The new civil engineering building for the University of Cambridge is a world-class research space, and home to the Department of Engineering's civil engineering division and the newly established National Research Facility for Infrastructure. The building is the first phase of the Grimshaw-designed new engineering campus which, when complete, will reintegrate the entire department into a single site, providing 100,000 sq m of research, teaching and collaboration space.
Sustainability was a key driver in the overall brief for the project with the University setting ambitious targets for the design and construction of all buildings at their new campus. The brief required the design to minimise whole life energy and carbon, provide a pleasant environment for the occupiers, build in flexibility to accommodate future use and ensure that the building's performance met the predicted design targets.
Budget, programme and planning constraints
The scheme’s budget comprised a 50/50 split between government and university funding. The programme was constrained by funding requirements which stipulated a completion date before the end of 2020, meaning planning approval had to be sought in advance of the outline planning application for the wider West Cambridge masterplan.
Materials and construction
The building adopted the principles of circular design, ensuring many of the high-quality primary structural and façade components were designed with longevity, deconstruction and reuse in mind. An estimated 80% of the structural steel in the superstructure and many façade components are recoverable, supporting the brief to minimise whole-life embodied energy/carbon. The contractor employed BIM and VR on-site to coordinate services while sensors were installed throughout the superstructure to monitor its environmental performance in-use.
Contribution to society
The building contributes to society at multiple scales. Globally, the facility has a primary mission: to develop and deploy sensors within infrastructure projects throughout the UK to maximise their whole-life value and improve the resilience of our cities to the effects of climate change. Locally, our work to minimise whole-life energy/carbon on this project has provided valuable insight and knowledge that can be applied across the university’s entire estate in support of its transition to a zero-carbon campus. The building provides a template for the technical, spatial and environmental qualities that future buildings should emulate as the engineering campus is developed. On a human scale, enhancements to the existing woodland belt to the eastern perimeter, and the publicly accessible urban realm created to the building’s west provide improved amenity to the wider academic community and Cambridge residents. During construction the main contractor supported the renovation of a local playground and engaged regularly with local residents and schools.
The building’s primary focus is on the provision of a safe and accessible environment for academics, students and researchers who use the facility daily. Every effort has been made, in consultation with the university’s accessibility team, to design for inclusivity. All floors are accessible via lift, while offices, desks and conferencing facilities have been designed to be easily adapted to the varying needs of different users.
While the building was conceived before the launch of RIBA’s 2030 Climate Challenge – to which Grimshaw is a signatory – it addresses many of the same issues. With an ambitious sustainaiblity brief set for all buildings at the new engineering campus, the building’s form, systems, construction and use had to be carefully choreographed to minimise whole-life energy/carbon, while providing a pleasant and healthy environment for occupants, promote natural ventilation, avoid 'green bling' and incorporate circular design principals.
The design team were privileged to collaborate with academics at the engineering department who challenged the design team to address the gap between predicted and actual building performance, a shortcoming of existing regulations and sustainabilty rating schemes. The outcome was the development of the Energy Cost Metric (ECM) which sought to minimise whole-life energy within a cost-conscious framework. Its use during the design phase directly influenced the specification of a ground source heat pump over conventional gas boilers and double glazing over triple: the university has subsequently incorporated the ECM into their guidance for all new buildings.
To mitigate the impact of future climate change, an energy model was created during the design phase – in-line with CIBSE’s TM-54 and TM-52 guidance – to ensure the scheme was resilient to overheating based on future weather scenarios, and allowing the building’s natural ventilation strategy to operate effectively while maintaining optimum occupancy comfort. A Soft Landings framework was adopted to facilitate commissioning and handover, with post-occupancy undertaken over a two-year period. Data captured from integrated environmental sensors throughout the building helped determine if predicted performance targets were being met. In 2020 the project achieved a BREEAM Excellent rating. The knowledge that Grimshaw gained while delivering the project has contributed significantly to meeting our own commitment to design exclusively net-zero carbon-ready buildings by 2025.
The building is situated on the site of a former car park and incorporates several landscape design features that form part of the wider masterplan landscaping strategy, which has focused on regenerating and expanding green coverage to create a net-positive contribution to local biodiversity.
A range of green spaces has been created and enhanced by the landscape design. At-grade, a new courtyard extends the existing lawn up to the buildings western entrance with new native trees and vegetation planted to provide increased biodiversity and amenity for staff. To the east, the adjacent woodland belt has been retained and enhanced, with low quality vegetation cleared to promote the health of existing trees and provide space for underplanting of native species. Felling low-quality trees and a new swale, located along the woodland’s perimeter, supports natural habitats and human amenity. The swales form part of the wide masterplan’s sustainable urban drainage strategy working in combination with the building’s blue/green roof to manage run-off to the local sewer network, helping to reduce the risk of flooding down-stream.
The green roof system provides further opportunities for new habitat creation and an increase in biodiversity with native species of sedum planted, including shade-tolerant varieties included to ensure coverage below the integrated photovoltaic array.
During construction a protection zone was established around the woodland belt to avoid damage to tree root systems and wildlife. These interventions and enhancements, along with a commissioning of a detailed woodland management plan by the university and wider masterplan commitments, will ensure the ongoing conservation and expansion of existing habitats and consequent increases in biodiversity in and beyond the building’s own footprint.
Cambridge, United Kingdom
Services Engineering + Sustainability consultant
Civil & Structural engineering
Smith & Wallwork
Montressor Partners LLP
University of Cambridge