and balconies recessed, so that it looks like glossy skin-tight sheathing binding tower and horizontal block together as a sculptural whole. Horizontal banding of windows and string courses of powder-coated aluminium channels emphasise the sinuous linear forms. At the base, the cladding switches to less vulnerable facing brickwork, but the colour match is perfect.

Then, as you walk round the end of the scheme, past a gatehouse and through metal security gates, you find yourself inside a funnel-shaped courtyard between the two sinuous blocks. The courtyard has a strong sense of enclosure, and is enriched by two rows of semi-mature trees and projecting galvanised steel staircases that lead to maisonettes on one side. The new residences pack in a total of 651 student bedrooms on a tiny site, resulting in a density of 875 habitable rooms per hectare and a plot ratio of 1.6:1, which senior partner Richard Feilden claims is a record for new-build student housing. Recognising that high-density development puts a premium on architectural design, the university brought in Feilden Clegg to improve on an earlier feasibility study that proposed a relatively banal doughnut-shaped building.

Feilden Clegg's first step was to appraise the existing urban forms surrounding the site, which they characterised as a lumpy mix of "towers and mats", or tower blocks and lower blocks. The practice then designed two vertical point blocks and two lower blocks that would relate in overall form to these buildings. The cladding of red terracotta tiles and brickwork pick up on Birmingham's fine tradition of using these materials, which includes the imposing Central Hall across the ring-road.

The two long blocks are seven and four storeys high. The higher forms a perimeter wall to the campus and faces out on to the ring-road-turned-boulevard. The lower one faces on to a park and pond that form a green haven at the heart of the campus and give the new complex its name, Lakeside Residences. The higher tower block is intended to act as a new gateway to the campus alongside the main entrance road. As well as its relationship to the surrounding cityscape, orientation is a key component in the scheme. The two lower blocks face east and west to give all students some sunlight throughout the year, whether in the morning or the evening. The funnel-shaped courtyard in the middle opens out southwards for maximum sunshine.

The internal spaces have also been oriented to enliven the central courtyard. All the main entrances to the blocks and the lower communal kitchen-diners, with their floor-to-ceiling glazing and balconies, face inwards on to the courtyard. On the upper floors, however, the communal rooms face out to the city on either side.

"It's really important that the lower floors are inhabited," says Feilden. "In this way, we have tried to create a sense of community in the courtyard. My vision is of it being packed, with students entering and leaving through all the entrance doors." The interiors of the residences are generous in space and amenities, although straightforward in the way they are grouped in relatively large flats of up to nine bedrooms plus a shared kitchen-diner. The student bedrooms all include en-suite shower rooms and IT cabling, and have an average area of 13 m2, which, according to Feilden, puts them in the top 10% of student accommodation in terms of space standards.

In the two towers and the higher block, the bedrooms are arranged on either side of corridors. In the lower block, the rooms are arranged more efficiently in two double-storey maisonettes with central staircases instead of corridors. Upper and lower maisonettes have front doors to the courtyard, the upper ones leading off the external staircases.

The new residences are evidently a step up from Aston's existing accommodation, much of which is in the neighbouring 1960s tower blocks. The quality is reflected in the weekly rent, which is set at £69, £22 above the existing rooms without en suites.

Chris Coogan, the university's manager of residences, claims that the high standard of accommodation was planned primarily with the students in mind, but with a secondary objective of attracting the lucrative summer conference trade. All the rooms were let well before the start of term, many of them to students from the Far East.

"Students have become quite a demanding customer base in the light of the modern consumer philosophy and the tuition fees they now have to pay," says Coogan. "Universities are becoming more competitive to attract students, so we have to pay attention not just to our facilities but to how the campus looks. Lakeside Residences are the first new buildings on the campus for 12 years, and they have a key location at the entrance, so we have tried to make the most of them." As well as providing attractive accommodation, Aston's new residences provide a model for how high-density student accommodation can play a key role in city-centre regeneration. They are landmark buildings that bring a much needed touch of class to the campus while holding their own against Birmingham's thuggish jumble of towers.

Low-energy student pads

The new student residences at Aston University are designed for low energy consumption. Designed by Bath-based services engineer Buro Happold, the mechanical air-extraction system required by the Building Regulations for the internal shower rooms has been harnessed as the central element in the blocks’ ventilation and heating system. The air-extraction system runs continually, rather than only when the shower-room lights are switched on. The extraction ducts are grouped together in roof-top plant rooms, where the heat is reclaimed by heat exchangers. The energy is then transferred to a mechanical fresh-air ventilation system, which pumps warmed air back to the central corridors of the flats, from where it filters through gaps below the doors to the bedrooms and on to the en-suite shower rooms. Fire regulations, which require that bedroom doors should be sealed against the passage of smoke, could have proved a stumbling block to this loop. But a dispensation was agreed in which the mechanical air supply system, but not the extraction system, would continue running in the event of fire. This would pressurise air in the corridors and prevent the spread of smoke. Another problem reported in a similar system used by Rick Mather Architects for student residences at the University of East Anglia in Norwich was the difficulty in accessing mechanical plant in individual student shower rooms for maintenance. At Aston, the heat exchangers are accessible in roof-top plant rooms. Defect-prone smoke dampers at each shower-room extract have been eliminated in favour of a system of vertical shunt ducts, without moving parts, that prevent smoke being blown back into the shower rooms. The low-energy system also includes high thermal insulation in the external envelope, low-energy lighting and tiny room radiators with centrally set thermostatic radiator valves. “The buildings are almost self-heating,” says Gavin Thompson of Buro Happold. “It’s a robust system that is easy to maintain. The extra energy-saving expenditure should have a payback period of five to 10 years.”

The costs of building high

The high-rise, high-density format of the residences cost an extra 15% to build, according to Richard Feilden of Feilden Clegg Architects. “We tried to get as much accommodation as possible into four-storey walk-up blocks, which are more economical,” he says. The cost penalties of building high were the requirement for 10 lifts, a heavy structural frame and deep-pile foundations. The heat exchangers themselves cost relatively little at £5000 apiece. Prefabricated concrete pods specified for the en-suite shower rooms cost £2200 each, £500 more than conventional construction, says Gavin Thompson of services engineer Buro Happold. But Mike Hook of quantity surveyor Silk & Frazier says: “They offered considerable gains on construction time and therefore overall programme enhancement.” As for procurement, a two-stage tender was set up by Silk & Frazier “to gain contractors’ buildability at an early stage”. The first stage was tendered on preliminaries and levels of mark-up, and the second stage on procurement of work packages on an open-book basis. The contract was placed on the JCT80, with Contractor’s Design Portion. The 16-month programme was completed by Laing Construction on time for the start of this academic year. As well as 651 student bedrooms grouped in 81 flats of six to nine bedrooms plus a kitchen-diner, the Aston University scheme includes a gatehouse and two plant rooms.

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